Ultralight Introduction

© 1996, Thomas G. Rampton

So much like a "conventional" airplane-and yet so different. What can an airplane pilot expect when transitioning to an ultralight?

If you transition from a small airplane to a fast, heavy aircraft like a Learjet, you'll notice striking differences. Likewise, if you transition to an ultralight, there are differences though these aircraft fly according to the same aerodynamic principles. Most airplanes and gliders (neglect flying wings and canards) have approximately the same arrangement of airfoils and control surfaces. The same basic physics applies, but the feeling is much different.


I've been flying for just over thirty years. I learned in my dad's Stinson while a teenager in Southern California, and earned a commercial certificate in a Cessna 172 through the University of Wyoming Flying Club. I hold airplane single and multiengine land and sea, instrument-airplane, rotorcraft-helicopter, and glider ratings. I've been an air taxi pilot. I've flown skydivers, done a lot of glider towing, some instructing, aerial photography, and I owned a Piper Tripacer for several years.

Generally, I can figure out which end of an aircraft is the front, but flying the little Quicksilver Sprint would be new to me.

The Right Stuff

Adrian and Karen Bloomfield operate the Granby Sports Park, near the town of Granby, about 8000 feet high in the Colorado Rockies. They arrived in the United States from England several years ago. He obtained a private pilot certificate in Florida. She became a scuba diving instructor. Neither had the slightest thought of running an ultralight operation.

Adrian's brother Mark was operating the flight park in Granby. Adrian and Karen came for a short visit-and are still there. Mark had business elsewhere. Adrian and Karen learned to fly ultralights, became instructors, and went about running this inherited business.

Mark went to Tanzania, where he trained and organized ultralight pilots to help catch illegal elephant poachers. It's hard to hide from watchers in aircraft. This worthy battle must be fought on two fronts: Against the poachers themselves, and against corrupt game wardens.

Karen and Adrian have settled in rather well. During the summer, they operate ultralights off the two dirt runways. In winter, they put fat tires on the mains, a ski where the nosewheel would be, and keep flying. When snow melts in springtime, it raises a nearby lake enough for float flying. There are also: trap shooting, snowmobiling in winter, overhauling of engines, and assembly of airframes. Both now hold United States Ultralight Association (USUA) advanced flight instructor certificates.

Ultralight flyers in the central Rockies are fortunate to have such people running a rather complete flying operation. Operators and customers alike appear to be having a good time at Granby.

Ultralights, unlike other aircraft, generally have very little utility. There are exceptions: Mark's flying in Africa, ranchers who locate cattle and inspect fences, and logistics on certain expeditions. I've heard of raft trips on remote rivers where ultralights were used to scout rapids. Others in Africa use ultralights to fly medical supplies into places at much less cost than with conventional aircraft. Operation is cheap, suggesting all sorts of law enforcement uses. True, ultralights are much more weather-dependent.

Most often, though, having fun is the entire purpose. Legally it's the only purpose, though many ultralight-type airplanes have N-numbers. This expands their legal envelope.

Getting Ready For Something New

I arrived at the Granby Sports Park for an introduction to ultralight flying in a Quicksilver Sprint II. It was a fine September morning, about a three hour drive from home.

The place was busy. Aircraft were up. People were inside cooking sausage on a hot plate. Adrian walked by purposefully and said they'd get me flying in a few minutes. No hurry-I got my camera and made a few photographs. Adrian walked by again and said, "you'll be with Alex," pointing toward a blonde young man.

Alex Kittle had me struggle into a pair of coveralls, thick with insulation against the cool air of autumn. I wore light gloves, and a helmet that had a wind visor, headphones, and a boom mike-Alex had an intercom in a belt-pack. You don't wear anything that might blow off. Losing things is bad. Things being sucked through the prop behind you is even worse.

The force and temperature of the slipstream had never before made me bundle up while flying. Yes, in conventional airplanes, you should remain aware of conditions outside, lest you end up there. But in the Quicksilver, there was no difference between inside and outside.

