They’re called trikes, or kite-planes, or ultralights, or open air sport flying machines, and if you were a desert rattlesnake, you’d probably have felt a nanosecond of shade, then a breath of hot wind as one streaked by only a few feet above you. And then you’d have thought: Ah, would that I were no longer earthbound and could zip around in such a sweet machine! You’d be a super smart, self-aware, and envious rattlesnake.
A trike can fly up to 14,000 feet high, but the real thrill of flying one, according to pilots, is skimming along the ground, maneuvering with the contours of the earth at speeds up to 115 miles per hour. As the Sky Gypsies’ website puts it, “At 1,000 feet you are an observer. At 10 feet you are part of the landscape.” However, the aerotrekking experience, like those of all adventure sports, bears an inherent potential for danger. That’s part of the exhilaration.
The Sky Gypsies are a merry band of well-to-do aerotrekking pioneers (aeroneers?) that buzz around the American Southwest, circuiting a network of airfields and hangars bankrolled primarily by John McAfee, of antivirus fame. After cashing out of the software empire he built, McAfee deepened his Scrooge McDuck-like vault/swimming pool with prudent investments in instant messaging technology, and now he’s poured a fraction of his massive fortune into the infrastructure of the burgeoning sport.
The Sky Gypsies’ base of operation is located in Rodeo, New Mexico, and in addition to a runway and a hangar, it boasts refurbished 1940′s Airstream trailers for lodging, an internet café, and a 35-seat movie theater. The base is part of a system of hangars and runways that forms a 900-mile circuit around New Mexico and Arizona. The trikes only have a range of about 300 miles, so the pilots trace sinuous paths across the southwestern landscape, alighting here and there like pollinating bees to refuel and relax.
Flight instruction isn’t cheap at $150-200 per hour, and a minimum of 15 hours of instruction (plus passing exams) is required to earn a license, so you’re looking at a substantial investment to be able to fly one on your own. To own one requires deeper pockets still; the aircraft retail for between $16,500 and $120,000, depending on the features. Or if you’re invited to join the Sky Gypsies and pilot their trikes, membership costs up to $270,000. In other words, along the spectrum of expensive hobbies, aerotrekking lies somewhere between golf and space travel.
If you’re not ready to sacrifice your children’s college fund for some aerial excitement, you might still like to visit the Sky Gypsies’ camp for $45 a night. And while you’re there, you might as well take a lesson. You might just get hooked. Check out the following video with soaring rock music accompaniment.