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Buying That First Ultralight

By Dennis Demeter, EAA 357735

Phantom
Dennis Demeter’s Phantom

In years past, I’ve been asked to visit ultralight fly-ins and safety seminars to give a presentation to folks who are just getting into ultralight flying. That presentation had seemed to go by the wayside as interest and focus shifted toward light-sport aircraft, but now it appears that a new interest in the virtues of Part 103 privileges is indeed beginning to emerge. It seems that every month, a new Part 103 compliant ultralight is unveiled, and the new technologies emerging in the field of electric power are making this an interesting time in the sport.

Too many folks have been discouraged from joining our fold because of a few bad experiences that convinced them the sport is unsafe or too much hassle. Most of the time, these bad experiences would not have happened if the person had taken the time to do some homework and preparation prior to buying his first ultralight. The first question any newcomer to our sport must ask himself is: “What questions should I be asking?” Too often folks come into this sport with unrealistic expectations of aerial adventure and bliss, only to be discouraged by some of the realities they never considered. The first thing I tell folks is to get out a dictionary and look up these words: commitment and discipline.

Commitment
As cute as they appear, as harmless as they look, as fun as they are, as simple as they may be - an ultralight is an aircraft. They fly for all the same reasons real airplanes fly, and they also crash for all the same reasons, too. Pilot error is still the biggest reason for mishaps - even if that mishap was precipitated by an engine failure, the actual crash is usually accounted to the pilot not being in control of his aircraft. This means that more than in almost any other motor sport, the operator of an ultralight is held to a higher standard of skill and ability. If you are just getting interested in ultralights and sport aviation, you must realize that to do it right, and safely, you must be willing to make some serious commitments. You cannot consider an ultralight in the same light as a boat, motorcycle, snowmobile, personal watercraft, or any other type of motorized recreational vehicle. The ultralight flies - and that raises the stakes considerably. Before you commit to aviation you must first commit to:

  • Receiving the proper training, no matter the cost or inconvenience.
  • Continuing to update your skills and knowledge for the rest of your life as a pilot.
  • Learning all you can about airframes, aerodynamics, FAA rules and regulations, navigation, two-cycle engines, and more - for the rest of your life.
  • Maintaining your aircraft to the highest standards - a commitment of time and dollars.

Discipline
More than any other common motor sport, the pilot of an ultralight must exercise discipline over himself. Because the stakes are higher, flying can be terribly unforgiving of acts of impulsive­ness, recklessness, carelessness, ignorance, and neglect.

That means having the self-discipline not to fly when:

  • The winds are greater than your current flying skills can handle.
  • The aircraft is not airworthy, for any reason.
  • You are not mentally or physically airworthy. That means sick, hungover, drugged, drunk, depressed, or angry to name just a few no-fly aeromedical conditions.

Or if you are flying, having the self-discipline not to:

  • Attempt a maneuver that is beyond your or the aircraft’s ability.
  • Perform a maneuver that is reckless or could appear reckless to those on the ground. (Buzzing, for example.)
  • Fly in weather conditions that could be hazardous, no matter how bad you want to get home.

If you are unable or unwilling to make these commitments and exercise these disciplines, I might suggest golf as an alternative sport.

To a person looking into this sport for the first time, all ultralights are the same. They have no idea of differences between the various models or even the difference between ultralights and airplanes. Therefore, the next step is to understand the reality of the current state of the regulations and the sport.

An ultralight is a vehicle that happens to fly and

  • Has only one seat for one person.
  • Weighs less than 254 pounds empty.
  • Carries 5 gallons of fuel or less.
  • Flies no faster than 63 mph straight and level at full power.

If the aircraft you are looking at exceeds any of these limitations, it is not an ultralight as far as the FAA is concerned. It is true that these days it is darn hard to find a legal ultralight. It is true that 90 percent of the ultralights you see are being flown illegally. It is true that many of the kits being sold as legal ultralights are so close to the weight limit that they will be over if you add a compass. We know it, the FAA knows it, and now you know it, too. You must ask yourself these questions: “Am I willing to live outside the law if I buy this aircraft? Do I want to be looking over my shoulder all the time?” If the answers are no, then be careful about what you are buying or get a pilot certificate and buy a registered aircraft.

You must first understand that there are no two-seat ultralights. Any aircraft with two seats must be a registered, N-numbered airplane. Many two-seat ultralights that were used for training before the transition period were not registered as experimental light-sport aircraft (E-LSA). These aircraft are now what we mournfully refer to in this industry as lawn ornaments. Most cannot be modified to comply with Part 103, and there is no practical or convenient way to bring them into legal status now that the E-LSA transitional deadline has come and gone. Yet, they are out there, at garage sales, on Craigslist, and even on some aviation websites. Some have fictitious N-numbers on them to avoid detection when in use. You must know what you are buying and how to determine that aircraft’s legal status.

The next question to consider: “Where will I keep and fly my ultralight?” Most ultralights are covered with Dacron, which is susceptible to rapid deterioration due to exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Severe weather risks the health and value of an ultralight, so outdoor storage is out of the question. If you can find a hangar to rent at a local airport, can you afford it? Airports both public and private have policies on the types of aircraft they will allow to be based at the facility. For more information, contact EAA for guidance.

Should you be left with only your backyard as your base of operations, what will your neighbors think of your new avocation? Go talk to them honestly and frankly. The object is to keep your neighbors from calling the township or county authorities. Generally, the township or county will take no action concerning your flying activities unless it receives complaints, or unless it already has ordinances pertaining to aircraft on private property. Make quiet inquiries as to what those restrictions are. Remember, most ordinances relate to the operation of airplanes from private property, and a legal ultralight is not an airplane.

