By Mark Murray, EAA 394554
Rick Hayes was noticing a pattern.
Members would show up for the monthly club meeting, talk business, and enjoy some cookies and coffee. But no airplanes would show up.
“You might have up to a dozen people there [when] a new person walks in, interested in ultralights,” he said. “Well, all they see is a bunch of people talking. A ‘social club.’ No planes flyin’, no place to learn to fly, and you’d never see them again.”
The club that Rick was referring to is the Michigan Ultralight Association (MULA). Based at the Alkay, Michigan, airport (51G), the club had up to 140 members back in the 1980s and 1990s ultralight heyday. As time passed and members aged, membership and activity slowly dwindled.
As club president, Rick, EAA 262014, knew that something needed to be done for the club to survive.
“Where do I get training?” was a constant question put to the club by prospective new members. As is common throughout the United States, there was no local avenue for ultralight training. Rick, and many of his fellow members, knew that flight instruction was the issue to be resolved if the club was going to ever make things happen.
In my last article, I highlighted how an individual can legally provide ultralight instruction. In this one, we’ll add another layer that can possibly also help resolve the lack of ultralight flight instruction: the flying club.
The benefits of a flying club are obvious. You not only get to avoid the complications and cost of buying, hangaring, maintaining, inspecting, and insuring an airplane, but also the cost and responsibility are shared by many like-minded individuals. But how does it help with the lack of ultralight training available?
As noted in the previous article, ultralight-type experimentals are more available and affordable than their special light-sport aircraft counterparts, and they are certainly the preferred trainer for the equivalent Part 103 ultralight. The catch is found in most experimental operating limitations that state that a privately owned experimental is prohibited against “carrying persons or property for hire.” Unfortunately, that includes renting the experimental for instruction. For the individual CFI, that can be resolved with a letter of deviation authority (LODA). However, that’s not necessarily required for a club-owned experimental, such as a Quicksilver, since the airplane isn’t owned by either the student or instructor.
As an ultralight enthusiast, Rick saw an opportunity to revitalize MULA and promote new interest in ultralights. He proposed incorporating ultralight flight instruction as a member benefit. As usual, there was some resistance to change, but by and large the club supported the idea. Rick put his money where his mouth is and donated an M-Squared Breese 2 for dual instruction with the idea that the club would reimburse him when or if it could.
As MULA was already a longstanding corporation, legally adding the training didn’t require much paperwork. Rates, fees, and bylaws were created, and insurance was acquired. Local CFI John von Linsowe was recruited. Rick also donated a single-place ultralight Quicksilver so that students would have an airplane to fly solo as they progressed. Both the Quicksilver and the M-Squared were made available for an hourly rate for club members. New club membership requires paying a one-time initial membership fee, an annual maintenance fee, and the CFI’s fee for dual instruction in the M-Squared. Membership in the local EAA Chapter 77 is also required.
The success has been astounding. Club membership has more than doubled. It’s noteworthy to mention that this all happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. And this is more than just new members in name only. These new members are active. Several students not only took advantage of the ultralight training and the Quicksilver ultralight, but also bought their own ultralight.
Within four months, the club was able to reimburse Rick for the M-Squared by selling off project airplanes that were graciously donated to the club. Before incorporating flight instruction, the club had less than $3,000 in the bank and there was talk of disbanding. At the time of this writing, the club owns now owns the Quicksilver and M-Squared, and its bank balance has increased greatly.
Build Your Ultralight Community
When asked for suggestions for others, Rick said that the “new, young blood” really is what kept things going. And the club has certainly benefited from its new president, Scott Skalski.
An ultralight pilot for only about a year now, Scott was exactly the new blood that Rick had hoped the training program would attract. During our one-hour phone interview, the best term I could think of to describe Scott is “human dynamo.” The energy and passion for all things aviation was evident. With a background in auto sales, he has a way of making everything seem possible.
“Just get out there and do it, man. Nothing will happen until something moves” is his motto. While discussing the usual excuses people have talking themselves out of learning to fly (affordability, smarts, responsibility, etc.), he admitted that he had the same feelings. But Rick, MULA, and a little dual instruction with John cured that. He now owns and flies both a Team Airbike and an Aerolite 103.
While Scott is good with social media and appreciates the attention it brings to MULA, he understands that to succeed, the club must continue to build a “real-life community” (his words). He’s talking about average folks, actual flying activities, and enjoying each other’s company. To that end, he’s hoping to build on the training program by adding additional CFIs and introducing new programs.
In collaboration with Rick, MULA has partnered with Project First Flight (Skonkwerks.org), a Michigan-based organization headed by longtime ultralight enthusiast Lee Fischer. The project promotes the idea of introducing flight through the use of a basic glider tethered to a small ATV ground vehicle. The online videos are impressive. The glider is very slow, super stable, and allowed to climb just a few feet from the surface. Even children can fly it, including Scott’s 11-year-old daughter, Holly. She described the experience as “amazing.” It is hoped that MULA’s involvement can be a springboard toward other clubs and groups using the open-source plans and revitalizing excitement within their own communities.
If that isn’t enough, Scott is also consulting with leaders in the ultralight world about creating an ultralight-based STOL event. The plans aren’t completely finalized, but “UltraSTOL” has all the marks of being fun. Unashamedly copying the success of the STOL competitions around the country, Scott hopes it can possibly invigorate new technology and interest in the sport. For the time being, it’ll probably be a “run what you brung” event, Scott said. Time will tell if there are to be classes or divisions. For now, the point is to get together, have fun, and learn.
If you’re like me, you miss the ultralight popularity of the 1980s and ’90s. Ultralight fly-ins were colorful assortments of noisy contraptions flying around small patterns. People watched just to watch. Spot landings and “bomb drops” were fun to watch as well. And, if you were really competitive, Poker Runs and “racing” were just the ticket.
But like Scott said, “Nothing will happen until something moves.” True, the club model won’t work in every area in every situation. But, how will you know until you try?
Next time, we’ll discuss the adventures of actually owning and flying an ultralight. Until then, “Just get out there and do it, man.”
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, eventually becoming a CFI and an A&P.