Light Stuff

Freedom from airports.

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A lot of people make an assumption that pilots who fly ultralights only do so because they can’t afford “real” aviation. And while budgets certainly are an issue for a lot of people, ultralight pilots included, they are not the only reason— and sometimes aren’t even the main reason—people are attracted to ultralights and Light Sport. Other reasons include freedom from regulations, ease of entry into the sport, and the fact that flying in a large, enclosed cabin is not really everyone’s cup of tea.

This may come as a shocker for “normal” pilots, who often seem to be constantly striving to fly something faster, bigger, better, and more expensive. In fact, many of the people who would nod their heads at that statement probably aren’t even reading a column like this, so it is fair to say that they may never get it.

Runway? Who needs a runway? Even city pilots dream of taking off from the back yard. You can with a personal helicopter, but somebody from the city zoning department may take issue with you.

Off the Beaten Path

Since I run a sport aviation school, I get to talk to a lot of people about ultralights. One of the first questions they usually ask is, can I fly it from my front yard? That’s because part of their dream of aviation is not one of transportation, it is more along the lines of sightseeing. They want to go to the garage, pull out their aircraft, and grab their little piece of the sky. They aren’t interested in flying a couple of states away, any more than someone who drives an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) has a desire to commute to work with it. The point isn’t to convert gasoline into miles traveled, it is to convert gasoline into fun and a great experience.

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That kind of pilot or potential pilot doesn’t necessarily want to go to the airport to go flying, either. It makes sense if you look at the issue without your aviator goggles on, too. If someone buys an ATV, it makes sense that they would want to drive it on their own land, right? Why would they want to have to rent hangar space and off-road exclusively at an ATVport?

Of course plenty of people want to—or have to—go off-roading on public land or designated areas, depending on whether they own suitable land or just want to enjoy the sport with others. The analogy with ultralights continues to work because there are plenty of ultralight pilots who feel the same way. That is why we talked last year about the other side of the “Ultralights at Airports” issue, when we explained how ultralights and Light Sport could gain access to airports.

But it is now time to talk about off-airporting and some of the issues involved.

The Backyard Flyer is more than just a name! The one-piece wing on this ultralight actually swivels on top of the fuselage for transport in a trailer or parallel parking in the garage.

Choosing Your Ground

The very first issue is the appropriateness of the land intended to be used for an airstrip. That appropriateness often depends directly on what kind of aircraft you want to fly. Personal helicopters are the best deal of all, but even they have limitations. Usually those limitations come in the form of noise, neighbor complaints and zoning laws. The limitations do not come from the FAA, itself. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of neighborly limitations. The Catch-22 is that if you live far enough from your neighbors to avoid complaints, then you probably have enough land for a conventional airstrip.

Most aircraft need some kind of ground for takeoffs and landings. That bit of ground needs to be long enough, lined up into prevailing winds, and clear of obstructions. How long, how much crosswind, and how large the obstructions can be often depends on aircraft type, and sometimes even make and model. Unfortunately for someone just starting out, reading specifications on a brochure or listening to a salesman at an airshow may not be the most accurate way to gain the best answers to your questions of suitability. Aircraft specifications are often—let’s say—somewhat subjective. I remember a time when some aircraft specifications were written only after getting out a competitor’s brochure and seeing what they wrote down. I don’t believe that anyone doing that thought they were doing anything more than committing a white lie. After all, in their minds, they had a better product. Well if the Airscreamer 4U2 can take off in 300 feet, then certainly we can take off in 280 feet. Sounds good, use it. We gotta get those brochures printed up before Oshkosh! It was a lot easier to do a little creative writing than it was to go through the time and expense of legitimate product testing!

The best way to get real product specifications is to read reviews, talk to owners, and watch the aircraft you are interested in fly with your own two eyes.

The whole point of a short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft is to take off and land where there aren’t normal runways.

Is it Legal? Is it Smart?

Say you have found the aircraft you like and are ready to build both airplane and airport. You still have a little bit of research to do. Some states have few rules about establishing a personal flight field and others can be very restrictive. The thing to do is to contact your state’s aviation division of their department of transportation. Trust me, there are at the very least some guidelines they will happily provide. There might be some real tall regulatory hurdles, too. Those might be enough for you to figure that paying rent at the airport isn’t such a big deal after all.