What, No Cockpit?

I'd never even flown in an open cockpit, and this Quicksilver didn't have a cockpit at all! My response to the non-cockpit would be the crucial issue in all this. I'd have to get the feel of the aircraft and learn a lot about ultralights, but I wasn't worried about that.

There wouldn't be anything between me and the ground other than the seat and a few metal tubes. There would be almost nothing in front except my toes. Actually, the bucket seats, with belts, were quite secure. It was hard to get out on purpose and, I supposed, even harder to fall out.

I do preflight inspections, like most pilots do, and had already looked the ultralight over. It had just come down from flying, but that's no comfort. Things don't break at night in the hangar-they break while flying. Over the years, I've done lots of preflights without finding much wrong. But I've found enough to keep me looking!


Alex and I settled in. Ultralights are quite basic, but he showed me the fuel valve and the ignition switch. Someone pulled the starter rope for us. Taxiing out is down a hill at Granby, and only Alex had brakes. He explained a few things about controls and instrumentation, and said he'd make the first takeoff.

I wanted to follow through on the controls, to sooner experience this new mode of flight. The Quicksilver has only one control stick, between and a little forward of the two seats, with a long foam grip in order to accommodate two hands. Each person has rudder pedals. Throttles, which move together, are outside each seat.

A quick check for traffic, and Alex steered onto the runway and applied full power. As with larger airplanes, a little back pressure lightens the nose. After that, it got a little different.

In the more powerful conventional airplanes, you unleash great energy and roar down the runway, rotate, and bore up into the sky. You might raise gear and flaps, set the power, and do other things as needed. In the ultralight, takeoff was more like being a bubble that had just detached from the bottom of an aquarium. Both are satisfying, but quite different.

I have no idea how many feet our takeoff required. Not many, and we were soon climbing out at only 25 mph! Moving so slowly was even stranger than the non-cockpit.

Did the total openness bother me? There was considerably more view around the periphery, but I know better than to look down, or off to the side, during a takeoff. You look down the runway, then off toward the horizon. If you look where you should, the non-cockpit will cause no trouble.

Did the flying seem strange? Somewhat. Many years ago, I asked a man how a certain airplane flew as he was climbing out of it. His curt response: "It flies like an airplane."

The ultralight flew like a unique breed of airplane, but still like an airplane. Not that I felt like doing wingovers just yet-thoughts and feelings about the non-cockpit crept in, despite my resolve to banish them.

I'd expected a problem judging pitch attitude, but had none. After all, my toes were out there in front of me! I also had the airspeed indicator, which in this ultralight was a vertically-mounted, calibrated, transparent tube about an inch in diameter and several inches tall, with a red disk inside. It's known to all ultralighters, but was new to me. As airspeed increases, the disk floats higher in the tube due to air pressure. What a wonderfully simple device! We're not talking about supersonic speeds anyway, are we?

This instrument happened to be almost level with the horizon in cruise, on a structural tube a little in front of the pilot. This also helped me judge pitch-I had the airspeed indication, the airspeed indicator itself, and my toes. What else could I need?

In ultralights, as in other aircraft, you don't chase indicated airspeed around. It's a double check on the result of the attitude you've chosen. Therefore, my toes were the most important reference. In time, all this becomes subconscious.

The view ahead was of fields still green from summer. Hillsides had taken on the coppery colors of early fall. Tall mountains were not far off. We flew up and down small valleys and over placid horses and cows. In a Quicksilver, your attention gets focused outside the aircraft. After all, there is no inside.

We were flying low and slow on a beautiful day, and that's what I enjoy. Granby is a great place to fly! Ultralights seem to be the proper vehicle in which to do this sort of thing. I was enjoying myself.

Alex had me try some turns, which follow the same aerodynamic principles as do turns in larger airplanes. But it required more rudder and less aileron, or there'd be lots of adverse yaw-in a direction opposite your intended turn, since the aileron that goes down makes more drag than the one that goes up.

