By Mark Murray, EAA 394554
Pete was my first student. We joke that I taught him to how to fly and he taught me to how to teach. I’m glad to say he was an excellent, determined student, and he progressed well. But, we had a problem early on. His patterns and approaches were very good. And the initial round-out to landing was under control. But as he would raise the nose to flare, everything would fall apart.
As a green instructor, you’re never really sure if it’s you or the student. So, after a couple of hours of not-so-graceful arrivals to terra firma, I was starting to doubt my teaching technique. After mentally reviewing everything, it became obvious that I was the problem, or at least I was adding to it.
As we would transition from the round-out to the flare, I was throwing Pete some weird clues. On one try I’d say “pull back,” on the next I’d say “hold off,” and then on the next I’d tell him to “stick back.” Once I guessed this was the problem, I asked Pete and he confirmed. He never could understand if I was asking for a control stick or throttle adjustment. Once we nailed this down, I concentrated more on my choice of words, and the landings became much better.
The idea that communication needs to be clear is certainly not new. What is relatively new is the internet and social media. This “information age” that we all find ourselves in is great in many respects and dangerous in others. Good or bad, we all take advantage of the internet in one way or another. Even if you’re not a Facebook user, chances are you’ve Googled recently to learn how to fix something around the house, identify a bug, or explain why your dog circles three times before he picks a good nap spot. You know, important stuff.
I confess that I follow way too many aviation sites, social media or otherwise. There’s just so much cool stuff out there. It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to research an out-of-production ultralight design, or learn more about a one-off experimental at Oshkosh back in the 1970s, you had to head off to the library and go through the microfiche files. And that’s assuming the library even carried the publication you were looking for. Later, as digital storage improved, we started to have aviation-related databases. That was great, but now it’s information overload. You can actually easily communicate with builders and pilots firsthand.
But, of course, there is a flip side. You have to be really careful. I think it’s fair to say that everyone knows the danger of believing everything you see online. But what we may sometimes forget is that how we say something, or how we use a certain term or expression, adds to the confusion. Just like with my friend Pete, I’ve learned to choose my words carefully online. I still fail sometimes. The following are a few of my personal terminology pet peeves found online.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve approached and landed at an airport, calling in as “Experimental 123A” the whole way, just to be asked how I like my “ultralight.” I’m not sure why it bothers me. It’s certainly not because I have anything against ultralights. And, it’s true that my Challenger is built similarly and resembles an ultralight. So, if it’s a matter of confusion on the questioning one’s part, that’s understandable. I guess it’s because I see my Challenger as a light, experimental airplane more than anything else.
The word “ultralight” gets thrown around loosely, as do the terms “experimental” and “light sport.” When it comes up in normal conversation with nonpilots, it’s usually just confusion about the subject, and many times it’s just curiosity. Nothing wrong with that. But it still surprises me how many people I meet who are surprised I have a pilot certificate, much less an instructor certificate. I guess they feel only people without a certificate would fly what they consider “ultralights.” I guess I don’t play the part very well. Maybe I need to grow a mustache.
But when that level of confusion exists among pilots, well, that’s somewhat inexcusable. Now, we’re going to give you some slack if your day job is burning Jet A while talking to strangers on ATC. We understand you’ve got plenty to keep up with already. But recreational aviators, GA or otherwise, should be a little more informed. Over the years, I’ve learned a couple of ways to help my students understand the difference. The terms “ultralight” and “experimental” refer to the aircraft (or vehicle, technically). The term “light sport” can refer to the aircraft and the pilot. Clear as mud, right?
For the official definition of an ultralight just Google FAR Part 103 if your FAR/AIM isn’t handy. Here’s where you find the legal United States “applicability” of the word: 254 pounds empty, 5 gallons of fuel max, and a stall speed of no more than 24 knots, and a max speed of no more than 55 knots. That’s the easy part. In most FAR/AIMs it’s only a couple of pages. That’s remarkable. Think of the freedom that the lack of additional rules imply. There’s no limitation on what type of “vehicle” it is — fixed-wing, flex-wing, parachute, rotor — doesn’t matter. Maybe you’ve got a lifting device that doesn’t even require a wing. No restriction here. Want something other than a gas engine? Here you go.
The confusion is when we start using the term “ultralight” more as a description of a particular type of plane. For example, the Wright Flyer and a Pitts Special are both biplanes. To the common person, the fact that both planes have two wings may be all they notice. But to most pilots, they’d know they are two radically different airplanes. The same happens when we call both a Quicksilver MX and a light-sport BushCat an “ultralight.” Umm, not exactly.
