By Mark Murray, EAA 394554
This piece originally ran in the March 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
It may sound a little harsh, but finding the perfect ultralight or sport airplane can be difficult, if not impossible. It’s sort of like buying a car. Your first thought is “I need something with good fuel economy.” Then, after looking at what’s available in that market, you realize that you occasionally need to haul the kids or grandkids around as well, so you run down that rabbit hole. After researching all the small minivans that are good on gas, you realize that your carport is a little small for your first choice.
People attack these types of decisions with different viewpoints. For some, the above scenario would be just the beginning of an exciting treasure hunt. Others, such as myself, get so bogged down in the details that we lose interest. And some will get so hung up on one imagined necessary detail that they will totally block out any other options. In reality, those who finally purchase an airplane will be those who find the best overall compromise.
For me, when it comes to flying, the first and foremost criteria is safety. Yes, that’s a general term that deserves an article all to itself, and then some. But a few basic pointers will get you headed in the right direction. First, the design needs a solid history and good support, either by the manufacturer (an established kit plane company) or a community (think plansbuilt Pietenpol). Next, I need to know some background about the airplane itself, such as the builder, history, modifications, etc. And not to be forgotten are the skills needed to fly it. If I don’t have that skill, can I obtain it?
Second for me is affordability. Note I didn’t say “cheap.” You’ll never see me fly a cheap airplane. Why do I say that? Because they really don’t exist — at least not if it still meets the safe criteria. There are affordable airplanes out there, but to keep them safe and airworthy cost someone money and effort, so I don’t consider them cheap. To me, the term cheap means almost free, and in my experience those airplanes are almost always nonflying projects. You can find some sweetheart deals in the cheap category, but I promise they won’t seem so cheap by the time you’ve invested your efforts and money into making it a safe — and possibly “affordable” — airplane.
The term “affordability” means so much more than just the purchase price. How much will repair parts run? How much is the insurance (if desired)? What is the fuel burn rate? (If you’re loaded, you can skip this paragraph, but we’re glad you’re here.) Many of us come up with a cost per hour rate to help us budget. Even that is a somewhat complex issue. For example, as an A&P mechanic, I’ve been offered partnerships on GA airplanes like Cessna 172s. No upfront cost for me, but I’m responsible for all maintenance, all year, and assisting the A&P/IA with annual inspections. At first, it sounds awesome, and if I didn’t already have an airplane, I’d probably do it. But realistically, how often do I need a Cessna to go somewhere? My Challenger takes care of all my fun-flying desires. There have been occasions when the need for faster transport lined up with good weather, but not often. Usually, it’s just more realistic to make the trip on the road. So, yes, the per hour rate would be low, but is it really worth the yearlong effort? With my Challenger, the hourly rate is so low that I don’t even think about it; it’s fun, and it’s just barely fast enough to make short pleasure trips. It’s the best of all worlds.
Closely associated with affordability and making purchase decisions are hangar costs and availability. This was a big one for a transition student I had recently.
Make It Real
Usually, my transition students are interested only in learning to fly and maintaining the airplane. However, in this case, the student added another level. He had a short potential runway in his backyard and could build a hangar on it. Also, he knew of a local Challenger II for sale. Could he safely fly out of it with this Challenger?
Questions like those are often somewhat unanswerable because there’s not enough information available to give an answer that’s much more than a best guess. For example, long-wing or clip-wing Challenger? Heavy or light? What engine? How tall are the trees? What sort of surface? How short is this short runway? In this case, we did have some solid specs to work with. The Challenger he was looking at was basically identical to my trainer, a 503-powered long-wing. His turf strip is 1,000 feet, with trees on both ends, roughly the same height as those just to the west of the south end of Runway 36 at my home base, Lower Chattahoochee Regional Airport (25J) in Cuthbert, Georgia.
So, we set up a test. We decided to imagine that his trees were at the south end of Runway 36. At the fifth runway edge light, which is 1,000 feet from the south end, we placed a big, white 3-gallon plastic jug well off the edge of the runway. It would be easily visible from altitude. That symbolized his other tall trees.
Field elevation was 460 feet, and density altitude was 1,100 feet. For the first test, the student was onboard and our gross weight was about 940-945 pounds. We had about a 5-knot headwind, and we were operating on a paved runway without a slope.
To judge height, we simply looked to our left and judged our altitude in relationship to the trees to our left. It was pretty easy on departure to look over and tell if we’d clear trees or not. Landing was, too, but setting up an approach to clear imaginary trees took some concentration.
Heavy, we cleared the imaginary trees on takeoff, but not by a comfortable margin. Maybe by only 50 feet.
On my first landing attempt, I made two mistakes. First, I didn’t control my approach speed as well as I should have. Also, out of habit, I tried to work out a gentle, nose-high touchdown. I blew past the 1,000 feet just as I touched down. My second attempt went much better. I slowed and controlled the approach better, allowed the airplane to touch down sooner, and stopped at about 800 feet. Ground roll was probably less than 300 feet.
Next, my student got out, and I got in the front seat. As you’d guess, I cleared the imaginary trees easily, maybe by 200-300 feet. On landing, my approach speed was slower, but it was slightly gusty, so I didn’t get as slow as possible. Once I cleared the imaginary trees, I slipped hard, but briefly, and then worked out the landing as short as possible. The Challenger II floats like crazy when you’re solo, and I was still carrying a bit too much speed. Still, I hit the brakes hard and stopped at 800 feet. Shorter is possible as I’ve done it before, but I think this was enough to give the student an idea.
What did we learn? Well, heavy, my Challenger might possibly handle a 1,000-foot paved runway with trees of this height, in these conditions. But the margins were too close. Change just one variable, and it wouldn’t work. And, keep in mind that his runway is turf, compared to our pavement. That alone is enough to say it wouldn’t work on his strip. Solo is a different scenario. Takeoff was easy. Landing took concentration. Landing solo in really gusty conditions into such a tight spot could almost be impossible to do safely. And again, we were on pavement compared to his turf runway. So, our final answer was that, with this particular airplane and variables, this shouldn’t be attempted dual, and could be tricky solo.
Another takeaway from this exercise was the value of a clear approach/departure path. A clear approach on just one end would be a huge improvement. Also not to be forgotten is the value of an available emergency landing zone on the departure end. That simply doesn’t exist on his 1,000-foot runway until you clear the trees.
I really applaud this student’s mindset regarding this potential purchase. He did the research and invested in some real-world experience. Now he was really prepared to move forward. He lost out on purchasing that particular Challenger, but he’s much better informed now. He could find another design that may handle his strip better, or maybe he could clear the trees from at least one end. Or maybe the Challenger is a good choice, but it needs to be flown out of a longer runway.
Have Fun With It
If you are in the market, try not to get too bogged down with the details at first. Yes, have some basic criteria in mind, but be willing to look at all options. Be willing to adjust some of the criteria if possible. For example, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to fly out of his backyard. But are you willing to let that one detail keep you from flying at all? Look around for real-world experiences to help make the decisions.
If, in the end, you find that your initial dream airplane wasn’t what you ended up with, take heart. It could be worse; you could be driving the kids around in a minivan.
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, eventually becoming a CFI and an A&P mechanic.