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The 'Early Days' of Ultralight Training

By Ben Deptula

Ben Deptula
Author Ben Deptula

Ben Deptula
The Kasperwing motorglider

Ben Deptula

Ben Deptula

I began flying ultralights in the mid 1980s. I bought my first ultralight from my friend and hang gliding legend, Thom Veer. It was a beautiful single seat Kasperwing motorglider. Designed as a flying wing, the Kasperwing lacks the traditional tail structure that has become a standard feature among the majority of aircraft that are being flown today. A single cylinder 22 horsepower snow machine engine mounted at the rear of the aircraft provides the thrust. 

After the purchase, Thom agreed to teach me how to fly it. Back then, most ultralights were manufactured as single seaters, which meant that all of my flight training would have to be done solo. A scary thought to say the least! However, I did have quite a bit hang gliding experience under my belt, and Thom assured me that he would have no problem teaching me how to fly the Kasperwing safely without him ever having to leave the ground. “Sign me up and let’s do this thing!” I said enthusiastically.

On a beautiful Alaska spring day in April of 1984, I met Thom at Sherman Field. Sherman is a secluded airstrip in the heart of Fairbanks, Alaska. Huge hay fields on all sides surround it. If you ever have an engine out, Sherman Field is the place to have it. That day the sky was a bright blue mixed with wisps of white clouds. The wind was calm and the crusty snow pack on the runway sparkled like diamonds in the late afternoon sunlight. I couldn’t have asked for a more picturesque day.

Upon arrival, I met Thom and was given a thorough briefing on the lesson plan. I have to say, I was pretty impressed at his level of knowledge. He instructed me on the Kasperwing’s control system, helped me put on my flying harness, and demonstrated how to hook into the aircraft. You hook into a hang loop that is mounted to the wing’s keel, or center tube using a steel carabiner. This connects the pilot to the aircraft’s center of gravity point and allows the pilot to hang freely under the wing.

Since the Kasperwing is a tailless aircraft and has no elevator surface, pitch control is achieved by simply shifting your weight beneath the wing. This changes the center of gravity and enables the aircraft to climb or descend. Swing your weight to the rear of the aircraft to climb and swing your weight forward to descend.

Roll control is accomplished through the use of separate rudders at each wing tip that act like air brakes. A pulley and cable system that is connected to a dragster-type steering wheel activates them. Turn the wheel to the left for a left turn and turn the wheel to the right for a right turn. “It’s just like riding a bike,” Thom said. He then looked at his watch and added, “Get in the airplane - we’re burning daylight.”

Next, Thom explained that I would be performing slow taxing techniques. This meant that I would taxi up and down the entire length of the runway at speeds of no greater than 15 mph. After an hour of practice I felt confident enough to progress to the next level, called “crow hopping,” or the fast taxi stage.

During the crow hopping stage I remember Thom saying, “If you get airborne and run out of runway, don’t panic. Just take it to 500 feet and don’t come down until you get comfortable with it.” And that’s exactly what happened. I was taxiing at high speed, a brisk 20 mph, hit a bump hidden beneath the snow-covered runway, and became airborne. I was launched 50 feet into the air! With less than a third of the runway remaining, I throttled back and attempted to get back down on the ground. The black spruce trees at the end of the runway were getting bigger and bigger by the second. Landing was definitely out of the picture. I pushed the throttle wide open and climbed out at a mind-boggling 200 feet per minute. Back then most ultralights had nothing more than a 20 horsepower engine strapped to them, so 200 feet per minute was a pretty good climb rate in those days.

After orbiting the area for an hour, I decided that it was time to land. With the runway in sight, I reduced power, aimed for its midsection, and began my descent. Suddenly I saw Thom standing in the center of the runway with his arms above his head. At the time, I couldn’t figure out what he was doing or what message he may have been trying to convey. Thom saw something terribly wrong with my approach and was desperately trying to get my attention. Moments later, I figured it out. It became apparent that I was way too high on final, and if I continued on my current trajectory there was a very good chance that I would overshoot the runway and end up in the trees..My survival instincts took over and I applied full power. I cleared the trees with room to spare and climbed to an altitude of 500 feet. My fuel was getting low and the daylight was fading fast. I took a deep breath, cleared the cobwebs from my head, and prepared for another attempt at landing. I remember saying to myself, “I can do this, I can do this, I can do this!” 

With civil twilight rapidly approaching, I once again reduced power and began my descent. I maintained my airspeed at 25 mph and managed to keep the aircraft aligned with the runway. Everything was looking good, and as I glided past the runway threshold, I shifted my weight toward the rear of the aircraft and leveled out. I floated down the runway and waited patiently for my skis to touch the snow. Then, it happened ... I made contact with the runway and performed my first landing. I was ecstatic! It may not have been a great landing, but it was good enough for me. I taxied to the parking area, hit the kill switch, and was greeted by Thom. He smiled and said, “Way to go, pard’. Let’s go get a beer.”

Looking back now, I have to consider myself lucky. Fortunately, with Thom’s help I was able to learn how to fly the Kasperwing successfully without getting hurt or even killed in the process. I know what I described may sound like an irresponsible or stupid way to learn how to fly a light aircraft, but that’s the way many of us learned how to fly back then. Today, there are many more options available. With the advent of the new sport pilot certificate and a wider range of light-sport aircraft to choose from, learning how to fly today is much safer than it was in the earlier days. Still, I give Thom much of the credit for my success and consider him an excellent instructor, good friend, and mentor figure. Also, I am happy to say that he still flies his Kasperwing on a regular basis in the Anchorage area.

Ben Deptula is a certificated flight instructor and operates a small flight school in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he specializes in sport pilot/weight shift control instruction. Check out his website at www.airbornealaska.net.

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