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An Open Letter to Ultralight Pilots

By Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor

My first 200 hours of flying were completed in an Air Command 447 ultralight gyroplane. During this two-year time frame, I often became frustrated with the attitude many general aviation and even experimental pilots, airport owners, and airport employees had toward ultralight pilots, both gyro and fixed wing. To me this attitude seemed more than unfair. However, over the past few months, I’ve been dealing more and more with ultralight pilots, and the stainless image I had is starting to take a few scratches and dings.

Ultralight pilots need the same basic flying skills as general aviation pilots, and in fact, sometimes more. Lightweight high-drag machines with short range like gyroplanes, Challengers, Quicksilvers, and Weedhoppers are in many ways more difficult to fly than a Cessna 172 in my humble opinion. Furthermore, an ultralight pilot/owner also has to be his own mechanic, has had little or no industry support, and has to do a great deal more work to find a suitable place to fly.

Eventually, I formed the opinion that ultralight pilots should be revered over the generic general aviation pilots since we have to carefully watch the weather, plan our fuel trips, stash mogas at the local airport in friends’ hangars, and have advanced seat-of-the-pants flying skills. Anyone who puts up with all of this has to love to fly.

Almost ten years have passed.

Since then, I’ve earned my certificates in private rotorcraft, commercial rotorcraft, and sport pilot fixed wing, and now as flight instructor. Through all of these up until the last few months, I continued to think of ultralight pilots as a breed above the average general aviation pilot. Sort of like urban bush pilots if you will.

However, over the past few months, I’ve been dealing more and more with gyro ultralight pilots, and the stainless image I had is starting to take a few scratches and dings. I had assumed that ultralight pilots, even though they didn’t need to have a pilot certificate,would at least read the FAR 103 rules, read some basic ground school books or publications, and converse with general aviation pilots enough to have a fundamental understanding of aircraft and airport operations.

But to my horror, I keep running into ultralight “pilots” (note now the quotes) who are for some reason convinced that because no pilot certificate is required, no rules or regulations apply to them at all. Also, ultralight pilots seem to expect to have all of the privileges that certificated airmen and aircraft have, and they don’t. If that isn’t bad enough, many of these pilots seem to take on an attitude when you ask them to comply with basic safety considerations, or point out regulations or procedures that they’re supposed to know!

Someday when my budget allows, I would like to have my own single-place ultralight again. Someday I may get myself into trouble in which case an ultralight aircraft might be my only choice. I don’t want FAR 103 to be taken away from us, and I don’t want to have to deal with poor attitudes toward ultralight pilots again.

For the good of all of us, please consider these points:

  1. No license requirement does not mean no rules and regulations apply to ultralight pilots and craft. Please read FAR 103 (and the rest of the FARs as well as the Aeronautical Information Manual).
  2. Through books, the Internet, ground school, or whatever means best suits you, please do your part to understand airport operations, aviation terms, procedures, safety recommendations, and the happenings in the general aviation pilot community. Also, keep this knowledge up to date.
  3. Drop the attitude. Pilots, airport administrators, and event organizers aren’t trying to bully you, old-boy you, punish you, or whatever it is you think is being done that gets your mood bent.

Most likely, what’s being asked from you is for the good of everyone at that airport or event, and the pilots and organizers are confused as to why you don’t understand the terminology or rules.

You have to trust me with this one. A good attitude will cause these and other problems to melt away easily; you’ll find that most everyone who flies will make efforts to help and support you. Live long and prosper, FAR 103!

Tim O’Connor originally posted this letter on the Rotary Wing Forum on July 23, 2010.

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