DIY

Build Easy to Assemble Low-Cost Ultralight Aircraft From Kits

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Twin-powered parachutes such as this Paracenter ($6,300) are used for training.
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What any aspiring ultralight pilot wants is precisely what manufacturers have tried to give him: a rugged, dependable, safe aircraft . . . and here, strangely enough, is where FAA regulations hamper progress.
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Team's "Air Bike" is among the less expensive rigid-wing single-seaters at $5,995.
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Another Team model with more conventional looks is the "Max 103" at $3,645.
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A recently completed ultralight kit ready for the skies, complete with a Rotax 503 engine (top left) mounted on the front of the aircraft. The sailcloth on the wings of this kit has been coated with polyurethane to reduce porousness of the wings and the resulting drag. Cruising speed of the Flightstar is approximately 70 mph. (top right) Airspeed indicator, altitude, and basic engine temperature gauges are all the information an ultralight pilot needs. (PHOTOS: KIT KITTLE)
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Though officially classified as ultralight, many models more closely resemble conventional aircraft in their styling and aerodynamics.
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Landing gear can range from classic tricycle gear to amphibious floats.
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1. Assembling an Ultralight kit.
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2. Assembling an Ultralight kit.

Low-cost ultralight aircraft are cheap, easy to fly and assemble . . . and you don’t have to be a pilot to own one.

It starts with a gentle rumbling in the seat of your pants,
and a sudden burst of wind and speed that causes the skin
on the back of your neck to tighten and your hand to firm
on the stick. Tires pitch and shake for a moment over
clumps arid irregularities in the grass strip and any local
dogs come bounding. The small engine mounted just ahead of
the pilot’s seat winds up and sends vibrations through the
cab as the ground, barely a foot from your shoes, gradually
and then suddenly fades away. The same engine that appeared
so small on .the ground, pulls you into the sky with
amazing certainty. Nerves quickly ease, replaced by a
spreading grin . . . whether it’s your first flight or
fiftieth. Almost impossibly, it seems, local cornfields
and pumpkin patches that you’ve only seen from the stunted
view of the highways suddenly become a mosaic of colors and
details. Once you get to just over a thousand feet from the
fields, the kid in you takes over and you throw the
aircraft into some tight turns and steep descents over the
pine trees.

Ultralight aircraft just shouldn’t exist in a country in
which you are no longer permitted to go without a seatbelt,
in which insurance costs for an average car regularly
exceed $2,000 a year. The freedom to fly an airplane that
you build yourself, maintain yourself, and take absolute
personal responsibility for is so redolent of the visions
we had for this country in the first place . . . that it is
simply too good to be true.

The Private Pilot Maze

There is arguably no industry in the world as heavily
regulated as powered flight. Becoming a private pilot
typically requires 50-60 hours of flight instruction as
well as ground school, which combined take five to seven
months to complete. Lesson expenses vary, but graduating
with a license for less than $4,000 would constitute a
miracle. Completing a Class-3 medical exam is also
mandatory, which weeds out, of course, any candidates with
major health problems or those who’ve had procedures such
as by-pass surgery. Vision acuity of no worse than 20/40 is
also required. Of course, costs of the licensing procedure
are dwarfed by the daunting prospect of actually affording
a plane. Recently, Cessna announced that they were
re-releasing their venerable 172-class small airplane, at
the industry-shattering cost of just $170,000.
Burn 40 or 50 gallons of “av-gas” (aviation fuel) a crack
and see the lifetime costs escalate further, both for
yourself and the environment you pour the exhaust into.

Once in the air, much of a private pilot’s time is spent
adhering to the rules of the road. Takeoff, landing, and
flight path patterns must be rigidly adhered to, meaning
that significant amounts of time must be spent simply
plotting position and correcting course, speed, and
altitude.

