Was it Superman or a manifestation of a Jungian species memory that made me, as a child, dream of flying? I stretched my arms wide, focused my intent sharply, and willed myself over buildings and fields, in long easy slow leaps. My first actual flight was in an old WWII trainer which my friend Norb had bought with an $800 student loan. It was a huge thing with 12 or 16 radial pistons, that guzzled 14 cent per gallon gas under the Minnesota sky at an alarming rate.
Many years later I got my first pilot’s license in a Beech Musketeer, and in time became instrument rated in more complex single engine aircraft. I hugely enjoyed flying, once flew a new Cessna 172 to Punta Arenas, Chile though I wasnt instrument rated at the time. Afterward I decided that he rating was desirable, went through the course, and began to use it.
Yet the advanced rating took the joy out of flying for me. I could no longer just slip and slide around the sky; I had to keep my instrument skills current: fly blind, file instrument flight plans, follow them religiously, sometimes fly in harsh climatic conditions, which I would have wisely and necessarily avoided. After all, if you have it, use it; and if you don’t use it you don’t have it. My flying became work. As my planes became faster and better equipped they became more expensive – too expensive- for innocent and ignorant joy riding.
One day, after an uncomplicated instrument approach with my older son as passenger, I understood: I don’t need this or want it any more. At that moment I abandoned real flying, though I do so once-removed; my son has accumulated many thousands of hours in helicopters and different fixed wing aircraft. Then a fellow pilot took me to a small local airport where he kept a red Quicksilver ultralight. His mother had actually been a wing walker there in the early 1900s. He cautioned me that the ‘lights fly differently from airplanes, and suggested I simply take off, fly a few feet above the runway, and land, to get the feel of them.
Out in the open, unencumbered- flying like a I was Flash Gordon somewhere above the moon- I couldn’t land; I was a bird at only 45 mph- I was transported into the world of my childhood dreams. I had to fly, not land yet.
Under slow flight conditions ultralights aren’t controllable; one must land at good speed until a foot or so above the ground and then chop the engine. So- of course-I ran off the runway into the grass on landing because I didn’t yet understand it wasn’t a real plane-it wouldn’t plane – had no rudder control below 30 mph. Even so, I was hooked. I know an airline pilot who returns to Sacramento and after work most days climbs into his 4 cycle ultralight for an hour or so; now I knew why. My clever friend the ultralight owner, who was not altogether disinterested, sold me his Quicksilver and bought a new one.
Ultralights are experimental planes, built individually by an owner, and flown under defined restrictions of power, weight and fuel or range. They are a vestige of freedom in an over-regulated world of flight, but must avoid busy and restricted airspace. Most have noisy 2 or 4 cycle rotax engines, offering speeds of less than 100 mph. They carry only few very basic instruments, but GPS positioning and cell phones make it easy to navigate and to communicate with other ultralight pilots. Both their advantages and limitations make single seat ultralights more enjoyable than two seat planes. They can be flown low to the ground or among trees in unpopulated areas, and most can takeoff or land in considerably less than 100 ft at less than 40 Mph. They offer the pilot an open exposed position with relatively unobstructed view.
Single seat ‘lights are most advantageous, but we are social beings, and usually find it more enjoyable, and perhaps safer, to organize 4 or 6 ‘light pilots for group forays, whether for a few hours or few days. Not all airports allow ultralights, but small airports usually do.
The simplicity of ultralights is often an advantage. I have had a 2 cycle engine quit just as I hopped over a fence; but landed on the other side, adjusted the fuel line and took off. Before the time of GPS I once lost track of my group of pilots near Hollister. So after carefully casing a 75 ft driveway, and probably annoying the home owner, I landed, got directions to the airport and took of f. I found gliders hot, noisy, boring, and nauseating. Para-sailing is the closest thing I know to ultralights- of course much quieter- and perhaps more pure, more ecologically ideal. Nonetheless, the ultralight pilot can use noise cancelling hearing protection, and has blackbird wings rather than those of a buzzard. If you still remember those impossible dreams of flying like a bird, you just may want to try it.