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EAA Experimenter

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From the Editor

Ultralights! And Related Ramblings

By Patrick Panzera, EAA 555743

Pat Panzera
Herb Tipton and Pat Panzera prepare to launch in the M-Squared S-LSA flagship.

My favorite pastime at Sun ’n Fun is to hang out at Paradise City and watch the ultralight traffic after a long day in the CONTACT! Magazine booth. Although I don’t own an ultralight and have not spent more than maybe an hour total aloft in one, I just can’t help loving primary flight. If I could strap wings to my arms and flap my way above terra firma, that’s the way I would do it.

A few years back, while at Paradise City, I had a chance reunion with an old friend I hadn’t seen since late 1978. Herbert Tipton was my boss (and chief tow pilot) back when I was a scrawny teenaged lineboy at the old El Mirage Soaring Center. I had a crush on his daughter, but Herb carried a Ruger .45, so I knew my place. Fast-forward almost 30 years and Herb is still in aviation, this time as a flight instructor for M-Squared Aircraft giving introductory flights at Sun ’n Fun. Always looking for an opportunity to go flying, I managed to score some stick time with Herb in the pattern over Paradise City. What a great way to catch up with an old, dear friend!

Taxi into position
Taxi into position and hold.

Short final
On short final to Paradise City, Herb on the controls as Pat mans the camera.

At sundown, everyone comes home to roost.

One thing I’ve always admired about the ultralight community is its grassroots ingenuity, going all the way back before FAR 103. People who wanted to fly on a budget found a way to do it. Some historians will say that the ultralight sport was born when hang glider pilots strapped small engines to their Rogallo wing ships and maneuvered by weight-shift.
By the mid-1970s, innovators started purpose-building ultralights as opposed to strapping engines on other designs. Although they still used wire bracing and usually single-surface wings like their predecessors, most of these newer designs had two-axis control systems, operated by stick or yoke that controlled both elevators and rudders. With vast amounts of dihedral, ailerons were just added weight and complexity. A few of these two-axis designs incorporated differential spoilers in lieu of ailerons and moved the rudder control to pedals. A few successful designs made it to market, the Pterodactyl and the Quicksilver MX come to mind.

Some would say that the third generation are those with strut-braced or even cantilevered wings and airframe structure; one of my favorites in this category is the Goldwing, as it uses composite construction and features a canard and an open cockpit. The Goldwing is followed by the Hummel UltraCruiser as my next favorite. Nearly all modern ultralights use three-axis controls unless they are weight-shift, which usually means trike.

But I’m not writing this as a history lesson. I’m writing this because of the comments I’ve been hearing (or reading) concerning the “death” of ultralights. I’ve had more than one person try to convince me that ultralights as we’ve come to know them are dying or are dead already, partly because of the new sport pilot regulations that “got rid of” two-place ultralights (there are about a million things wrong with that statement, but I’ll let them go for now), but also because Rotax is seemingly getting away from two-stroke engine offerings, certainly the 447 and the 503.

The things that bother me the most about either of these lines of thinking is, where is the ingenuity, the grassroots need to fly that got us to where we are now? Because Rotax isn’t making a particular engine any longer, the whole industry needs to fold? There must be dozens of alternative engines on the market today that can replace just about any popular engine in current use. Have we become that lazy that unless we can order a kit on the Internet we are incapable of moving forward with our projects and dreams?

Imagine where ultralights (and even experimental aviation for that matter) would be today if the innovators of the late 1970s had the same engine options and the plethora of material choices that we have today. And these options are growing almost daily. I’m actually embarrassed for people who can’t see this—those who have become dependant on certain resources rather than their own resourcefulness.

But all is not lost. When people like Randall Fishman of ElectraFlyer fame take the initiative and strap a wheelchair motor and some lithium polymer batteries to his weight-shift ultralight trike, I have a renewed faith. But at the same time I have to ask, why is he the only one doing it? Randall debuted his trike in mid-2007 and has been to AirVenture and Sun ’n Fun each year since. Last year at Sun ’n Fun, he showed up with a Moni motorglider that was ready for flight testing.



This year I watched (not heard) the ElectraFlyer pass overhead at the campgrounds. I swear I could hear the aileron and rudder gaps whistling louder than his engine/prop combination. But before someone corrects me and says that someone else is doing it—specifically Sonex—I have to disagree. Although it debuted its e-Flight Initiative at the same AirVenture where Randall flew his accomplishment, the website shows the latest progress as being ground tests of the motor and controller back in December of 2008. Nothing flying as of yet. So waiting for corporate concerns may not make the cut, but then again, that’s not what started the ultralight movement anyhow, it was the “I can do it” spirit that Randall has shown.

But where are the hordes of innovators bringing their version of electric-powered aircraft to the big events? Randall has proven it will work; why aren’t there others out there following his lead and taking it to the next level? If enough of us get to experimenting, like what was done in the decades before, maybe ultralights will enter the fourth generation.

And with that, I’d like to see Experimenter become the repository for innovations, accomplishments, trials, and tribulations. We need your stories, and quite frankly, I need a point person for this. As stated in the beginning of this rambling, I have a love for ultralights, but I’m neither an ultralight pilot nor historian. I need someone to be that person for this publication, someone who not only is in the trenches, but has been there for some time, someone who has an eye for what can work and what might fail, someone who goes to the events and can sort the wheat from the chaff and bring article fodder on a regular basis.

If you think this is something you can do, I’d like to hear from you. If it’s not your cup of tea, but you have ideas for articles or have maybe recently seen something of interest, please let me know. I want to be able to include at least one ultralight article in each issue of Experimenter, and I can’t do that without your help.

I look forward to hearing from you, especially if you are interested in being the ultralight liaison for this eNewsletter.

Thank you,

Pat Panzera

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