It’s difficult to fault the government for these
regulations; they are all intended to keep planes safely in
the air, but many pilots have suggested to me that
somewhere along the endless line of well-intentioned,
sensible rules, all the fun has been taken out of flying.
The industry is and always will be at odds with itself.
Flight is freedom, a temporary compromise with air and
gravity, and the more we weigh it down with earthly
considerations, the less enjoyable it becomes. My dream of
flying ended when an eye exam revealed, even with
corrective lenses, that my vision was 20/60 or thereabouts.
After a lifetime of dreaming of model planes, graduating to
casual study and then to endless hours hanging around at
the local airport in Burlington, VT, I was forced to turn
tail and move on. There has been an alternative to this
dilemma, though much maligned, for over a generation,
however.

The Ultralight Aircraft: Barnstorming Revisited

The modern ultralight movement was born when NASA invented
the Rogallo wing in the mid-1960s. Small and light with
incredible lift characteristics, the experimental wing made
pioneer hang-gliders very curious. Pilots of these early
gliders would control direction and angle of ascent or
attack by simply shifting their weight. With a good
understanding of how to steer the wing, as well as
“thermals,” or the powerful updrafts of hot air that could
lift a glider several thousand feet, flights of an hour or
more were possible. By the early 1970s, a few enterprising
hang-gliders bolted two-stroke chain saw engines outfitted
with propellers to the frame, and the ultralight was born.
Considering these novice builders as merely dangers to
themselves, the government ignored them.

The Fed’s “laissez-faire” attitude ended when FAA
investigators discovered that landing gear was appearing on
these very experimental aircraft. The FAA then declared
that engines were permitted but that the plane would have
to be “foot launched” at all times, their thinking being
that gear meant speed, and they wanted ultralights to be as
slow as possible. In a trend that continues today with
countless renegade tinkerers in backyards across North
America, builders simply ignored the regulations and
designed heavier and faster ultralights. MOTHER jumped at
the chance to underwrite several different models and
airshows, including an ethanol-fueled, cross-country trip in
1979.

More than anything else, the mid 1970s era of rabid
experimentation mimicked the earliest days of aviation, in
which no design, however ridiculous or dangerous, was
unexplored. Engines that were essentially lawn-mower and
chain saw knockoffs were tinkered and ratcheted up to very
torquey, high revving output, and of course they frequently
failed. Training was virtually non-existent, since the vast
majority of ultralights were one-seaters. Aspiring pilots
would just hop into the seat, grab the stick, and fly. The
reader is left to imagine the consequences. Biplanes, twin
engines, even canard (a plan in which basically the plane
was built backwards, with the tail in the lead) designs
were built by the thousands …and as might be expected,
injuries and fatalities proliferated.

Deservedly or not, ultralight manufacturers (rather than
irresponsible pilots) soon acquired an unsavory reputation.
The final nail in the coffin came when the ABC news program
“20/20” ran a feature segment detailing several fatal
crashes. Veterans still regard that one hour of evening
news as the end of an era, and in their circles there is
still much gnashing of teeth at the mere mention of anchor
Hugh Downs’s name. Orders ceased nationwide, and virtually
all of the manufacturers slowed or ceased production. Even
MOTHER EARTH NEWS ceased writing about ultralights after 1981.

In the truest tradition of locking the barn-door after the
cow has wandered out, solutions were appearing just as the
end was near. Rotax 2-stroke engines began to appear in the
marketplace in the late 1970s, which were not only
light-years ahead of their predecessors in ruggedness and
reliability, but also featured “reduction drives” which
produced more power per cc of engine and allowed the use of
larger propellers turning at slower speeds. More
importantly, the BRS ballistic parachute was designed,
tested, and ready for market by 1986. In the event that the
pilot lost control or experienced a structural failure, one
depressed button would fire a rocket-powered parachute to
the rear and the plane would float to the ground. The
industry was maturing, but the new models debuted to very
small audiences.

Then, in 1982, the FAA adopted part 103 of the Federal
Aviation Regulations, which defined specifically what an
ultralight could and could not be. The ultralight was
defined in the code as a one-seat aerial recreational
vehicle that must weigh no more than 254 pounds (without
pilot), must carry no more than 5 gallons of fuel, must
travel no faster than 55 knots (about 63 mph), and must
have a stall speed of no faster than 24 knots. Other parts
of the code dictated that the planes could not be flown at
night, could not be flown in clouds, over congested
population centers or in controlled airspace (those lanes
reserved for larger air traffic). Finally, two-seat
aircraft were allowed for the purposes of training. The
regulations have remained unchanged ever since.

