Harley Milne describes paramotoring at low altitudes as “basically like being on a motorcycle without the bumps,” but the Walnut Creek man knows he’s not on the typical cross-country road trip this week.

The 51-year-old Milne is in the middle of what may be the first cross-country trip by paramotor, a powered paraglider complete with an engine and propeller, a frame with harness and a fuel tank. He took off from the YMCA Camp Surf near San Diego on Sunday, Nov. 29, and his hope is to arrive at a point near Jacksonville, Florida, sometime late next week. His paramotoring quest is the first such attempt in at least 10 years, he said, and if he succeeds, he believes he may be the first.

“This really will be a brand new thing,” Milne said this week from a barren desert spot about 100 miles east of El Paso, Texas. “As far as I know, no one has flown from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.”

“This really will be a brand new thing. As far as I know, no one has flown from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Harley Milne

For Milne, 2020 has already been a year of accomplishment, having become the first paramotor pilot to fly in all 50 states as part of his “50xChallenge Paramotor Tour.”

On Thursday, Milne and his traveling crew of five (driving standard motor vehicles) were still crossing the state of Texas, having been delayed much of Wednesday by strong crosswinds that would have made flying more difficult, and more dangerous. Last Tuesday, on the other hand, Milne made 360 miles. His goal on this trip, he said, is between 200 and 300 miles a day.

Though during typical recreational paramotoring speeds are usually from 30 to 50 mph, and altitudes in the 1,000- to 12,000-foot range, on this trip — on which Milne is trying for the fastest time he can achieve — he is flying higher and faster, up to 2,000 feet and up to 90 mph.

On this and other special trips, Milne is bringing attention to various charities, different ones in different areas he’s in, and encouraging people to donate to them. One of those charities, he said, is North Carolina-based Resurgence PPG, a nonprofit that gives military veterans with disabilities, injuries or illnesses the freedom of flight via paramotoring.

A paramotor craft cruises down for a landing on the desert floor. Pilot Harley Milne said that although much of his cross-country charity flight is being sponsored, he has had to dip into his retirement savings. (Photo courtesy of Harley Milne)

Lifelong interest in aviation

Milne said he is a former high-tech developer and technology director. Currently, he operates the Walnut Creek-based Drone Panora Aerial Photography business.

He is one of an estimated 40 or so Bay Area paramotor pilots who are part of the Bay Area Paramotor Group who regularly fly out of some of the region’s smaller airports, like New Jerusalem south of Tracy, Byron Airport in eastern Contra Costa County and in Lagoon Valley near Vacaville in Solano County.

Milne has only been paramotoring for about 5½ years. He said he has always been interested in aviation, in part because his grandfather had flown in England’s Royal Air Force. But he didn’t think he could afford to break into flying, until he was on a trip to Vietnam in 2013, and pulled an in-flight magazine from the pocket in front of him and within its pages found a story about paramotoring.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I am absolutely wanting to do this’ … Six months later, I was taking lessons.” He was about 45 at the time — the typical age for a beginner.

Milne is a professional paramotorist by virtue of the sponsorships he has from companies that make various parts of the paramotors, much as most race car drivers are sponsored by companies that build the cars and related items. But being a professional paramotor pilot isn’t generally a way to make a living. This trip, he said, is being funded mostly by his sponsors, Milne said. “For the rest, I’m spending my retirement a little early.”

While there is an element of danger in recreational paramotor flight, those elements are magnified on a long trip like his cross-country trek, Milne said. He’s flying faster and higher, he said, and adverse weather conditions easily avoided by simply postponing a day trip must usually be met and managed head-on during a longer flight (although, like on Wednesday, sometimes you have to wait out bad conditions).

Milne and his crew are also making a documentary of this flight, including “unplanned stops and drama.”

But with a venture such as this, he said, the less drama, the better. There’s pressure enough just getting this transcontinental flight under his belt.

“This kind of thing is not something someone at my age would normally try to do,” he said.