By Dan Johnson, President, Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association
When we worried about dodging the Y2K bullet ten years ago, ultralights were the light planes of the day. Speculation was rampant about what was later called the sport pilot rule but years had elapsed with no rule. In fact, it would be four more years before the FAA finally blessed the work of Sue Gardner and her team.
As 2009 morphed into 2010, we are witnessing the last days of two-place ultralights as they are assimilated into the ranks of FAA registered aircraft. Light-sport aircraft have become the new media darlings, soaking up all the limelight and relegating ultralights to the sides of the stage.
Yet even in this seemingly dark hour, we see new flashes of light for ultralights. The price of many LSA has made clear these are not the flying machines for basic grass-roots aviation. And though the ultralight converted to E-LSA trainer may be finishing its duty, we have several aircraft that are certified trainers for many who remain interested in low-and-slow flying. Some of these sell for as little as $34,995 in ready-to-fly configuration. That is only $27,500 in 1999 dollars, not a lot more than the cost of a finished ultralight kit in those days (when you factor in the cost of engine, avionics, paint, etc.).
And now - with the emergence of electric-motor-powered ultralights such as the eSpyder, eGull, and Electra Flyer Trike - single place Part 103 ultralight vehicles may be getting a new lease on life. While battery technology is expected to evolve quickly to yield growing capacity for larger, longer-flying aircraft, the present state of batteries and electric motors mate perfectly to the lightest of powered aircraft.
So, while ultralights look under siege with the January 31, 2010 expiration of the trainer exemption, our fun, (mostly) open-cockpit ultralight-like light planes continue to offer a way to the skies for a modest budget. By my count, no less than 14 companies are offering special light-sport aircraft (S-LSA) models that maintain the original ultralight fun factor. All are among the most reasonably priced S-LSA you can buy. True, they cost more than the kits of a decade ago but they also have better continuing airworthiness support that suggests these could be flying in America’s airspace much longer than early ultralight designs.
Personally, I’m excited about the future of genuine grass roots flying. Fun flyers don’t need no stinkin’ autopilots, three-axis trim, or dual glass screens. Ultralight pilots and low-and-slow sport pilots just want to have fun in the sky; flying simple, joyful machines.
It can be difficult to perceive daylight in the hour before dawn, but no one can suppress the desire to fly solely for a good time in the air. While I enthusiastically welcome the new flock of more than 100 new S-LSA as we work to reinvigorate entry-level aviation; single place ultralights and ultralight-like two-seaters will retain their place in the spectrum. Mine is only a prediction, of course. The one way to be sure: let’s have another look as 2019 gives way to 2020.
Happy and safe flying in the new year!
Dan Johnson can be reached at byDanJohnson.com