Light Stuff

Coolest toys at the airport.

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Anyone who has been flying for even a little while knows that there is an aviation pecking order. Not surprisingly, it has everything to do with how fast and/or how expensive your aircraft may be. After all, there are only two things that matter in the piloting world—the man and the machine—and it is difficult to measure pilot skills on the ramp. (Yes, I understand exactly how sexist it is to say man and machine. However, I normally don’t see women out comparing the size of anything they have with other women or men. Oops. That didn’t sound right. Will somebody please take my shovel away from me now?)

The Quicksilver GT500 is a great little airplane for bumping around the neighborhood. You get to enjoy the great outdoors and fly with conventional wings.

Many things that make a great pilot aren’t things that are typically bragged about. “I took off, I flew around, I had a great landing, just like last time,” is the norm, as well as a sign of a great pilot. The guy who makes bad aviation decisions and barely gets out of a self-induced dangerous situation alive is what hangar stories are made of. However, few people walk away after the story thinking, “What an awesome pilot!” More often than not, the opposite is true.

So pilots often end up being judged by what they fly, rather than how they fly. That is perfectly natural, but it can lead to people buying aircraft that take them further and further from the actual experience of flying. The higher and faster you fly, and the more gadgets you get on board and have to manage, the less fun it is to actually look out the window and enjoy the experience. Ironically, it also seems to lead to less actual flying. If you have a really fast airplane, you may feel you need a destination before you go flying. Who goes out in the late afternoon to do some touch-and-goes in a Cessna Citation? Anyone?

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It seems to be pretty easy to get caught up in the aviation rat race, assuming money isn’t an issue. After all, many of the flight instructors who train beginning pilots are aspiring airline pilots. That means that from the very beginning, a lot of folks learn by osmosis that flying the lowly Cessna 172 is a means to an end, that end being flying a mighty (big) MD-11. And of course, most guys are already predisposed to buying the fastest, nicest toys that their wallets and their wives will allow.

That is not what ultralight pilots are all about. That fact by itself earns them a spot at the bottom of the aviation pecking order, particularly with people who have never truly experienced “wind in your face” flying.

Now, to be sure, many people fly ultralights because that’s as much airplane as they can afford. The aircraft are less expensive and easier to learn to fly, they take up less storage space, and they don’t require medicals or flight reviews for the pilot or annuals for the aircraft. If the ultralight is unpowered (as in hang gliders or paragliders), there isn’t even a fuel bill!

The simplicity of an ultralight is unbeatable when compared to the general aviation world. And ironically, sometimes that is looked upon as a negative. The fact that an ultralight pilot doesn’t have to go through the “hazing” required to become a general aviation pilot/owner just feels like cheating to some pilots who have worked hard and paid more to get into the sky.

Some of this has rubbed off on the ultralight pilots themselves. Being the ones with the most humble of aircraft in a field dominated by expensive toys can take its toll. Some move on to fly “real airplanes,” while others keep to themselves or with other ultralight pilots. That is a shame. After all, even the bottom of the pecking order is far above the vast majority of people who never fly in a light airplane, much less an ultralight aircraft. Face it, most people are ground level and will never take a flight that isn’t preceded by a pass through a metal detector and a possible TSA pat-down at their local international airport.

During the day, Jeff Goin is a mild-mannered captain of a Boeing 737 for Southwest Airlines. On his own time, he flies an aircraft that is lighter than the author’s checked baggage.

Sport Pilot

The Sport Pilot rules have given some former ultralight pilots the respectability they craved. Now anything with two seats requires those special things that general-aviation pilots enjoy, such as annual inspections, aircraft registrations, knowledge tests, practical tests and flight reviews. Oh, the joy! Those extras didn’t strike all ultralight pilots as that special, and they chose to keep flying under the ultralight rules with single-place aircraft (or “air vehicles,” as I’m sure some readers know from Part 103, the FAA regulation covering such machines).

Still, Sport Pilot has opened a lot of general-aviation pilots’ eyes to the possibilities of smaller, lighter aircraft. Pilots who might never have looked twice at a trike or a powered parachute now take them a little more seriously since they sort of have the FAA stamp of approval and pilots can get a rating in them. That is definitely a nice outcome because it has encouraged a lot of Private Pilots to try out different ways to aviate, and they are discovering great stuff that they may have never considered before.

Minivan vs. Motorcycle

What those pilots are discovering is that ultralight or ultralight-like aviation is not better or worse than general aviation. The two flavors of aviation have far different purposes, as different vehicles do. For example, you can’t pack up a family of four on a motorcycle for an outing. At least, you can’t in most states. On the other hand, not too many people jump in a minivan to go off-roading on a bike trail. General aviation and ultralight aviation are two very different ways to fly, and their goals are not the same. Because of that, it is easy to justify owning both kinds of aircraft, which seems to be happening more and more. Someone who owns a yacht may also want to play around on a jet ski, and why not?