The next question to ask with regard to backyard airfields is: “Can I operate from this location safely?”Considerations beyond the basic questions of runway length are:

  • Height and location of obstacles, such as trees, wires, towers, etc.
  • Location and proximity to private property, housing, or public lands.
  • Location of available off-field landing sites when your engine quits during takeoff.
  • Location and proximity to private and public use airports.

Ultralight engines can and do quit - usually at the worst possible time (like during takeoff) - and you must consider where you will be and where you will be going when that happens. If the only options available to you for forced landing sites are houses, trees, or schoolyards, then you must cross your backyard off the list of flying sites, or put the ol’ homestead up for sale and start looking for land out in the country.

If your backyard is still viable, the above factors will be the biggest considerations in your decision on which model of ultralight you will be looking to purchase. Short fields with obstacles will require an ultralight that breaks ground quickly and climbs like a mountain goat. Unfortunately, you will find that most ultralights with the engine power to provide that kind of performance with an average-sized (200-pound) pilot will be overweight with regard to the regulations.

What part of flying interests you the most? Cross-country flying? Soaring? Floating around the local area low and slow? Newcomers should seek out introductory lessons or rides in various types of two-seat aircraft before making that decision. There are many types and many choices. It should be easy to find one that can fulfill your dreams.

If you decide to buy new, and you will be building your ultralight, there are other issues that require informed decision-making. Some tube and wire ultralights are relatively easy to assemble using common tools, and they require little more than a garage to work in. Other ultralights require a lot of construction, working from raw materials provided in the kit. Many wood construction aircraft fit in this category. They are not tremendously difficult to build, but they do rely on skill and attention to detail to ensure a safe airframe. They also require space for the building of simple assembly jigs and a cleaner and better temperature-controlled environment than the average garage offers. Follow the plans and instructions to the letter. Do not attempt to out-design the designers. Any changes to the structure you wish to make should be discussed with the manufacturer in advance.

The Used Ultralight
A used ultralight or lightplane is the best low-cost way to get into aviation. A used aircraft may be the only way some newcomers can get started. The first thing to do before writing a check is to join a local EAA chapter and attend the meetings. Ask questions and make friends (not hard to do). The chapter members may know of local ultralights that are not advertised for sale. In this instance, there is usually a local history and the original builder or owner can help with any problems.

Ask someone who’s been around the sport a while to accompany you when you look at used ultralights. You won’t know what you don’t know. Many low-cost, older-vintage ultralights are still out there. Some have had important changes made to the airframes or engines to correct serious design flaws. It is important to know if these changes have been made on the bird you’re looking at. There are still quite a few ultralights in service that are no longer supported by a manufacturer. If the original manufacturer is out of business, you must consider if it will be possible to replace major airframe or engine components.

I tell folks that they should plan on spending at least a year going to club meetings, fly-ins, and seminars before they buy a bird. The best way to purchase a new ultralight is through a dealer that offers a full-service operation that includes flight training, maintenance, and building assistance.
If you are thinking about buying a used ultralight, plan on buying it in the fall and spending the winter months completely disassembling the aircraft to inspect it. You will want to replace any tubing that shows signs of bending, dents, significant oxidation, or elongation of the holes where bolts pass through. You will be replacing any hardware that appears to be rusted or worn…and you will replace this hardware with aircraft grade materials, not hardware store stuff. That means knowing how to tell the difference between common hardware bolts and aircraft-grade hardware. Wood construction ultralights are a little more complicated because you can’t just unbolt all the major and minor subassemblies. Wood rot, fractured glue joints, and splintering are much more difficult to see.

Many older aircraft use fiberglass fuel tanks. These have been the cause of many an engine failure. Tanks that were not properly gel-coated or finished deteriorate over time with exposure to fuel additives, especially alcohol and methanol. If you intend to use the original tank, you must make every effort to determine that the interior walls are not in any stage of delamination. Replacing fuel lines, rebuilding fuel pumps, and replacing all filters in the fuel system is a must.

Engine serviceability is another key issue. Some older ultralights may still be running older and out-of-production engines that were converted to ultralight use, as opposed to being specifically designed for the purpose. Rotax engines are the most prolific, but there are some really old ones out there that pre-date current gear drives and some other important improvements that may be impractical or impossible to retrofit now. While not impossible, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and even Chrysler engines are still hanging on old ultralights gathering dust in somebody’s barn. These are considered first-generation engines, and finding parts and service for them is getting tougher all the time. A lot of common sense and help from well-informed or trained friends goes a long way toward ensuring the aircraft you are buying will be able to perform to your expectations.

The most important message I can give the neophyte ultralight pilot is to get training. This goes for conventional airplane pilots, too. Some of the worst accidents I have witnessed occurred with conventionally trained (some of them high-time) pilots at the controls of an ultralight for the first time. A person who has spent many hours flying a Cessna would never dream of climbing into the left seat of a Learjet and flying it without a checkout. Why conventional pilots think that logic doesn’t apply when stepping into a Quicksilver is a mystery.

Don’t be a lone wolf, trying to figure all this out yourself. Join a local club, and join EAA. Go to fly-ins and talk to people. Stay active in your club and go to the meetings. The hangar flying that goes on after club business has been discussed is some of the most informative dialogue you can find, and it’s fun. The accident and incident rate amongst pilots who are actively involved in a flying club is much lower than for those who isolate themselves.

Congratulations on making the decision to join the sport of ultralight flying. A world of fun, personal enrichment, and camaraderie awaits you.

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