By Mark Murray, EAA 394554
If you follow my articles, you know that I write a lot about ultralight flight instruction. Unfortunately, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, so to speak, is the lack of readily available ultralight flight instruction. Compared to the good old days of the ultralight training exemption, finding a qualified instructor takes quite a bit of effort. Why is that?
First off, ultralights don’t fit very well into the “normal” flight instruction world. That world is dominated by regulations, airplanes certified to certain governmental standards, and flight instructors who become comfortable working within that system. The system works well for the most part and has become somewhat self-sustaining. When new instructors join the workforce, their employers basically know what to expect from them, the insurance companies know the profit-versus-risk ratios to work with, and the government is tuned to oversee it all. This isn’t meant to knock that system, but to explain the differences.
From the start, ultralights are different; they’re not even acknowledged as an aircraft but rather as a vehicle in U.S. Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 103. I’m more of a “if it walks like a duck” kind of guy, but I understand the need for the difference. There are varying opinions on why the FAA took this stance on the definition of an ultralight, but the result was that it opened up an incredible freedom that allowed flight in very simple airplanes, as well as other types of aircraft.
But those differences also make finding, and providing, flight instruction difficult. Let’s look at what’s currently involved in providing ultralight flight instruction. First we’ll look at the effort required by an independent instructor.
So, who can provide ultralight instruction? As regulations stand in the United States, to provide compensated dual flight instruction, a person must be a certificated flight instructor (CFI), and that person needs to be certificated at least at the sport pilot level. And yes, a CFI can provide ultralight instruction. How is that legal? FAR 61.413(a) says that “you are authorized, within the limits of your certificate and rating, to provide training and endorsements that are required for, and relate to … (a certain certificate, rating, or privilege).” FAR 61.193(a) reads similar. And any good CFI will do just that. But, we aren’t expected to be mind readers. What students choose to do with their instruction is entirely up to them. Do they want to take what they learned and use it to fly an ultralight? That’s their call. (Note: As instruction proceeds, CFIs will need to help their students meet certain requirements needed to apply for whichever certificate is sought. Still, the choice to fly an ultralight that doesn’t require any certificate is ultimately up to the students.)
For the most part, pre-solo skills and the knowledge needed in ultralight flying and legally required for certified airplane operation are the same. FAR 61.87(b) sets forth that to be approved for solo, the student must have knowledge of applicable FARs, “airspace rules and procedures for the airport where the solo flight will be performed” and “flight characteristics and operational limitations for the make and model of aircraft to be flown.” Further down, 61.87(d), spells out the “maneuvers and procedures” taught to ensure safe solo flight; basically everything needed to safely plan and execute a flight in any sort of aircraft. All of that is beneficial to an aspiring ultralight pilot. Obviously, any conscientious CFI is going to attempt to prepare students for the type of flying they’re contemplating, and if ultralights are the goal, there’s no regulation that states that a CFI can’t teach them about FAR Part 103. Sure, Parts 61 and 91 need to be discussed, but all pilots need to be aware of all the FARs, the regulations that dictate flight in both certified aircraft and uncertificated aircraft. That comes in pretty handy for any type of pilot, especially since both are allowed in the sky. And no, there’s no such thing as a solo endorsement for an ultralight, and it’s not legally required.
In short, the instruction will actually be logged as certified dual instruction, even if ultralights are the goal. The logged dual never “expires,” so if your students decide later to pursue a certificate, they are that much ahead. That’s a nice improvement over the old training exemption.
Next, the instructor needs to provide an airplane for instruction. While a fixed-wing GA type airplane (think Cessna 150) or a typical sport trainer (think Evektor SportStar) does share the same basic aerodynamics as a fixed-wing ultralight, the differences are significant enough that training in such will only partially prepare someone for ultralight flight. That’s much better than no training, but still, it’s not the same. So, a serious CFI bent toward ultralights will need to teach in an airplane that more closely resembles the ultralight the student plans to fly. “What’s the big deal?” you ask. “There are plenty of two-seat Quicksilvers, Challengers, and similar available. Why not just use one of those?” That leads to the next problem.
There were a handful of ultralight-type airplanes certified in the special light-sport category in the United States that are legal to use for compensated flight instruction, but they are difficult to find. If you do find one, expect it to be much more expensive to purchase than a comparable airplane in a different category. On the other hand, there are thousands of two-seat ultralight types found in the experimental category, and they are generally more affordable. In the United States, to provide one of these for compensated flight instruction, ultralight instruction or otherwise, requires a special letter of deviation authority (LODA) issued by the FAA. Unfortunately, you are at the mercy of a local flight standards district office to obtain one, and currently they can be difficult to receive. (This type of LODA is not to be confused with the LODAs issued for an individual to obtain instruction in a privately owned experimental aircraft. Those can be much easier to obtain.)
Once that hurdle is cleared, now the CFI has to foot the bill for maintenance, inspections, repair, consumables, and hangar fees. And don’t get me started on insurance. Just basic liability insurance can be almost impossible to find for an experimental being used for instruction. If you do find it, expect to lighten your wallet a bit.
All this is not to say that ultralight instruction is impossible to find, but to explain why it’ll take some effort, and probably travel, to find what you’re looking for. The good news is that EAA, and the EAA Ultralight & Light-Sport Aircraft Council (ULSAC) are on the case. Jim Pfarr, EAA Lifetime 1090432, current chairman of the ULSAC, confirmed that they are “actively making efforts to expand ultralight training and make it more accessible.” Also, EAA maintains a list of LODA holders and others willing to provide instruction. If you’re reading this as a potential student, before giving up, find someone on this list whose training airplane most closely matches the ultralight you desire to fly. It may require a little travel, but try to think of it more as an adventure than a hassle. Remember, flight instruction is one of the most valuable investments you can make.
Seen in the big picture, this all adds up to a considerable undertaking by an individual who wants to provide ultralight instruction. But, it’s sort of like the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Becoming a CFI at the sport pilot level is probably not as hard as you think. If you’re a “good stick,” you won’t have any problem with the flying portion of the checkride. Yes, there are two written test, but there are several online resources to help with these. You do need to learn how to teach. That’s probably the biggest task of all: learning how to relate your knowledge to students in a logical manner. A good instructor for your CFI will make all the difference. If you’re already a CFI, you’re halfway there. Now you need an ultralight-type aircraft and maybe a LODA if it’s experimental. For assistance with that, contact Timm Bogenhagen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you can’t obtain a LODA, all is not lost. If you’re willing to teach in a student-owned experimental, you’ll find plenty to do, ultralight or otherwise.
No, you won’t get rich teaching ultralights, and that’s not the point. But if you care about the future of this sport, give it some thought. If you’re a retired CFI but you miss the challenge, I promise you’ll find it here. Oh, and did I mention it can be a lot of fun, too?
Next month we’ll look at another avenue of promoting ultralights through training: the ultralight flying club.
Mark Murray, EAA 394554, of Georgetown, Georgia, was always fascinated by airplanes, and then 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.