Not quite death defying but highly satisfying, is the opportunity to fly like a bird with no walls or windows.
It’s the shared world of powered paragliding for The Moonshine Fliers of East Tennessee who look forward to the uncommon opportunity of watching the ground disappear below their feet while leaving the ordinary behind.
And each one within the group of 24 men and one woman, lives for the opportunity to have their heads—literally—in the clouds as opposed to their feet on the ground while still living lives anchored in principle and passion. PPG offers freedom to the fliers who range in age from 22 to 60. In the Knoxville suburbs, surrounded by majestic mountains and hills, are a variety of air parks that provide perfect spots for powered paragliding. Usually in groups of ten or less, the fliers meet, greet, fly and land, fly and land again, and when they are ready, they sit and talk about their flights and enjoy the camaraderie, some laughs and a cold beverage. Often, the fliers will have driven more than an hour to reach the airpark. They agree that the effort is always worth the experiences which never disappoint.
If God has a waiting room, veteran flier Dr. Ken Strike, M.D., said he found it while suspended 2,000 feet in the air recently on his Mac Para Eden 5 over Mountain City. Strike caught a little glimpse of heaven, captured between fog and clouds.
“I was wishing I could reside in that area,” said Strike, a radiation oncologist. “There are no words to describe it other than magical. If there is a waiting room for God, that is it. I just wish everyone could experience it.”
“The experience of running, running and then suddenly not touching the ground is amazing,” said flier Jean Bilheux. “I have the same feeling each time I take off, excited about every flight I make.”
Jim Neubert, a retired law enforcement officer and involved grandfather, agrees with Bilheux. “I soloed in December, 2006, so I have been flying almost 14 years,” recalled Neubert. “I love paramotoring for the freedom it gives. You can fly along inches above the ground or fly up thousands of feet. There are very few rules or limitations.” Neubert said he doesn’t fly for the adrenaline rush, it’s quite the opposite for him.
“Flying is the most relaxing thing I do. I call it sky boating. I usually fly around 400 to 500 feet. I will drop lower if I want to see something on the ground or will climb if I want a better view. There is nothing quite like it. I usually fly with no agenda or plan. I just get up and see what piques my interest.”
Axel Caban Fernandez came up with a logo for the group several years ago. Some may think it has to do with consuming alcohol, Fernandez said. Tennessee is known for its homegrown vegetables such as corn; corn being the most important grain crop in the state. For many decades, a select group of Tennesseans used corn to make illegal whiskey, referred to as “shine.” They would work mostly at night under the light of the moon—thus acquiring the titles of moonshine and moonshiners. Moonshine is now legal and sold throughout the state. “Some members were concerned that the name Moonshine Fliers might send a message that we were all drinkers!” said Fernandez. “I listened to the guys talk about how they would love to fly ‘over the moon’ at night and the logo took on a different meaning. It seemed to fit. Whether we fly every day or once a week, we love sharing the sky.”
Zoraida Reyes, is currently the only female flyer in their group. She and Fernandez are married. “The feeling of that first flight was mixed between intimidating and risky and at the same time exciting,” said Reyes. “I ran and saw the mountain ground disappear under my feet, soon to feel the sensation of floating in the air as if I were inside a bubble. At that moment, I felt closer to God, the feeling I was seeking with flying.”
Bilheux has been paramotoring for almost four years but thinking about flying since he was a child. He has a single-engine pilot’s license but wanted an easier way to fly. He gained interest in PPG while watching a random YouTube video. Bilheux is also a musician and has a PhD in physics. “Since I started to walk, I wanted to fly,” he said. On his bucket list is flying the Loire Valley countryside in France, his homeland, with a breathtaking view of many castles below.
Strike is a serious paraglider with about 13 years of experience under his glider wing. He first heard about paramotoring on the internet. He and Neubert are charter members of the group. When Strike was in his thirties, he had a pilot’s license but stopped flying because of a heart issue. His grandfather and father told him as a young boy to say “yes” to everything in life.