And slowly, over ten years, the industry recovered.

One happy by-product of the house cleaning was that all of
the manufacturers with less than exemplary records were
eliminated, leaving a dozen or so to continue innovating,
and most were (and are) members of United States Ultralight
Association (USUA), which tries to keep a control on
building standards as well as maintain safety reports.

The First and Last Question on Modern Ultralights

What any aspiring ultralight pilot wants is precisely what
manufacturers have tried to give him: a rugged, dependable,
safe aircraft, a low-cost ultralight aircraft . . . and here, strangely enough, is where FAA
regulations hamper progress. A Rotax 503, the industry
standard powerplant with sufficient horsepower for even the
larger two-Beaters, weighs nearly 100 lbs. Good five point
harnesses and seats weigh 20-30 lbs each, and a ballistic
parachute nearly as much. Add the barest instrumentation to
measure altitude, engine temperature, and RPMs and a
console to house them and you’re adding 30 more pounds. The
design dilemma is now clear. The FAA, by insisting that the
craft weigh no more than 254 pounds, is, according to most
design firms, legislating dangerous vehicles. Which
component would they suggest we do without?

The solution to the restrictive regulation was years in the
making and striking in its simplicity: the weight
restriction was . . . ignored. Though not a racketeering effort
by A1 Capone-standards, the mass avoidance of Federal
Regulations and the unapologetic sale of hundreds of
technically illegal vehicles is unprecedented. One glance
at a sales catalog will prove that point. Just about one in
ten single-seat models weighs in properly. Why does the
government allow that to happen? I asked Tom Peghiny of
Flightstar Sportplanes that very question.

“Well, I think that even the FAA recognizes that building
overweight single-seat ultralights, if they are overweight
due to additional safety features, is a victimless crime.
It’s the carrying of passengers that is a real hot button
issue.”

From a liability standpoint alone, Tom hit on the central
issue. Carrying a passenger in an illegal plane that
crashes, resulting in injuries, is a liability nightmare
for the plane owner and a public relations nightmare for
the industry.

” . . . And inevitably, the question of safety defines our
business. People have to understand that when they step
into an ultralight, they are taking a risk as surely as
stepping into an automobile is a risk. It isn’t safe. Life
isn’t safe. Once that premise is understood, ultralight
aviation has had a remarkable safety record in recent
years.”

“Has an engine ever gone out on you?”

“Actually, yes, I was taking a reporter for a ride years
ago, we lost the engine and I landed the plane in a field,
not realizing that there were a bunch of Brahma bulls in
the far end, heading in our direction.”

I examined Tom for artificial limbs and large scars, but
found none.

“Yeah [laughing], I was scared to death when they all came
over and sniffed at the framework, but the reporter, who I
guess knew his way around a bull, just shook the plane and
they jumped back and went away. That was the one and only
time I’ve lost an engine in thousands of ultralight
flights. And don’t forget that these aircraft are
essentially gliders . . . with parachutes for good measure. An
irresponsible owner who lacks training or has a
thrill-seeking streak may well crash his plane, just as an
inattentive auto driver will.”

Tom sells about 75 ultralights a year from his shop in
Ellington, CT, nearly all of them as kits that the owners
will then piece together themselves. By and large, the
assembly is uncomplicated but time consuming. It is not
necessary to know how to read a blueprint, nor is any kind
of welding required. Most of the fastenings are nuts and
bolts, and although some mechanical knowledge wouldn’t
hurt, kits from most manufacturers were not designed with
experts in mind. After going through the assembly process
(see Assembling an Ultralight Kit), I imagined that I’d
need three hard-working weekends to complete the kit. The
reason Tom sells so few fully assembled ultralights is
threefold: 1) Most of the orders need to be shipped
considerable distances, and a top speed of 70-90 mph and a
1 1/2 to 2 hour supply of gasoline means flying a long,
long way home; 2) buying assembled kits would mean nearly
doubling the price of the ultralight; and 3) most of the
people who buy ultralights would have no wish to fly around
in an aircraft that they had no hand in constructing.
Buying one is an investment in yourself . . . and it’s very
reassuring to know that every bolt and spar had your hand
on it.

