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The Best Summer Vacation a Teen Could Ever Experience

By Mark Zinkel, EAA 851566

Mark Zinkel
Mark Zinkel flying a Pterodactyl ultralight

For as long as I can remember, my dreams have been in the sky. For the longest part of my life, the dream felt like it was so far from reaching that it was unobtainable. At age 13, I was introduced to ultralights and it changed my life. Ultralights seemed like something that I could get myself into without having to wait until I had the income to afford flying in “real” planes.

After my discovery, I mowed lawns, pulled weeds, and did all that I could to save enough money to be able to afford an ultralight. Three years later, I bought an old Pterodactyl Fledge that I would restore and convert to a Pterodactyl Ascender (a Fledge, except with a canard to control pitch instead of weight shift). I was much closer to my goal at this point, but I had very little knowledge about restoring planes, ultralight design, engine maintenance, and so forth.

My project progressed slowly as it went in cycles of moving two steps forward and then one step back whenever I realized that I had messed up or damaged something. At the same time, the FAA had ended the ultralight training exception and neglected to offer reasonable guidelines for Flight Standards District Offices to issue LODAs (Letters of Deviation Authority), so there was no legal way for me to receive training. What I really needed was a mentor.

Of all the people I can think of that would make great mentors, Dave Froble from DFE Ultralights would be the best. Call it good luck, karma, or whatever, but I was offered an internship last summer at DFE Ultralights. This is the only place that sells kits and parts for the Pterodactyl line of ultralights. Opportunities like this don’t come by very often, and I immediately knew this was something that I wanted to do.

Mark Zinkel and Dave Froble
Mark Zinkel and Dave Froble

Dave Froble lives on a 20-acre farm in beautiful Pennsylvania. Instead of fields full of produce, his field is mowed short to be used as a runway. His barn is filled with ultralights, engines, and parts instead of animals and farm equipment. His garage is filled with airplane projects instead of cars, and his truck and tractors are parked out where they belong, outside in the elements. Dave sure has his priorities set straight.

In the first two weeks working with Dave, we took his Pterodactyl Fledge apart, cleaned and waxed all of the tubing, and then put it back together while replacing a few parts along the way to bring it into airworthy condition. In those two weeks, I learned more about the building, maintenance, and care of ultralights than I had learned since I was first introduced to them.

Pterodactyl restored at DFE Ultralights
Pterodactyl restored at DFE Ultralights

Later that summer, I began to learn how to fly. Since Dave’s two-seat Ascender II+2 needed lots of work before it would be safe to fly, I learned to fly just like everyone else had to in the early parts of the ultralight movement. The idea is to learn in baby steps, starting with ground handling, moving on to high-speed taxiing, then to crow hops, followed by longer and higher crow hops, until you’ve developed enough skill and courage to go around the pattern. Since Dave’s airstrip is only 42 feet wide, we elected to have me learn at the Mount Pleasant airport.

Learning to fly Dave’s “Dac” never felt to be very difficult. Dave was watching me the entire time, and if I ever picked up any bad habits, he would be sure to point that out. The plane itself handles like a champ on the ground and is very forgiving in the air. With it only being a two-axis airplane, you don’t have to worry about coordinating turns. And if you ever end up in a noticeable crosswind, you could easily land going across the runway because it stalls at the speed my grandma drives (24 mph with my 130-pound weight).

Mark Zinkel’s view from the cockpit of the Pterodactyl
Mark Zinkel’s view from the cockpit of the Pterodactyl

The hardest part about learning to fly was getting to the airport. In order for the plane and myself to get to the airport, I would have to drive while Dave would fly. The tricky part about that is that I had to learn how to drive Dave’s manual transmission truck, which felt like it was going to rattle apart at any given moment. Later on, Dave and I nicknamed it “the Death Rattle.” Driving it to the airport through hilly Pennsylvania in traffic after just learning how to drive a stick shift was absolutely terrifying. By the time I would get to the airport, my palms, armpits, and back would be covered in sweat. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Pterodactyl is much easier to fly than a manual transmission is to drive.

My experience at DFE Ultralights last summer will be permanently cemented in my brain. Living with someone that was such an active part of the ultralight movement since it started gave me a new perspective about this sport that I never expected. I came as a young grasshopper and left with wings. After pursuing flight for over a quarter of my life, there’s no way to describe how liberating it feels to be doing it! I only wish more people could get a taste of it for themselves.

Mark Zinkel is a 2010 graduate of Cordova High in Sacramento, California. His main interests are aviation and communications. He can be contacted through his Facebook page. Mark has also chronicled the restoration of his Pterodactyl on the weblog www.Pflying.com. Please enjoy the cartoon below drawn by his friend Adam Haynes.

Adam Haynes

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