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The Scooter Tow Winch

Reliable And Cheap To Run!

Since the earliest days of towing paragliders, the Scooter Tow has been a great option for many paragliding pilots and organizations. And they are still going strong. See down there in the photo (courtesy of willswing.com) for an example of a neat implementation...

So I guess it's something of a classic piece of machinery. That will definitely be the case if it's still around 20 years from now.

Oh by the way, you don't actually get towed behind a moving scooter! No, it's set up as a stationary winch.

Some guys refer to it as their 'portable hill'!

So what's so great about the scooter tow system? Why has it become so popular and lasted so well?

Here's a list which summarizes its good points...

A scooter set up to tow paragliders.
  • cheap to buy: a used scooter isn't going to break the bank
  • cheap to run: naturally, with an efficient small-capacity 4-stroke motor!
  • largely ready-made: engine, throttle, transmission, towline drum, it's all there
  • reliable: one instructor claims 15,000 trouble free tows on the same machine
  • power options: depending on the model, supports everything from training to pulling tandems very high
  • almost instant throttle response: everything in the system is relatively small and light
  • very cold or very hot weather: no problem!

On the downside, no stationary winch system can be quite as safe as a payout winch, in general. But of all stationary winches, I can't imagine a safer setup than a scooter tow system. The centrifugal clutch models can even act like a payout winch under some conditions.

Just like with my other winch pages on this site, this one will stick strictly to the winch itself. No point in straying onto the topic of towing. These scooter units have been used in a variety of configurations which would make for some other topics. Later, maybe :-)



History of the Scooter Tow

Curious about its origins? Seems that the first tow unit of this type was based on a Yamaha Riva 125 scooter.

This unit faced away from the paraglider being towed. Like many are today, I'm fairly sure the original would have just looked like a complete scooter, at first glance. Mounted on something solid, to prevent movement across the ground, and with towline wound onto a built-up rear wheel hub.

On seeing that first model, an instructor was inspired to make his own tow rig, with great success. Before long, the idea really caught on, the inspiration spread.

I mean, it must have been particularly exciting in those days when para-waiting at mountain sites or coastal slopes was the norm! At last you could just head off almost any old day and do a day's flying. Wind direction just didn't matter any more, as long as it was not too strong.

Some examples now-a-days have a more purpose-built drum in place of the original rear hub I believe. Guides are also added to help feed the tow-line in and out. Also, the scooter does not necessarily face away from the glider being launched. The early systems used a centrifugal clutch and a variable speed transmission. Even with a tin-pot motor, this would provide enough grunt to get a paraglider into the air!

However, sometimes more power is required, for example to launch a heavy pilot or a tandem paraglider. For this, a larger capacity scooter motor, say 180cc or more, coupled with its torque converter does the job perfectly. One school defines a 'heavy pilot' as being anyone over 100 kg (220 lbs).

At least one company in the paragliding business actually bought up dozens of old scooters and added to their bottom line by churning out scooter winches! This would have spread the usage of these winches even further. Here's a list that contains types of scooters that have been used to tow paragliders, in order of engine capacity:

  • 50cc unknown model
  • 80cc Honda Elite scooter
  • 125cc Yamaha Riva scooter
  • 180cc Yamaha Riva scooter
  • 200cc Yamaha Riva scooter
  • 250cc Honda Elite scooter



Training with a Scooter Tow

Probably because of the relatively low power and high precision of delivering that power, scooter winches have really been used a lot in training paraglider pilots. For example, at least one school uses a 50cc model with a mere 4.5 horsepower to gently pull trainees up to about 25 m (75 feet) to introduce them to launches and landings. And small turns in either direction, before lining up into wind to land. I've even read of instructors pulling people along for ages only a meter or 2 (3 - 6 feet) off the ground to get the feel of the paraglider in flight!

So the scooter solution is ideal for training new pilots. Right now in 2006, the future is still bright for the scooter tow unit, since most of the existing units are expected to stay running reliably for many more years. Of course, towing technology has come a long way since the first scooter winch started hauling up paragliders. Hence, the 'golden years' of scooter tow construction are probably past. No doubt the occasional one still gets built, when money is short and the urge to fly in still air is strong!



The Future

A little birdy told me that as recently as 2005, a curriculum for training with the scooter tow winch and an accompanying business plan were in the pipeline. And wait for it... from the same instructor, written plans for making a scooter winch! So will the scooter tow make a come back? Let's wait and see.


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