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What Is It With the Ultralight Industry?

By Scott Severen

Scott Severen
Scott Severen

What happened to the ultralight enthusiast? Where have the ultralight days gone? I’ve pondered these questions with many friends and associates. It’s not a simple answer – there are several forces acting on ultralight flying activity.

Some have said, “Remember when you could get a brand-new Quicksilver for $4,995?”

Yes, I do! But how come there isn’t a bunch of people hanging around the airpark wanting to learn to fly an ultralight? Where are the ultralight rallies in which a gaggle of enthusiasts would fly around the state? Go to any grass strip (or even airports with paved runways) and look in the hangars. I’ll bet you’ll see many of the ultralights that were flying yesteryear, sitting beneath layers of dust and dirt. Why aren’t they being flown?

The days of an ultralight manufacturer having 170 employees and selling 3,400 units in one year are gone – that was a moment in time. It took 12 months after the infamous 1983 ABC 20/20 television report, “Ultralights: Flying or Dying,” for production from the largest ultralight manufacturer to become stable again. While it misrepresented the reality of why and how the incident occurred, 20/20 wasn’t the reason the market was far less than stellar. In two years following the program, the sale price doubled. That’s a classic example of economies of scale, which are forces that can act on any industry.

The ultralights were swallowed up by the light-sport rule! Yes, I’ve heard that many times. Well, the original intent of the Aviation Regulatory Advisory Committee (ARAC) meetings that created the light-sport rule was to address fat single and two-seat ultralights. The direction changed through the 10-year process to create light-sport, which absolutely created new markets and opportunities. Light-sport became the fastest growing segment of aviation: In just over 5 years, over 100 models were available! Awesome! But the ARAC meetings didn’t fix the “ultralight problem.”

Part of the light-sport aircraft (LSA) concept was that it would give a legal place for fat single and two-seat ultralights to go. LSA changed the requirements for both trainers: the vehicle and instructor. It increased the burden on the manufacturer and instructor, and hence, the consumer. So far, it appears the burden was increased such that manufacturers, instructors, and consumers aren’t drawn there. There aren’t many two-seat ultralight type special LSA being sold. Market sensitivities exist. Who will purchase an LSA that will only fly 75 knots when you can get one that flies 125 knots? Who will purchase what was once a $15,000 to $20,000 two-seat ultralight for $45,000 to $60,000? Ultralights simply aren’t LSA. The operational parameters are different. And Part 103 still exists!

The pioneers created simple lightweight/high-drag flying machines – evolved from hang gliders – to fly for fun. There was a time when a powered ultralight had to be foot-launchable! The vision was more of low and slow birdlike flight than of transportation. “Ultralighting” of the eighties and nineties occurred through a unique set of conditions. It was new technologies applied to an age-old dream. The activity and the vehicle were simple. The climate within the FAA was balanced with a few key personalities that believed in and championed the idea. Ultralight enthusiasts still had the option of operating outside the regulatory environment – why were they not? I believe people want to abide by the rules. Certainly the change in the regulatory climate has had an effect on ultralight sales. Not that a change wasn’t needed, but the changes might not be appropriate for the activity.

Let’s look at some other activities, for example, go-carting. In the ’40s and certainly through the ’50s and ’60s, every kid and many adults built or had a go-cart. The ’60s were the fad era, and carts were everywhere! The carts got bigger and more sophisticated, but eventually every kid on the block couldn’t or didn’t want to afford them. It wasn’t the plain and simple go-cart anymore. It’s a typical market cycle for an idea to be introduced, become wildly popular, then settle into a less popular but steadier business. The pendulum swings to achieve balance, and so swings the ultralight pendulum.

There’s energy in the ultralight world! Look at PPGs – powered paragliders: generally single place, moderate cost, and relatively simple to operate. Access is easy and doesn’t require a facility. They’re a bit more complicated to learn than personal watercraft but still pretty simple. It’s the same with powered parachutes. Simple is important.

There are several manufacturers providing ultralights. Belite is making splashes in the market with its carbon-winged wonder.  The Flightstar e-Spyder debuted recently, bringing not only an ultralight to everyone, but adding electric reliability and reduced operational hassles as well. On other fronts, M-Squared offers the Breese XL, a true ultralight, and CGS reintroduced the Hawk with a small engine. There are some cool gas- and electric-powered single-seat trikes that take advantage of Part 103. All niches within a micro-industry – and other manufacturers have projects in the works!

I feel confident ultralights are coming back; there are too many people who dream of simple flight, and many with the passion and ability to make it a reality. It will be a different market than before: Have you ever moved from a place you lived, and then went back years later to visit? It was different, wasn’t it? Timing comes into play; regulatory framework is a factor, and quality, ease of use, and ownership fit into the equation. There are sparks out there, and there’s a current out there with lots of activity going on behind the scenes. The human spirit and desire to fly are very strong. There are exciting times ahead, and we are the ones that will make them!

Scott Severen began flying hang gliders in 1973. He’s an FAA-rated single engine land pilot, logging over 2,000 recreational and advanced flight instructor hours in powered and nonpowered air vehicles, and over 1,000 hours in general aviation experimental and light-sport aircraft as a test pilot and flight conformance check pilot. His aviation career includes founding Lone Star Airpark and serving as president of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, Airpark Owners and Operators Association, TEAM Aircraft, and United States Ultralight Association. He has been involved in the development and marketing of the Thorpedo light-sport aircraft. Scott lives with his family near Dallas, Texas.

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