“I’m not disappointed that I can’t fly planes. Paramotoring is a lot more exciting without the restrictions,” he said. Strike climbed Mount Elbert (elevation 14,433 feet) in Colorado with friends in 2019 and just recently climbed Cinnamon Pass, Lake City, Silverton, CO at an elevation of 12,640 feet.
“My first flight was kind of an accident,” he recalled. “I promised my instructor if he would let me take the equipment home, I’d never try to fly without him present. About 30 minutes after I got home one day, I fired it up and was able to fly in my front yard. Like any good pilot, I crashed on landing and had to fix all my equipment so my instructor would never know. Every flight is still as thrilling as that first one. I have flown the beach and the mountains and still get excited to fly all the local fields in East Tennessee,” Strike said.
Tommy Gossett, has been paramotoring for six years. The graphic designer works from his home office. “Your first several flights are probably the most exciting, as your body and brain are experiencing something you’ve only dreamed of,” Gossett said. “Talking shop with the other pilots is half of the fun for me. There is a degree of safety in numbers as well, not to mention having help if anyone has an emergency landing and needs to be picked up.”
Gossett said he has experienced five “engine outs,” which is when the engine quits while flying. “That can be concerning,” he recalled. “The first time that happened, I ran out of fuel and it was only my third flight. I was having so much fun, I forgot to get gas!”
Gossett agrees with those who say that the magic of flying only gets better with time. His highest altitude was 3,500 feet, but he prefers to stay under 500 feet to see the wildlife.
“I can feel the wind’s subtle temperature changes, the smell of freshly cut crops, and the amount of lift change as I fly over different surfaces like water or pavement,” Gossett observed. “I have seen hundreds of deer and flown beside several groups of geese in just one evening.”
Tom Miller has been a “thrill seeker all [his] life… Motorcycles mainly, but the roads are getting busier, and they are filled with drivers using phones and not paying attention,” said Miller. “Flying is a great way to get the adrenaline flowing without having to worry about getting run over.”
Miller said he was terrified on his first flight. He felt his heart racing. “Luckily, it was a short flight and I didn’t have long to think about how I was going to get that thing back on the ground. Now, I have made more than 30 flights. I hope the thrill never goes away.”
Miller works as an instrumentation technician for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He said he flies as often as possible. “If my home chores are caught up and the weather is good, I will be in the air.”
“I’ll be honest, the guys I fly with are all Type A personalities. They are not dreamers, they are doers,” Miller added. Tom Miller’s brother, Bill Miller, is also a member of the group.
The youngest member of the group is Ben Garab, 22. Garab works in his family’s lawncare business and has been paramotoring since the beginning of 2020. He said, “My first flight was probably rather boring from the outside looking in. Go up, make a few gentle turns, come down and make a nice soft landing. But, from my perspective it was just the opposite. It was a scary experience— but so incredibly worth it.”
Garab’s longest flight so far was two hours. He flew 27 miles all around his home town. His top altitude is 4,000 feet. He has acquired the nickname of “Spiderman” within his fellow fliers.
Cody Bock is the certified instructor within the Moonshine Fliers and owner of Smoky MTN PPG training school.
Bock has been flying since 2012 and has been instructing for more than six years. Bock said there is no better way to take in those early morning sunrises and breathtaking sunsets than paragliding.
“It’s been so much fun helping folks achieve their life-long dream of flight. Sharing passions with passion-minded individuals in powered paragliding is what we do,” said Bock. “Our primary goal is to make sure folks learn how to fly safely and know the laws to make this pleasant for ourselves and the community.”
Last Labor Day weekend, five members of the group made an appearance in Vonore at the 8th Annual Monroe Life Balloon Festival to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Monroe County.
“We flew around the event,” said Bilheux. “The last flight was amazing as we could see the entire hot air balloon lighting.”
Should Hollywood ever create a sequel to the 1965 hit film, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, perhaps they will visit East Tennessee and meet the Moonshine Fliers.