Even if your goal is to fly off of the old homestead, it isn’t really the best plan in most cases. At least it isn’t the best plan for someone just starting out in the sport. That is because unless you own a sod farm or a similar, wonderful, flat, obstacle-free area, you are probably going to have a less forgiving field than that provided by your local airport. Even if a good pilot who is familiar with your aircraft can take off in less than 300 feet, that doesn’t mean you can. Almost as bad, you may not feel comfortable landing back into a space that right after takeoff has managed to miraculously shrink from a huge expanse of ground to something the size of a postage stamp and is now ominously surrounded by trees. Get plenty of practice taking off and landing at the local airport. Learn your aircraft’s limitations as well as your own. Did you buy a two-place machine? Learn what the capabilities are when the aircraft is loaded up with the weight of an extra person if your intent is to fly others from your domicile-port.

Often what happens when people take that advice is that they end up staying at the local airport. All you need is one long takeoff run that would land you in a tree at the end of your field—if you were using your own field—to make you realize that perhaps the better part of valor is remaining on the airport. Besides, someone else there will be mowing the grass besides you!

But sometimes, the airport just isn’t the best solution. You can really be in a bind if the public airport is over 50 miles away and your intended home field just doesn’t seem to live up to your updated expectations. Then it becomes time to explore other options. After all, if you don’t have the ideal piece of airport land, someone else locally just may. Maybe that person is a neighbor, or the owner of what is already a private airstrip. That can be great news. That is, it can be great news until someone starts having deep thoughts about legal liability.

Some aircraft simply do what others can’t. Takeoffs from a white, sandy beach between condominiums, sparkling water, and sunbathers are one of the pleasures of a powered paraglider pilot.

Who’s Liable?

Everybody knows that you’re a stand-up guy, right? If you suffered a mishap while flying off your neighbor’s cow pasture, you would never, ever, ever sue that neighbor, right?

Unfortunately, your neighbor may see things differently. Or perhaps just as important, your neighbor’s wife and lawyer may not see things the same way you do.

And even more unfortunately, your neighbor’s wife and his attorney have a lot of reasons in today’s lawsuit-happy environment to be the wet blankets they are. Even if you don’t intend to sue, if you don’t survive an accident, someone in your family may decide to sue for the loss of your companionship. Unfortunately, it happens.

In fact, calling your neighbor’s wife and his attorney wet blankets isn’t fair. They are just being realists. Or are they?

Aviation is a tiny activity compared to other activities that can be conducted on private land. Some of those activities are potentially far more dangerous, too. Activities such as horseback riding (I’m personally rather frightened of a mode of transportation that is potentially smarter than I am), hunting, motorcross, snowmobiling, rock climbing, hiking, and even swimming. Indeed, 37 to 38 people drown each year in just our national parks. With over 100 accidental deaths in those parks, drowning ends up being the top taker of life.

It might be rather surprising that anyone lets anyone else on their land to do anything. Well, with the potential for bodily harm to guests and the resulting potential for financial harm to the landowners, almost all states have stepped up and produced what are called recreational use statutes. Those statutes specifically allow certain activities to be undertaken on private land at the recreator’s own risk. In other words, the land owner is already protected from lawsuits. The law ends up being a win-win since it creates access to thousands of square miles of private land for recreational use and protects the generous landowners from lawsuits in case the worst happens.

So Mrs. Wet Blanket is all wet?

Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn’t.

Know your Rights

Unfortunately, laws vary from state to state. Many of the states list activities that are specifically covered by recreational use statutes. I would imagine that those are the activities that are popular and have pretty robust lobbying organizations. Since a lot of aviation takes place at public airports, recreational use statutes for individual states haven’t exactly been on the front burner of the major aviation alphabet groups.

But for ultralights—particularly portable aircraft like powered paragliders, powered parachutes, trikes, and airplanes with folding wings—a local pasture may be the most convenient place to fly from. Luckily, those pilots have an ally in the Recreational Aviation Foundation. Their mission is “Keeping the legacy of recreational aviation strong by preserving, maintaining and creating public use recreational and backcountry airstrips nationwide.”

Part of realizing that mission is recognizing that recreational aviation is enhanced, and landowners are better protected, by including aviation in each state’s recreational use statute. So they are on the job. You can learn more (and become a member) by visiting theraf.org.

An important first step is to research your state’s laws about recreational use to see if private airports and undeveloped land is covered by the law. The laws are continuously changing—mostly for the better—but changing nonetheless. After you become educated about the use of land in your state, you can talk to your neighbor intelligently about the issue.

But what happens if you are in an unenlighted state?

For the long term, you should become a member of the RAF and work with them and your local legislature to include aviation in the proper statutes. In the short term, I offer you the hold harmless agreement below. While not nearly as good as a state law, it does a lot to acknowledge the risk you are prepared to take and protects the landowner who is generously allowing you to fly there. And that should make your neighbor’s wife happy, too. You can download the Agreement in PDF at the bottom of the page.


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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