Randy Long entered the working world as a travel agent, a vocation that whet his appetite for globetrotting, adventure, and haggling with airlines. When he became a father and husband, he passed a passion for thrill seeking on to his family, and their recent escapades include scuba diving in Barbados and dog sledding in Alaska. It was this thirst for exploration and a love of aviation that drove Randy to become an FAA-certified powered-parachute instructor and found Arizona Powerchutes.
Powered parachutes are comprised of two-seater, wheeled carts that float 20 feet beneath 40-foot parachutes. At sunrise—or sunset during the cooler months—Randy and a passenger climb aboard the cart, and Randy hits the throttle, gathering speed for about 100 feet before the parachute fully inflates and hoists the cart into the air. Randy adjusts the altitude to his patron's comfort level and steers crafts over the exotic plants and mountain silhouettes of the Sonoran Desert, averaging a speed of 26 miles per hour. After journeys, powered parachutes float to land safely, as they are inspected by the pilot prior to each flight and by an FAA-approved facility after every 100 hours of operation.
When Randy Long and his family recently went on spring break, they didn't laze around on a beach staring at the sea. Instead, they trekked around the world to China. The choice of destination isn't surprising given Randy's extraordinarily adventurous spirit—the former travel agent has trotted the globe a few times, dog sledding in Alaska and scuba diving in Bermuda along the way.
Despite his eagerness to explore, Randy probably surprised even himself when he was caught by an unexpected wave of inspiration during a 1986 Rotary Club meeting in Illinois. When hot air balloonist Harold Lovelace spoke to the club, Randy was so transfixed that he immediately offered to buy one of Harold's balloons. By the end of the year, Randy had his pilot's license, was flying in the world's largest hot air balloon event, and became a pro at photo-bombing the portraits of landscape artists. Within five years, he sold his travel agency and set up shop in Arizona as a full-time balloon pilot.
Since founding Arizona Balloon Safaris, Randy has maintained a perfect flight record, successfully piloting more than 2,000 flights for more than 20,000 passengers (including Shakira and J.W. Marriott). His colorful balloons ride the Sonoran Desert's breezes, gently carrying passengers as far as seven miles while maintaining a feeling of near motionlessness. From any corner of the balloons' sturdy wicker baskets, people can scan all 360 degrees of the desert panorama without a single visual interruption. Whether skimming the tops of cacti or reaching the flight's 5,000-foot apex, groups will likely spot—and sometimes hear—deer, coyote, and jackrabbits during the 45-minute ride. Passengers can bring a camera to take pictures of these sights along the way. Upon landing, the chase crew welcomes groups back to Earth with celebratory glasses of champagne.
Plenty of couples meet online, but Adventures 2000 ensures they can also meet over a moonlit hike or an afternoon skydive. Though not a matchmaking service, the network connects singles aged 21–55 throughout the Phoenix area with a range of professionally organized events. These informal happenings are conducted in a low-pressure atmosphere, making it easier for participants to make new friends or meet someone special to adopt a highway with. Adventures 2000's staff coordinates 30–35 of these activities and events each month, from horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and rock climbing to dinner parties and game nights. They also organize outings to live concerts and theatrical productions, and plan excursions as playful as themed treasure hunts or as elaborate as week-long travel packages. To ensure a safe and carefree attitude of the events, the staff extensively screens all new members.
It begins with a flurry of activity. Balloon operators prepare for lift-off, checking equipment and tossing ropes as spectators wander the grounds, observing the action. And then it reaches a new level: dozens of balloons take flight at once, filling the crisp December dawn sky with brilliant blues, purples, oranges, and reds that rival the colors around them. The Arizona Balloon Classic's orbs then set off on an aerial hare-and-hound race, drawing cheers from below as onlookers snap pictures.
For one weekend each year, visitors gather on the grounds to snap pictures and watch the balloons inflate and lift-off outside the Gilbert Civic Center for the Classic––a three-day festival celebrating hot-air balloon flight and culture. But the fun doesn't end with the descent to earth. After sunset the tethered balloons begin to glow, lighting up for the DESERT GLOWS portion of the festivities. Attendees browse exhibits and feast on treats from a variety of vendors, and children play in the Family Fun Zone. Last, on Saturday evening, sparks give balloons a run for their money, springing through the sky in a stunning fireworks display.
Desert Skydiving Center carries people into the air in Cessna 182 and 206 planes and then sends them gleefully careening toward the ground. The center offers static parachuting, tandem jumping, and accelerated freefalls alongside experts. Participants can work with an instructor for 30-minutes to eight-hours, depending on the type of jump, before pulling on a parachute and jumping from two miles high. The ground grows rapidly as divers freefall with the wind whipping their faces before they pull the parachute cord and float to the ground or attempt to land on a passing goose.
The roar of the plane engine recedes, and soon the only sound is the rushing of the air. The blue expanse of the sky extends endlessly in every direction—except straight down, where Phoenix is slowly blossoming from a satellite map into a 3-D skyline. With a snap, the parachute puffs into action and turns the 120-mile-per-hour descent into a gentle drift.
The instructors at Skydive Phoenix get to enjoy this experience almost daily. They also have the pleasure of inducting customers into the delights of controlled plummeting as they perform tandem dives in a dedicated drop zone—one of few to offer actual city views during the fall. Strapped to their customers, sky guides take care of all the important aspects of the dive so that their partner can just enjoy the sights and adrenaline. They also provide coaching for those who wish to work up to unchaperoned dives, which are the only way to meet single clouds.