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Chuting the breeze

(ran PAS edition)

I'm going to die.

So I thought as Pete Saunders and I strolled across the runway Monday at Skydive City in Zephyrhills, and he introduced me to his flying machine.

The Buckeye powered parachute looked like a cross between a dune buggy and an airboat.

Lightweight. All red pipes and black tires.

Flopped on the ground behind the propeller and the 75-hp engine was a red, white and blue parachute.

"This is it?" I asked uncertainly.

Saunders, 61, a retired Trans World Airlines pilot, chuckled as he unrolled the parachute. He wore shorts, a Buckeye T-shirt and had a pink towel draped on his shoulders.

"It's really safe," the Land O'Lakes resident assured me. "I mean, your parachute is already deployed."

He cranked the two-cycle engine and let it run for a couple of minutes to warmup.

The propeller spun, making a strong breeze as the sun heated the early morning.

Wind will inflate the parachute, Saunders explained. The vehicle will speed to about 50 mph on the runway before takeoff. After that, all we have to do is climb to about 500 feet, make sure the parachute lines don't get tangled in the propeller, and enjoy the view.

And make it back alive, I thought.

The craft is a two-seater. The passenger sits on a hump behind the pilot. Saunders, who flew 707s and L-1011s all over the world before he retired, would handle this flight while I took the back seat.

He handed me a white helmet with an attached microphone, which I plugged into the box Saunders strapped to my leg.

I buckled myself into the machine. He climbed aboard.

The throttle controls ascent and descent on a Buckeye. Turning is managed with foot controls that resemble bicycle handlebars.

"If anything goes wrong, it usually goes wrong on takeoff," Saunders said as he checked his instruments. "People who don't know what they're doing, maybe it's their first time, they might try to take off when the wind's too strong. They can flip it. But this thing is built like a roll cage.

"I tell people the only place you can get hurt is in the pocketbook."

That may be true, for the most part. But in May, 27-year-old Barbara Fitz of Camden, Minn., fell 500 feet when the parachute on her Buckeye apparently malfunctioned. She landed in a soft meadow near her family's farm, breaking both her ankles and a rib. It was her second solo flight.

I noticed a breeze, and Saunders nodded. Five mph.

My stomach sank.

"We might see a pendulum effect up there, where we shift side to side," he said. "But it's nothing to worry about."

Moments later, we bumped off the runway and lurched into the partly cloudy sky, climbing over Chancey Road.

I clutched the crimson bar behind me as I watched our shadow crawl across a green pasture.

In the hazy distance, I could see the Tampa skyline.

Below, cattle stood in swampy ponds among tall cypress trees. Traffic rolled on Chancey and State Road 39.

The aircraft buzzed along, a flying bug.

We climbed to about 530 feet.

As expected, we drifted back and forth with the light breeze. But the ride certainly was no worse than previous flights I had taken aboard four-seater Cessnas.

We circled back toward the airport about 15 minutes later.

After a smooth, if crablike, landing, I stood once more on firm ground, no worse for wear.

We sat at a picnic table a few minutes later. That's when Saunders told me he had served as a gunner aboard a B-26 during the Korean War.

"I was sitting in the back there, and it was the first time I had ever flown," he said. "I just loved it."

After he retired from TWA and moved to Land O'Lakes with his wife, Sandy, 54, the Brooklyn native found he still wanted to fly.

"If you've got flying in your blood, you can't stay out of the air," he said. The powered parachute, Saunders said, "is a nice, safe way to get the same relaxation from flying."

He became a Buckeye dealer in 1991. The machines come in kits. Prices for a one-seater start at $8,900, while one can expect to pay at least $12,500 for a two-seater.

The aircraft appeal mostly to wealthy professionals, Saunders said.

"You put up with all that stress all week at work and then you fly for a half hour and it's a great release," he said.

For information, call Saunders at 948-3681.

_ Times researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report.

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