By George Karamitis, EAA 144192
I am a happy camper. It has taken a while, but the results are unmistakable. More and more heavy metal pilots are giving the true ultralight a serious look. And, we can ask ourselves, “why is this happening?” How do I know all of this, and just what do I mean by the term “heavy metal pilots?” Oh, I am aware that there will always be a small group of individuals who will make snide remarks about the true ultralight, such as it being nothing more than a lawn chair suspended under a kite. I feel a genuine sadness for these people because they are denying themselves an unbiased investigation.
There is a strong desire to just go up as opposed to going somewhere. Additionally, the desire for this type of flight is not because it’s cheaper, but rather to experience a more basic, wind-in-your-face type of flight. Over a period of time comes the realization from individual research that today’s ultralights are well-engineered vehicles. Let’s not forget the simplicity of the regulating part of the equation, FAR 103, which helps keep regulations to a minimum.
How do I know all of this? Let me share some interesting observations pointing out the positive growth in this type of flight. For the past several years, EAA has given me the opportunity to write articles concerning happenings in the ultralight world. I have also been contributing regularly to my YouTube channel and several Facebook groups. As the result of the many photos and videos I shared on these sites and from the EAA articles that I have written, I have received a lot of feedback. Comments come from a wide range of people. For example, I’ve seen comments from people who flew an ultralight aircraft in the past but gave it up for one reason or another. Now, these people universally regret that decision. Or I’ve seen comments from the many new folks actively flying for an airline or in corporate positions, or people who have their own aircraft, who are seriously giving the ultralight type of flight a serious look.
So, what about these heavy metal pilots, as I like to call them? Who are these folks? Simply stated, they comprise a group of men and women who are active or recently retired professional pilots who want to get involved in ultralight flight. This would include airline, corporate and just plain general aviation pilots. What would I tell them? Get instruction.A good source of information would be local aero clubs. Give EAA a call and ask for the nearest EAA chapters in the area. The folks doing this instruction are good people. Now, let’s be honest here. If you are already a certificated pilot and/or if you are flying professionally, you have the knowledge and experience of just how important seeking instruction actually is and how it makes perfect financial sense in the long run. So, follow your instincts and do the right thing.
The three main differences that I would point out that make ultralight flight different from flying the sleek jets and most general aviation aircraft are the open-cockpit sensation a pilot is introduced to, the slow cruising speed, and the high drag inherent in most ultralight designs. Let’s remember, to legally qualify as an ultralight vehicle the empty weight must not exceed 254 pounds (excluding floats and safety devices), its maximum fuel capacity cannot exceed 5 gallons, and it cannot exceed 55 knots calibrated airspeed at full power in level flight.
First, let us take a look at what out-in-the-open ultralight flight yields. For the new ultralight pilot, this can be the most discomforting at first. However, it will turn into one of the most rewarding aspects of ultralight flight. I recognize that some of us come from a very cluttered cockpit. We got used to all the side panels and overhead switch locations including robust instrument panels. We have taken pride in sitting in various cockpits in different seat positions. I often remark that we flew jets as a casual reference to our proud past. That’s a lot of cross-countries. Now, I have the desire to just go up. So, how does a person get introduced to the wide open? Simply by going up with an instructor in a two-place version of the single-place ultralight you are interested in. I have given many rides in various two-place models of the single-place true ultralight, and I can honestly attest to a value of at least 80-plus percent complete satisfaction. You don’t win them all, but more than 80 percent satisfaction ain’t too shabby.
So, what is it going to be like in that single-place legal ultralight? You going to wonder why it took so long. And I’ll bet that you too will want to keep things simple. For example, on my aircraft, the only engine instrument that I have is a four-in-one mounted off to the side that gives me rotations per minute, exhaust gas temperature, and dual cylinder head temperature. Mounted on the other side is a Hall airspeed indicator, which is a ram air instrument. The only thing in front of you will be your feet on the pedals, and you will think out loud how there can be no other way to fly.
Now let’s examine the speed factor. First of all, ultralight aircraft by law are restricted to a max level flight speed of 55 knots, which is a bit over 63 mph. My 1983 MX cruises around 30-35 mph. The only time one gets that slow in most fixed-wing aircraft is while in a stall. Here again, you will, in quick time, really begin to enjoy this slow, safe movement through the sky. When pulling the power back in an ultralight there is no coast factor like one would experience in the sleek jets or other aircraft. I can remember going max cruise speed in one of the Boeing jets up to the barber pole and smoothly closing the throttles. It could take up to 7-8 miles just to get down to 250 knots. In an ultralight, like my MX, cruising 30-35 and closing the throttles decreases the speed rapidly to a stall speed of 16 mph.
Ladies and gentlemen, here again, I can guarantee you will become totally immersed in this time dimension. Even J-3 Cub pilots have remarked how the cruising speed of some ultralights is half what they’re used to. You will observe things on the ground that you never saw before. And for us older pilots who are always remarking how fast time moves, the ultralight aircraft puts us in a different time speed dimension. Life itself slows way down, and, when one is already 80 years old, that’s not too bad.
Now, let’s take a look at the drag issue. Big jet transports, smaller corporate jets, and most general aviation aircraft are designed for sleekness and minimal drag. Less drag equals more speed and less fuel burn. Compare this to the ultralight vehicle that has multiple appendages protruding into the airstream including a human body wholly or partially exposed depending on the model. These high-drag-producing appendages account for the slow cruise speed that I consider an advantage.
Remember the coast factor that I mentioned earlier? There is no coast factor in an ultralight. In an ultralight, there is no such delay. To begin with, the ultralight is already at a slow cruise speed, and when closing the throttle with all of these drag items, the airspeed falls off rapidly and a higher sink rate develops. When I decrease a throttle setting, I automatically push forward on the sick to keep the airspeed up. The old truth that pitch controls airspeed and power controls altitude must be acknowledged. I repeatedly practice cutting the power abeam the touchdown point and landing. One can also practice keeping a small amount of power on and landing a little farther down the runway. An ultralight uses so little runway for both landing and takeoff that if I lose power shortly after takeoff, my emergency landing area is usually straight ahead on the remaining runway. The best thing to do is to give yourself various options so you are totally satisfied. I always do.
I had various machines with a pod or, in one case, a larger bubble for a two-place ultralight, but I returned to the wide openness of the 1983 Quicksilver MX. Pilots are serious folks. I am glad to see this movement coming. Soon pilots will be proud to have their picture taken when sitting in a plain, wide-open ultralight. No side panels, no overhead circuit breaker panels, no front instrument panel, just your feet on the pedals. I know I am, and I know you will be, too. Don’t forget to smile.
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.