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Quietly gliding through the desert's dawn sky

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona | In Scottsdale it's all about the sky. During 330 cloud-free, sun-drenched days a year, visitors lie face-up on poolside loungers enjoying the nearly-always reliable rays. At night they take advantage of the clear desert air for a closer look at a firmament brilliant with stars. Stargazing is so popular that rooms at Scottsdale's Four Seasons Resort come with telescopes, and there are frequent visits by a professional astronomer with a larger device, happy to explain what's where in the night heavens.

But for those who tire of this passive approach there's also the option of going aloft in a powered parachute — a sort of two-seat tricycle with wings.

Just after dawn, when the air is still and the light dramatic, Arizona Powerchutes pilot-instructor Randy Long and I drive a short ways out into the desert. Long rolls the ultralight aircraft out of its trailer. The multi-coloured rectangular parachute from which the whole device will be suspended is carefully laid out in a crescent and attached with a web of lines. We don flight suits and helmets, strap ourselves in and, after one glance at the windsock (attached to a fishing rod poking up from the trailer), he revs the engine, the parachute fills and we're quickly off the ground.

The experience is very E.T. — like being on a bicycle in the air. The 65-horsepower, two-stroke engine powering a four-blade propeller caged behind the rear of the two seats is quieter than expected and the breeze from a maximum speed of around 42 kilometres-per-hour is pleasant. Throttle up and we climb; throttle down and we drop. The vehicle glides downwards at a rate of one in five, so even engine failure would only mean a slightly hard landing with no harm done.

Around us, several hot air balloons are hanging prettily in the air like clusters of ripe, glowing fruit. We circle, and exchange aeronautic greetings.

The early-morning light is horizontal, making the giant cactuses throw long shadows, and the air is dry and clear, showing everything from distant high ground to scattering rabbits below us in high definition. Regulations permit powered parachutes to climb to as high as 3,000 metres, but it's more fun to weave a few metres off the ground along the stony channels created by flash floods.

We spiral upward to climb over some power lines, and then head over to Cave Creek Regional Park. "That's the toll booth," says Long. "Just give them a wave." No entrance fees for us.

Winking dots of red are teddy-bear cholla cactuses in bloom, and there are flashes of blue from backyard swimming pools in the Scottsdale suburbs. Our landing, after 45 minutes of ambling round the skies, is brief and gentle.


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