Adverse yaw has largely been designed out of many conventionals, but not from this ultralight. One way to feel out rudder-aileron coordination in an unfamiliar airplane is to roll back and forth while holding the nose on a point with rudder. I've done this lots of times in larger aircraft, and I'll be doing it in ultralights.

Once in the turn, I noticed a real overbanking tendency because the outside wing was moving faster and making more lift. Ultralight pilots will have to deal with this, and with adverse yaw. It just requires understanding of the aerodynamics involved, plus a little adjustment while flying. No problem.

While keeping track of Karen and a student in another Quicksilver, Alex demonstrated a power-off stall. Then I tried one. Again, the procedure was quite familiar: Less noise, mushy controls, and buffeting. Then the nose drops. You reduce the angle of attack, add power, and fly away, as in a conventional airplane. I didn't get the nose (My toes rather, because there's no nose) high enough the time I tried it, but the ultralight still stalled.

A road conveniently appeared. Alex suggested some S-turns across it. We were about 200 feet up and the groundspeed is always low. The flight path was easy to judge and there seemed to be plenty of time.

An amazing thing happened! I'd been a little apprehensive about banking. But turning back and forth across the road, my attention was concentrated upon doing what needed to be done, so I swept fluidly from one turn to the next. Not perfectly, but it was feeling much better. I was finding relative peace with the non-cockpit.

We flew at minimum control airspeed, about 22 mph, for a time. Bank was controlled with rudder as in a conventional. Slowing a little, buffeting began at 18 mph-such strange, slow speeds.

Into the pattern for landings. We crossed one end of the field at 300 feet and entered downwind. Oddly, our approach speed was faster than our cruise-35 mph all the way down. The view was very similar to that seen from a conventional airplane, but the scale was compressed: A close, low pattern; a short, narrow runway; but not a very large, fast aircraft either. Everything was in proportion.

Teaching students to land conventional airplanes, I tried to exorcise their tendency to not maintain a glide right up until flare, and then to balloon back up. Darned if I didn't do those same bad things myself. But skill will come.

One difference between conventional airplanes and ultralights is that the latter have much less momentum. Also, designs like the Quicksilver, with seemingly a million guy wires holding the wings in place, have lots of drag. If you reduce the power in an ultralight (or if it quits), the aircraft is going to slow quickly and you'd best get the nose (toes) down. You hold it down quite deliberately on final approach.

In an ultralight you may have a spread of only 15 mph between stall and cruise speeds. In various conventionals, you might have airspeed spreads of 50 mph, 150 mph, or much more. In an ultralight, you don't have as much speed to lose and you can lose it quickly.

Do What?

Fly with a two-stroke engine that screams like a chain saw at 6000 RPM? I never thought I'd see the day, but the day came. Fly hundreds of feet high with no cockpit around me, and my toes the most visible things in front? I did this too. Take off from a 1500 foot runway that slopes upward, aimed straight for a set of hills? It felt fine.

There are things you can do comfortably in an ultralight that you'd be afraid to do in a conventional airplane. The non-cockpit is OK, and I'll just have to live with the engine.

I attended a day of FAA seminars, with a choice at one point between a session on eyesight, and another on hearing loss. Since I'm getting into ultralights, I thought I'd better attend the one on hearing. I'll just have to protect my ears from the engine and prop sounds as best I can, using earplugs or a perfectly fitting headset. Unfortunately, noise is not the ultralight's strong suit.

Check Yourself Out?

"Aw, I've got lots of pilot time. I can certainly fly one of those little things." Perhaps you can. Legally, you can buy an ultralight and check yourself out. At one extreme, if it's the totally open, short-coupled kind, have a friend make a video. Your first attempt might be salable to one of those TV shows featuring spectacular events caught on camera. These ultralights feel different. You'll feel different. Take an instructor along. You have to anyway at responsible ultralight flight parks.

