Milestones are reason to celebrate.
Last summer I passed a milestone when I turned 50. I celebrated God’s good grace to keep my ticker ticking by leaving my wheelchair behind and flying in an ultralight. The more times I went up into the air, the more comfortable it became — far more relaxing than driving.
I’ve since learned that the words ultralight, trike and microlight are broad terms applied to many classifications of aircraft.
Ultralights are lightweight flying vehicles that operate at very low speeds. Some, like hang gliders, sailplanes and balloons, are unpowered by motors; others, such as fixed-wing craft or rotorcraft, have small motors.
|Photo by Lucian Bartosik|
The powered one-seat ultralight is a true ultralight vehicle as defined by the Federal Aviation Administration Regulation (FAR Part 103) because it weighs under 254 pounds; carries no more than 5 U.S. gallons of fuel; has a maximum straight and level speed of no more than 55 knots; and a power-off stall speed of no more than 24 knots. The FAA doesn’t regulate pilot certification, vehicle certification or registration for these single-occupant crafts used primarily for fun.
Two-seat ultralights used for instructional purposes must weigh 496 pounds or less and carry no more than 10 U.S. gallons of fuel. Their pilots must be basic or advanced certified ultralight flight instructors registered with an aviation organization such as the U.S. Ultralight Association (USUA) and have passed the FAA’s “Fundamentals of Instruction” test.
I flew with instructor and author Lucian Bartosik, a pilot renowned in the industry for his impeccable record and long flying history of over 3,500 ultralight hours. While instructional flight rates average $75 an hour, Bartosik says that choosing a flight instructor can be the most difficult factor.
“Just because someone lands doesn’t mean he’s a good pilot,” he says and recommends that interested beginners:
|Photo by Lucian Bartosik|
My biggest apprehension wasn’t about flying per se but rather how I was going to get in and out of the contraption pilots call the pod. As it turned out, this was no problem and not unlike various other wheelchair transfers, but it did help to have an elevator seat on my power chair so I could slide into the pod with both seats at an even level.
Fortunately, you don’t have to use your feet to operate the foot throttle, brake or steer the nose wheel while on the ground since portable hand controls are available. Pilots Steve Derwin and Dave Skyes fly Pegasus trikes with adapted hand controls. As members of the British Disabled Flying Association, they often attend organized fly-ins and expeditions and tote their manual wheelchairs with them. Similar clubs operate in the United States such as the International Wheelchair Aviators in California.
Once you leave the ground, operating the rudder with a horizontal bar takes little hand dexterity or strength under good flying conditions. Since neuromuscular diseases vary, flying isn’t necessarily something that anyone with an NMD can achieve. Likewise, because disorders like my limb-girdle muscular dystrophy are progressive, there’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to do this next summer.
But I can say I flew. Albeit for a short time, I took control and banked left and then right, with Lucian in the seat in front of me. I can’t say I went so far as to try a take-off or landing. Nor can I say I flew alongside a red-tailed hawk as Bartosik has done.
But I did wave my arms like a bird and even received an initiation “present” from one.
While living in Colorado, Bartosik says, he once flew beside an eagle. Currently living in Kentucky, he’ll more likely fly alongside several turkey vultures there.
“Of all my flying hours,” he says, “my most wonderful feeling from flying is when I am alongside these birds. Once I flew with them for 40 minutes. It’s an honor. You see them looking over at you and they are above and below you. They are 10 times better fliers than I am but I’ll match their speed and circle with them… there’s no other aircraft that can do this!”
If you ever have the opportunity to fly in an ultralight, I suggest you do whether you take the controls or not, and search out your own gaggle of birds to escape with.
Aerial Adventure Flight Training Center
British Disabled Flying Association (BDFA)
“Fly Away Home” (DVD),
1997 based on the book by Patricia Hermes, Newmarket Press; 1996
Trikes: The Flex-Wing Flyers
by Lucian Bartosik & Hal McSwain
Ultraflight Radio on the web
United States Ultralight Association (USUA)