Throw social media into the mix, and it gets real crazy. Sometimes a post will only address one type of ultralight, say powered paragliders, and the conversation will go off the rails when information from fixed-wing ultralights is added. Also, sometimes we forget that the legal definition of the term “ultralight” has different meanings in different countries. In Canada, for example, an ultralight has subcategories, much heavier aircraft are allowed, and permits are required.
The same confusion is common with experimental amateur-built aircraft. They are simply kitbuilt or plansbuilt airplanes (with some exceptions) with a special airworthiness certificate in the United States. Yes, they can look very “ultralight-y,” but they can also be aerial hot rods, multipassenger cross-country cruisers, and warbird replicas. In the United States, they require a pilot certificate. Another subcategory of special airworthiness certificates are known as “light-sport.” If that’s not confusing enough, there are also separate special light-sport aircraft (S-LSA) and experimental light-sport aircraft (E-LSA) categories. In the United States, light-sport aircraft can be flown by sport pilots, as well as pilots holding higher certificates.
In the United States, a person can own a Part 103-legal ultralight (let’s say a Quicksilver, for example) or choose to certify it as an experimental in either the amateur-built or light-sport categories (depending on how it came to be). And, there were a few S-LSA Quicksilvers built by the factory. All of these airplanes/vehicles will look very ultralight-y, but only one is truly an ultralight by definition.
If you think you’re confused, imagine how someone feels that’s new to the sport. What’s the first thing you do when you want to learn something new? Online research, right? Now imagine sorting through all the available solid information, plus all the sketchy social media stuff.
Fly It ‘All the Way’?
For better or worse, social media has become the ultimate venue for “hangar flying.” In person, it can be a lot of fun. Online, it can be confusing at best. Here again, some of the confusion originates from use of certain words and phrases.
When describing how to land light, draggy airplanes, one expression we hear a lot is “fly it all the way” to the landing. For a moment, try to think about how confusing that statement must be to a new student or interested one. Fly it all the way? Umm, as opposed to not flying it through the landing? Doesn’t sound very smart. But experienced pilots understand this expression. Very much like wheel landings in taildraggers, it implies landing a little faster, not flaring quite as high, and using the extra speed to help keep everything under control. We understand that you may not be quite as close to stall at the moment you touch down.
I think I understand where the expression comes from. Working out a beautifully timed, nose-high “greaser” may be as close to art as many pilots will ever get. It gives one a feeling of mastery over that part of flight. Touching down faster almost seems like cheating (except in those cases where it’s the only thing that’s keeping the airplane under control). Many times, it’s the best option. And, after an hour or two of flying the airplane around, it feels like you simply flew it to the ground and then let gravity and drag takeover. Because, basically, you did. You flew it all the way through the landing.
Another expression that causes problems is describing an airplane as a “rudder airplane.” That’s got to be really confusing, especially since most planes have rudders. Many years ago, as a private student, I remember the opposite confusion, when I incorrectly decided that the little Cessna could basically be driven about like a car using the yoke, with little or no rudder input. It appeared to me that airplanes must be “aileron airplanes,” depending on ailerons more than anything for banking and turning. My private instructor tried his best to correct me, but I just couldn’t visualize the aerodynamics involved, and I really struggled with crosswinds.
You can understand why someone with that background would find anything else, especially ultralights and many sport aircraft, to be “rudder airplanes” or “rudder dominant” airplanes. I simply wasn’t in the habit of using my feet to turn the plane in a coordinated manner. I remember my ultralight instructor in a two-place Quicksilver teaching me to lead the turn with rudder. That isn’t necessarily correct either. In all airplanes, where the ailerons and rudder work independently (we’ll let you Ercoupe guys off the hook), aileron and rudder usage must be used together in such a way that the tail perfectly follows the nose through the arc of the turn if we’re going to call it a coordinated turn. Period. Doesn’t matter if it’s a “rudder dominant” or “aileron dominant” airplane.
My ultralight instructor could only work with what he had. With less than 100 hours’ flight time in mostly Cessnas, the “lead with rudder” instruction started to train my brain. Before long I began to understand the true process.
If a new student is reading this, he or she may be as confused as ever, and that’s unfortunate. But that can be fixed with some solid flight instruction. Hangar flying, online or not, is great, but nothing is as good as the real thing.
Pete forgave me, fortunately. And, I’m glad to say we both learned a lot from my time instructing him. He gained a sport pilot certificate, and I gained a lot of real-world teaching experience. No, you won’t always choose exactly the right word to say at exactly the right time. But giving a little thought to the process, pausing and thinking it through, being willing to explain in more detail, and adjusting your approach if needed will go a long way.
Mark Murray, EAA 394554, of Georgetown, Georgia, was always fascinated by airplanes. He discovered ultralights thanks to an article published in National Geographic in 1983. In 2008, he earned his light-sport repairman maintenance rating and turned his hobby into a business.