Clara Waldo and Gary Darnell zoom along Sunday in his powered parachute above Church Hill. Jeff Bobo photo.
CHURCH HILL — To celebrate her 90th birthday Clara Waldo wanted to take a cruise along the Holston River, although the vessel she chose for the voyage required a parachute and carried her about 3,000 feet above the water.
Waldo lives on Church Lane in Church Hill beside flying enthusiast Gary Darnell, who has a hangar and a 1,200-foot landing strip in his back yard. She’s been watching Darnell fly his “powered parachutes” from his back yard since 1995 and decided that her 90th birthday would be a good time to join him for a ride.
Waldo’s 90th birthday was last Tuesday, but flying conditions weren’t right for that day.
Instead she took her maiden voyage — a 20-minute cruise with Darnell on his two-seat powered parachute — under a perfect clear blue sky Sunday evening. A group of family and friends were in attendance to help cheer her on.
What she really wanted to see from above was the Holston River, which flows behind her home. After the flight she described the river as very pretty from above.
“That was nice,” Waldo said moments after the landing. “I enjoyed that. I could see everything so good. It was pretty cool up there (but she didn’t get cold). I reckon I’m OK. I thought I’d be scared, but I wasn’t.”
She added, “I did get to see Holston Defense from up there. We didn’t go over it. Of course I guess they’d shoot us down if we did.”
Darnell noted, however, that they did come upon some turbulence, but it didn’t bother his passenger.
“She wasn’t scared at all,” Darnell said. “She was just as calm as she could be when I talked to her (on the radio).”
He added, “We got some rough air one time. I asked her how she was doing, and she said, ‘It’s pretty rocky up here.’”
Darnell describes the powered parachute as using the same flight principles as a kite. A 66 horsepower motor on the back turns a large propeller, which pushes the carriage forward.
That forward motion lifts the parachute into the air, which in turn lifts the carriage off the ground.
“It just sails along like a kite,” Darnell told the Times-News prior to the flight. “Wide open this one will do 25 miles per hour. This one will go up two miles high, but it gets a little cold up there. (A comfortable altitude) is about 3,000 feet, where you see everything good. Today we’ll get her up around 2,000 to 3,000 feet.”
Waldo joked that for her 91st birthday she may be ready to try skydiving.