By George Karamitis, EAA 144192
This piece originally ran in the June 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
As you know, I like to take us in a different direction concerning aeronautics. I like to explore the slow end, or how slow can we go.
For a significant part of my life the most common question I asked was, “How fast can I go?” This applied to how fast I could run, how fast I could roller skate, how fast I could deliver papers on my bike, and how fast my Flexible Flyer sled could go down the hill. And when the time came that I was interested in cars, it was how fast was their acceleration and how fast will they go? Back then speed was everything.
This also applied to my involvement in general aviation aircraft selection as well. Speed is one reason why I preferred tailwheel aircraft. In fact, the fastest airplane that I owned was a Cessna 180 that my family and I would regularly fly from northern Illinois to my wife’s family farm in Wisconsin. The 180 had off-runway capability, and the absence of a nose wheel meant a little less drag that yielded more speed.
And I was fortunate to work as an airline pilot with the first all-jet airline, TWA, which further enhanced my addiction for speed. In certain moments, I often remark with some levity, “And we flew jets.” And we did this before all the computers that the modern jet transports possess today. Pilots in my day basically performed mental calculations in our heads. To make it easier, I would put everything in groups of 10s. Such as 10 miles a minute. Oh, I knew we weren’t quite that fast, but it gave me the edge on my personal calculations.
Somewhere along the line all that speed stuff began to change. My general aviation choice began to change. I went from a Cessna 180 to a Cessna 170, to a Bellanca Citabria, to several J-3 Cubs. And upon my introduction to ultralights, my views significantly changed.
When I would finish a trip with TWA, either as a first officer on the Boeing 747 or as a captain on the Boeing 727, I would often slide myself into the center seat of my little Quicksilver ultralight. I would go from the hundreds of thousands of pounds of weight and flying at (nearly) 10 miles a minute to 254 pounds and a cruise yielding about a half-mile a minute. This was all done in a fixed-wing aircraft with the same basic controls that the much heavier and faster jets had. Ladies and gentlemen, this opens up a whole new world. Not only do you see more, but you feel more. I really enjoy the flight experience of slowly flying through the skies and being able to do this in a safe way. Although I have soloed a Hughes 300 helicopter, and have had some time in a powered parachute, I have predominately flown fixed-wing aircraft. We just fit together.
I never thought I would say this, but when opening the hangar doors, I welcome the high-drag and dirty configuration look of my Quicksilver. It possesses a certain beauty that defies words. At the same time, I give a silent thank-you to all those early aeronautical engineers who engineered just the right amount of everything such as wing dihedral, wing camber, the angle of dangle of the tail surfaces, and engine size and configuration — pusher or puller. All this proper amount of everything contributes to my slow cruise speed of 35 mph and yields an easy stall speed of 16 mph. The Quicksilver does exactly what it was designed to do.
After completing my preflight in the hangar, which takes some time because everything is exposed, I will take you on a flight and point out the new feeling of flying slowly through the sky. With my arm around the tail tube, I now walk my “girl” out of the hangar. Giving it three shots of prime, I crack the throttle and pull the recoil starter, and it fires right up. Backing into my command center seat, I connect my headset to the radio and attach my shoulder and seat belts. With a check of the cylinder head and EGT readings, I begin to taxi to Runway 5. Not only do I get to experience slowness in the air, but taxiing seated low to the ground and in a wide-open aircraft, I am also offered sights that would not be visible in an enclosed aircraft. These sights can include certain kinds of small taxiway debris, inoperative taxi lights, and a puddle or two on certain days.
Upon completing my before-takeoff checklist, I announce my intention to take the active runway. Lining up with the centerline, I advance the throttle and off we go. The liftoff is the only event, and I emphasize the “only,” that happens fast in an ultralight. As I accelerate, I can feel the dihedral of the wing grabbing for air. Being right over the centerline, I can immediately determine the drift correction. In an ultralight, the drift correction is sometimes observed to change direction or intensity as the wind can change in mere hundreds of feet in direction and intensity. At any rate, these subtle changes are not always apparent in an enclosed aircraft. Tracking the runway centerline is fairly easy as it is located right beneath my seat. This is all happening at a slow forward pace. It may take some time to get to the end of the 5,300-foot runway — usually two minutes or a little more. Oh, I am aware all runways are not this long, but it does give a comfortable altitude gain for a slow amount of forward gain. This does provide some insurance for a possible engine-out landing on the remaining portion of the runway. If such a naughty thing as this would happen when I reach the end of the runway, I am sufficiently high enough to execute a 180-degree turn and land.
After completing my proper traffic pattern exit in conjunction with communicating my intentions, I head for a less crowded part of the sky. I am operating my ultralight by moving the flight controls in the same manner as the much heavier fixed-wing aircraft that I have just left. Power controls altitude, and pitch controls airspeed. Ailerons and rudder for roll and yaw. These are all just instinctive muscle memory reactions.
Upon your introduction to ultralight flying the most significant difference you will notice compared to basic general aviation is the speed difference. That is what ultralight flying is all about. I maintain that after experiencing this leisurely form of flying you will come to prefer it. Just imagine, the ability to cruise at 35 mph. Imagine how long a certain area remains in your view. One may have flown over a certain area many times in an enclosed aircraft and never observed what you are seeing now. Now add a little upper air wind. I frequently check my Garmin watch for groundspeed readouts. At one time, in very smooth air, I saw a groundspeed of 7 mph. Ladies and gentlemen, it is hard to describe this exhilarating feeling. After all, the Hall airspeed indicator is showing a 35 mph airspeed.
After doing some climbs and glides and several 360-degree turns in both directions and then combining the two maneuvers, I become one with the airplane.
Heading back to the airport I first check the weather on the automated weather observing system frequency. I check for traffic constantly and announce my intentions. I give way to all other air traffic. My favorite approach is an overhead 360 degree. I close my throttle upwind, over the numbers, and begin my descent. I challenge myself to land on the numbers without having to add power. If not the overhead approach, I will enter the pattern on a 45 degree to the downwind and close the throttle abeam the numbers and, again, strive for hitting the numbers without having to add power.
I am usually able to accomplish the above but will never compromise and risk landing short. I always remember that this high-drag, light aircraft can lose speed rather quickly.
As I begin to taxi back to the hangar, I remain vigilant, yielding to other aircraft and always extending proper courtesies. Arriving at my hangar, I have a mini checklist for securing and shutting down the aircraft. Grabbing the tail tube again from the other side, I walk back into the hangar. Securing the wheel chocks in place, I take a seat in one of the hangar chairs and just look at what we, together, were able to accomplish. And what you might be able to begin to enjoy, if you haven’t yet.
Perhaps it’s my 80 years that contribute to my enthusiasm for slow ultralight flight. My feelings for the slower form of personal flight started when fellow pilots began explaining and showing to me the early beginnings of ultralight flight. I observed early on that they were not flimsy aero machines but rather well engineered and crafted. Sitting and looking at it now after that great flight, I recognize that I am right where I need to be. My gal and I, we can handle each other, and you might also like this kind of an arrangement. I really love to be able to fly, and I truly want to encourage ultralight flight. Come on, you all, give it a try.
George Karamitis, EAA 144192, is a retired TWA captain, holds an ATP with B-727 and B-747 type ratings, and has been a CFI for more than 50 years. In 2013, George received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for more than 50 years of accident-, incident-, and citation-free flight.