The Revelation

As a powered-parachute pilot operating at a municipal airport for about 19 years, I have seen a lot of flying toys pass through, almost all of them bigger and more complex, with pilots who had to work hard to be rated to fly them. I’ve flown in lots of stuff and enjoyed all of the flights. After all, it is darned difficult to get a bad flight on a nice day when you are someone who enjoys flying! And I can’t help but admire most pilots, their expertise and, of course, the toys they fly. But—and you had to figure this was coming—I still enjoy doing what I do the most. My big revelation came on a recent morning while I was having an absolutely spectacular dawn flight. It was a “mission.” Most flights I do nowadays are not exactly fun flights, though I most always have fun. In this case, I was doing a test flight on a powered parachute that hadn’t flown for a few months. I determined quickly that everything checked out. In fact, things were more than just checking out. The machine was rigged properly, the engine was purring along, the temperature of the wind in my face was perfect, and the summer scenery was both spectacular and familiar at the same time. You just couldn’t ask for a better flight.

And that was the realization! I honestly couldn’t ask for a better flight. I’m sitting in what amounts to a flying Barcalounger, with the breeze blowing by at a refreshing 30 mph, which is fast enough for the scenery to move along at a comfortable pace (if you’re flying low enough—I was) and slow enough to not need any kind of windscreen. It was as close to the Superman dream of flight as you can get. Even better, actually, because it was an effortless flight. Now I know that with enough practice even helicopters can become almost effortless—at least that is what I’ve been told. But honestly, this truly was. And it wasn’t like I was relying on years of experience; it has been that way almost since the beginning.

And it wasn’t just that I was flying. I actually felt like I was flying. This is what I mean. To me, birds have one of the best deals when it comes to flight. They go where they want, they interact with the ground, and they fly close enough to the planet to see the texture of the trees, the fields and even the ripples of water. Birds don’t have to worry about an engine-out because just about anyplace will do for a landing. Of course, I don’t have all of that maneuverability in a powered parachute or quite that many options in landing locations, but then again I don’t have to stay bird-thin and do all of that infernal flapping! Good exchange as far as I’m concerned.

So in my ever-humble opinion, I have the coolest toy at the airport. It does things that few other aircraft can do, and those things just happen to be exactly what I want it to do. Never mind that it is relatively inexpensive, burns auto fuel and takes up a tiny fraction of the storage space of an airplane. A hot air balloon might be just as fun, but bribing a team of friends to chase me across the countryside doesn’t hold the same appeal. One of the slow ultralight airplanes or trikes might give me the same flight experience, but I enjoy having my hands free so I can take photographs. A powered paraglider might do the trick, but running with an engine on my back would mean I would lose my Barcalounger, and while I wouldn’t have to work as hard as a flapping bird, it certainly seems like some real work.

I guess it is only fair to offer the counterpoint to what I see as the coolest toy at my airport. After all, describing what works for me certainly glosses over a lot of things that may make powered parachutes just unworkable for others.

First, the obvious: They are not a mode of transportation in the traditional sense. You take off, you loiter about, and you land. If you want to stretch your loiter to a cross-country, you sure can. You will beat the hot air balloon pilot, but you probably won’t beat his chase vehicle. However, a short (they’re all short!) cross-country trip in a powered parachute is a blast since you are flying lower and seeing more than most other pilots.

The less obvious include wind limitations. All of that low flying means that I live in the world of harsh mechanical and thermal turbulence if I try to fly during the middle of the day. If your aircraft is only going 30 mph, wind can be an issue.

While I just gloried about the joy of flying in the summertime, flying when ol’ man winter is in charge can be downright uncomfortable. A 30-mph breeze in 40° means you are going to be feeling a wind chill of 13-28°, depending on whether you use the old style or the new style of calculating wind chill. Either way, it’s cold! You can bundle up and get face shields and even wear electric undies, but frankly an open-air flying experience is better when the air is a little warmer.

It is possible that Keith Sharon has had more fun with his antique Wasp Wing powered hang glider than any two people have had with a Cessna 172.

So What?

That is a great question. What I look for in flying is really just what I look for in flying. You may agree 100% and feel the desire to at least try out a powered parachute. Or you may have already tried one, and it just didn’t do what you want in an aircraft. All of that is really a side issue. I am only using my experience, things that get me excited and my revelation as an example. As they say, your mileage may vary.

However, the larger point is that there are a lot of aviation choices out there. I’ve known some people who love aviation but don’t want to fly. No kidding. How is that any different from people who love trains and have never been an engineer? I can tell you that I love women’s volleyball, but they never let me play.

If you go to your local airport and tell people that you want to get into aviation, you will be introduced to the local flight school or airplane flight instructor. And that may be the perfect choice for you, but it isn’t the only one—not even close.

There are sailplanes, gyroplanes, helicopters, hang gliders, model aircraft, hot air balloons, seaplanes, weight-shift-control trikes, paragliders and powered paragliders. And there are even more options when you consider the opportunities available within each of these categories. For example, there may be ultralight versions, Experimental or Light Sport versions and standard-category versions. You have available a literal aviation smorgasbord. Helping you be aware of the smorgasbord is my job. Filling your aviation plate is yours. I suggest a sample platter first. Try everything that even looks like it might be tasty. Find your favorite and then go back for a nice big helping. Don’t worry, it isn’t fattening.

Just make sure that what you fly is what you really think will be the coolest toy. It doesn’t have to be the fastest, newest or most expensive. It just has to do what you want it to do.


Roy Beisswenger is the technical editor for Powered Sport Flying magazine (www.psfmagazine.com) and host of the Powered Sport Flying Radio Show (www.psfradio.com). He is also a Light Sport repairman and gold seal flight instructor for Light Sport Aircraft as well as the United States delegate to CIMA, the committee of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) pertaining to microlight activity around the world.

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