At the other extreme, there are ultralights that closely resemble conventional airplanes except they're little. They will feel much more comfortable to an airplane pilot. A friend once allowed me to fly his. It looked just like a little, single seat, Piper Cub, so I felt right at home. The sight picture was very similar. I have lots of Cub time and feel comfortable in taildraggers, but my takeoff was a little wiggly. No matter-by the third wiggle, I was twenty feet in the air!

The little airplane was wonderful! I flew a few miles from the airport and did some pylon eights along a fence line. These felt quite normal, except the pivotal altitude was less than half what it was in the Tripacer I used to own. Ultralights seem preordained for ground reference maneuvers, and I tried several others.

The landing was normal, using a little power on approach. The hardest part of this flight was getting myself to come down. The second hardest part was getting the airplane to come down! My friend had advised me not to reduce the power to idle, lest it load up and quit. But with even a little RPM, these airplanes want to fly!


The non-cockpit, I realized, is only something that bothers you before you fly. Once in the air, it makes very little difference.

What does make a difference is winter's chill! In December, I returned to Granby for more flying. Most of me was quite warm inside the flight suit, but I couldn't quite get my chin in. Somewhere, I've got a full-face ski mask like robbers wear. I'm going to find it. The 20 to 35 mph wind chill took it's toll in flight.

We did a lot of pattern work that session, so I got to warm back up a little before launching again. But it wasn't enough. I made at least one landing with only one eye, because one side of my glasses had fogged. I finally put my bifocals inside my coat, since I see fine from about three feet to infinity. We had no maps to read-something you don't do easily in an ultralight anyway.

You have to operate near power lines at Granby, and they make me nervous. In conventional airplanes you normally fly well above these awful things. But in ultralights you're down near such hazards, if not among them.

Long ago, while learning to fly helicopters, I'd been shown a trick: You cross power lines right over one of the towers, because you can see it better than you can the wires. I'll apply that tidbit to ultralight flying. Simple awareness helps too.

During a trip to southern California, I happened onto the small Brian Ranch Airport on the desert about ten miles from El Mirage dry lake, developed by Englishman Jack Brian because he loves flying. Intended for conventional airplanes, it's now used by ultralights too.

I went for a short flight there with instructor Robert Comperini, during which I realized I'd been misjudging, by about fifteen degrees, the direction in which the Quicksilver was going. This had been having an ill effect upon my approaches!

At Granby again, I had the good fortune to fly with Mark Bloomfield, who was back temporarily. He was very careful to explain beforehand what he intended to cover, and went over it again afterwards. He was an excellent instructor before flying, after flying, and in between.

Some time passed, and I was visiting again in Southern California. I went back out onto the desert for another flight with Bob Comperini at Bryan Ranch. We flew over to El Mirage Dry Lake, made a landing, then made two approaches and one landing at a couple other small airstrips out there.

I thought I had the feeling of the Quicksilver better on this flight, despite the long layoff, than I had in the past. And the non-cockpit? I only thought about it to realize I wasn't thinking about it. The wind felt good in early autumn!

Why Do I Fly?

I know a couple, both pilots, who have taken different paths in aviation. She was interested in bigger, faster, and more complex airplanes and now flies Boeing jets. He wants a STOL airplane, such as a Maule.

Is there an airplane they'd both enjoy? Multiengine, pressurized, IFR, STOL, taildragger bush planes that can lift off slowly from mountain strips and cruise 600 mph in the stratosphere are scarce.

Ultralights do well at the low-and-slow end of the spectrum, and this is the direction in which I find myself moving. I don't fly because I have to be in a distant city by noon. Even if that were my purpose, an ultralight would hardly get the job done. I fly for the sensation of flying, to do various maneuvers that improve my ability, and to study what I see on the ground.

I have a Kolb Firestar under construction. It can be built as an ultralight by ruthless elimination of weight, or it can be built the way I want and licensed as an experimental aircraft. I'll probably go the experimental route.

I'd like to add a pair of amphibious floats. Wouldn't that combine the best of several worlds and be about as near utopia as one can get? I think so.

Bob Comperini in his Quicksilver with a student

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