IT's ONE of those perfect days at the beach—sunny but not too hot, with a slight breeze blowing in off the Atlantic Ocean.
Suddenly, the wind kicks up and everyone is pointing to a pair of large, flying objects gliding about 150 feet above the waterline. The UFOs are emitting a loud hum and appear to have legs.
Are they a rare species of giant sea bird? Alien hovercrafts? Elon Musk clones?
Brady King and Curtis Williams are none of the above, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable. Each of the men is strapped into a powered paraglider that propels him along the seashore, aided by the wind caught in the enormous sail strapped above him. It’s a marvelous sight for those standing below with their jaws hanging open, and the observers become even more enchanted when they learn how far the pair is traveling—and why.
King and Williams embarked last week from Tybee Island for a 600-mile journey above the beaches of the Southeast to raise awareness for Operation ReConnect, a non-profit organization that provides beach vacations to combat veterans and their families. Their goal is to raise $150,000 in donations before reaching their final destination in Key West, FL.
“We’ve combined our passion for paramotoring with a passion to help our veterans,” explains Williams, an entrepreneur who advises and volunteers with Operation ReConnect’s home office in Birmingham, AL.
“Most of them don’t get to transition when they come home from combat or have the money to take a week on the water, so it’s really valuable to give them that time with their families. It’s a reset button.”
Williams met Savannah businessman King over California’s Glamis sand dunes during a paramotor gathering last year, and the adventurous duo plotted their course for the cause. King can often be spotted cruising above Tybee’s shores and leapt at the opportunity to take to the skies for those who serve.
“My grandfather fought in World War Two, and my dad was in Vietnam. I feel like it’s important to show appreciation for our active duty soldiers,” says King, who is always looking to hire vets at his building maintenance company, Soap on a Rope.
The flying parachute brothers expect their coastal sojourn to take five days or so depending on the weather, which will be monitored by seasoned TV meteorologist and blogger James Spann. Along the way, they’ll touch down to refuel at military bases and other spots, spreading the word about the necessity of rest and relaxation for returning soldiers.
The partners in flight coordinated the campaign with Operation ReConnect founder Ryan Charrier, a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force Reserves who was deployed in Afghanistan for seven months in 2014. He launched the non-profit after realizing how many of his fellow servicemen and women don’t get a grace period before entering the “real world” when they come home.
“It was just on a typical day of war, all of the soldiers talking about what we wanted to do when we got back home, and my buddy told me that he and his family had never been to the beach,” recalls Charrier.
“Even more, they’d taken trips for funerals, wedding and family visits, but they’d never taken a real vacation.”
He felt strongly that his comrade, who had served in the military for 28 years and been deployed six times, deserved a getaway. From his base in Afghanistan, Charrier arranged for his friend and his family to spend a week in Gulf Shores, AL, all expenses paid.
“After their trip, they were so full of thankfulness and joy,” says Charrier.
“I knew I needed to help as many people as I could this way.”
He has now put aside his civilian career in mechanical engineering to help his fellow veterans ease back into civilian life. In its first year, Operation ReConnect brought 33 families to the beach, providing accommodations, meals and entertainment in coastal Alabama and Florida. With the funds raised by King and Williams’ “freedom flight,” the organization plans to serve 500 families in 2016.
Many families stay at condos donated by vacation rentals and individual owners who are honored to offer up their vacant properties.
“The property owners have been amazing and generous. That’s the reason this works,” says Charrier.
“You wouldn’t believe how many folks hear what we’re doing and say, ‘Here are my keys. Don’t let it ever be empty.’”
He and his cronies are working to expand their operations throughout the Southeast this year, including Tybee Island. Donations come not just from condo owners but from local businesses who offer up ziplines, putt-putt golf and other entertainment. Funds raised will go to minimal administrative costs and the development of other Operation offices around the country.
“People get on board because this is a tangible way to make a difference for a veteran and their families,” he explains.
“Having that week can set a returning soldier’s mind at ease.”
As a fairly new endeavor, Operation ReConnect ought to cause quite a buzz as King and Williams soar over the beaches this week with their own curious form of transportation.
Their kits weigh about 80 pounds with a full tank of gas, and the 200cc engines are strong enough to power through the winds coming up from the south.
Paramotor trips usually last 30 minutes to an hour; Williams and King figure they will be in the air for several hours at a time, with a short stop to refuel midday. The forecast looks mostly clear for the adventurers, though along with the joy of skimming their toes in the water and watching manatees from above comes the danger of being tangled up in trees or blown out to sea.
But the flyers figure that compared to the sacrifices made by the returning combat soldiers they hope to help, this flight will be a breeze.
“These guys have bullets shot at them, they’re serving our country,” Williams shrugs. “I think we can handle this.”