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Finding Ultralight Instruction

By Dan Grunloh, Editor, Light Plane World


Quicksilver MXL trainer at 2007 Sun ’n Fun Fly-In at Lakeland, Florida. Photo by Sergey Ryabtsev.

There can be little argument that the biggest obstacle for newcomers to ultralight aviation today is the shortage of opportunities for appropriate dual instruction. There’s no doubt that people still want to fly ultralights for the same reasons they initially became popular. Those reasons are low cost, simplicity, and freedom. We were lucky for 20 years because we could teach for hire in just about anything that you could make fly with two people on board. But that is no more. With the withdrawal of the ultralight training exemption and the implementation of the sport pilot regulations, the picture has changed dramatically. The long-running debate about how we got here is of little help to the newcomer. It’s sufficient to say there’s plenty of blame to go around for a system where exempted trainers came to outnumber single-seat ultralights by about 400 percent. To simply say the current situation is bad and newcomers can’t find instruction is unacceptable. Discussions about some new future exemption for ultralight training are also not helpful for the newcomer. He or she needs practical advice for tomorrow, or next weekend. Putting off dreams of flight because of the difficulty finding instruction isn’t an option. There’s a way to overcome the problem, and the key idea for some might be the way you manage the transition from your trainer to your ultralight.

The preferred ultralight trainer is a light-sport aircraft that matches the characteristics of your ultralight and is equipped with an experienced instructor. It’s the shortest path to your goal. The choice is simple for pilots of powered parachutes and weight-shift trikes, because the differences between the two-place trainer and ultralight version are minimal. The transition is easy. Your problem is the low number of instructors at this time. Travel will be mandatory for many, but thankfully some schools offer concentrated training in the form of a “boot camp.” The instructors are top-notch, and your chances of success are excellent. The folks with the biggest problem are those who wish to fly traditional fixed-wing ultralights. There’s such a tremendous variety of types that there can never be (and never was) a comparable two-place trainer for every type. The lack of a suitable ultralight trainer isn’t a new problem.

Snedden, Kasperwing
Snedden M7 and Kasperwing symbolize the many new and old ultralights lacking an appropriate trainer.

Currently there are only two special light-sport fixed-wing trainers that appear suitable for ultralight pilots – the CGS Hawk and the M-Squared Breese. The hoped-for implementation of the Letter of Deviation Authority scheme for grandfathered ultralight trainers will help to return a number of instructors to the training field, but don’t expect it to create a lot of new trainer aircraft or instructors. If you can locate such an instructor, go for it because these instructors are the best. They have experience; they are willing to be tested and are clearly dedicated to the sport.

Flying is Flying
My temporary solution to the training shortage isn’t the FAA solution, but it’s legal and it can work. I’ve asked myself how I would learn to fly ultralights if I had to start all over again from scratch, and I’ve based the answer on 25 years of experience in the sport. Step one is to learn to fly in whatever is available. The important thing is to learn to fly and get started right away. Flying is flying. There’s no rule that says you must learn to fly in the same type of plane you’ll eventually own and operate. To coin a phrase, “It’s a poor cowboy who can only ride one horse.” Some planes make much better trainers than others. I prefer open cockpit flying, but many students learn more quickly in an enclosed cockpit away from the wind blast. The important thing is to learn how to fly, to understand the principles and develop the needed habits. It makes no difference at first if the plane is a high wing or low wing or tractor or pusher. It’s all about wings, tail, and throttle. I would begin by learning the basics of flying in any convenient light-sport trainer or even general aviation aircraft. Begin your search for an instructor at the EAA Sport Pilot Instructor Database and also try Dan Johnson’s excellent FIRM List, which stands for “Flight Instruction, Rental, and Maintenance.”

Plan for about 10 hours of dual instruction before you begin to feel comfortable with the idea of going solo. Search for an understanding instructor who can accept your goal to fly under the ultralight rules. Realize that almost every instructor will likely advise students to continue their training and complete the sport pilot certificate because they’re already halfway there. Show your instructor some understanding. His or her opinion is based on the fact that he or she has already made it over the hump and can clearly see the additional advantages of being a certificated pilot.

As an aside, it’s perfectly legal and proper to obtain free primary instruction for ultralight flying from a friend or family member in virtually any aircraft, provided it’s uncompensated. You can pay for half the fuel and oil and perhaps coffee and pie after the flight, but that’s all. This is the perfect solution if you’re on a tight budget, but success depends greatly on the skill of the instructor friend. Flying an airplane and teaching someone else how to do it are entirely different skills. He who pays nothing for flight instruction could be getting a bad deal.

The Transition Is the Trick
Step two of my temporary solution to the ultralight training shortage is to arrange for an uncompensated transition flight or orientation ride in an N-numbered experimental two-seat aircraft that is similar in configuration to your desired fixed-wing ultralight.   Many such aircraft in the federal registry are “grandfathered” two-seat trainers from the time of the exemption and some are being flown by former instructors.  These planes are “golden” in the fact that they can have a long life, but many will never be produced again.  They were designed to carry two people and most owners will be delighted to demonstrate their aircraft to a trained student pilot who is about to fly the single seat ultralight version.  Though most are not legal for formal instruction, they are perfectly legal for “rides”.  A search of airplane directories will reveal many N-numbered Quicksilvers, Challengers, Flightstars and others that could be suitable for ultralight orientation.  Simply enter your favorite 2-seat model in the search box at airport-data.com to find the N-number and location, and then get more information from the official FAA N-number inquiry database.  If you cannot find any registered two-seat aircraft similar to your desired single seat ultralight, it might be time to reconsider your choice of ultralight.  The important thing is to fly.  Don’t get hung up or stalled by a choice for which the transition experience is unavailable.

Existing general aviation pilots and long-retired pilots who want to fly ultralights can use this same transition approach. For current active pilots, it’s no different than any other transition within your category. For long-retired pilots, it would be tempting to first return to the same type of plane you once flew, and with the help of an instructor, refresh the skills you once had. Only then would you be ready to look for the experimental transition ride.

The important thing is to begin the process of learning to fly. The rewards in life experiences for becoming a pilot far outweigh the costs and inconveniences of acquiring the flight instruction. I’ve landed after numerous occasions and told my companions that the experience of that one flight was worth all the trouble it took to get to that point. In a few examples, those troubles included shipping my plane to another continent or hauling it on a trailer for 2,000 miles. Yet I’ve had multiple flights that fit the criteria. One such flight was a local excursion depicted below. It required a takeoff at the first hint of morning twilight to arrive in position to observe a predawn launch of hot-air balloons. The picture is looking eastward toward the coming sunrise as nearly 70 balloons began popping out of the morning mist like spring flowers. I was the only powered pilot in the sky to observe this launch, and I will remember it always.

Early morning balloon launch at 1998 U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship in Rantoul, Illinois.

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