The same holds true of the engine. Just as in a
conventional aircraft, ultralight engines have recommended
TBO (Time Before Overhaul) ratings. For Rotax engines the
running time before the engine needs to be overhauled is
approximately 300 hours. Regular engine maintenance is
performed in the field, according to a Rotax specified
inspection and maintenance schedule. The typical tasks
include the retorquing of the head bolts and manifolds,
adjustment of the carburetor jetting, and periodic removal
of piston carbon. Knowing the condition of the engine and
becoming intimately familiar with its components is simply
another of the personal responsibilities associated with
this sport.

Modern Ultralights

Three families of aircraft comprise the modern ultralight
fleet. The first is the fixed wing design, such as Tom
Peghiny’s Spyder and Flightstar II. Such kits feature rigid
aluminum or composite wings covered typically with dacron
sailcloth, comparatively enclosed seating areas and some
instrumentation. They are the most complicated kits to
assemble, the most expensive to buy, and the heaviest
ultralights in the air. The second family is referred to as
“trikes,” and encompasses all those ultralights in which
engines and pilot cages are attached to a modified,
flexiblewing hang-glider. The third family, often called
“para-planes,” is simply the same engine and cage of a
trike bolted to a parachute. Their defining concept, as
might be imagined, is the safety of a vehicle which has a
permanently deployed parachute, but speed is sacrificed in
the process. A para-plane’s top speed will rarely exceed
30-35 mph.

The amount of diversity within this three-fold family is
amazing, however. Several fixed wing models have completely
enclosed cabins with heaters, intercoms and air to ground
radios, and are virtually indistinguishable from small
airplanes. Many designers offer floats to their ultralights
which have proved to be extremely popular. The thought of
grabbing some fishing gear, hopping into an ultralight, and
buzzing to a small island off the coast was more than
enough to makes eyes and mouths water around here. Ski
attachments are also available, and there are hundreds of
Northern U.S. and Canadian ultralight owners who think
nothing of taking off and landing on snow covered backyards
and frozen lakes from British Columbia to Maine.

The Bottom Lines

Thankfully, gone are the days of self-taught ultralight
lessons, but shopping around for a good flight school is as
critical for an ultralight pilot as it is for private
pilots. No program worth half its asking price will include
tag lines such as “Get in the Air in Three Hours!” They
make for great ads, but generally poor flight instruction.
Good schools will let you learn at your own pace, and very
rarely let any student pilot solo without 20-25 hours in
the saddle. Why are ultralight pilots born of less than
half the amount of time it takes to create a private pilot?
The answer is in the design of the aircraft. They are
simply easy to fly, with foot pedals controlling the rudder
and stick controlling the wing aeliorons, just as in a
conventional airplane, but at bruising speeds of 1/2 to 1/3
that of a larger plane, the process is very forgiving.
Ultralights stall at about 28 mph, which means that they
basically land at that speed, and even a very clumsy
attempt at touching down has minimal consequences. After an
hour in the air, I felt completely comfortable leaning into
tight turns and making approaches to the landing strip.
Wind was a steady 10 kt from the north gusting to 15 kt,
and the ultralight felt rock solid throughout. I’ve taken
flights in larger aircraft under similar conditions and
experienced more buffeting, another tribute to slow speed
flight.

At $50 an hour, flight school will run you approximately
$1,250, and kit prices range from $5,000 to $8,000 for
para-planes, $7,000 to $9,000 for trikes, and $5,000 to
$15,000 (or more, depending upon the amount of extras and
gadgetry you require) for fixed wing models. This is not an
inconsiderable expense, to say the least, but it is still
half of what a new family car would run you, runs neck and
neck with a new fishing boat, and is still less than
one-tenth of what a private pilot license and small plane
would require from your wallet. After researching the dozen
or so major ultralight manufacturers, it became
increasingly clear to us that careful shopping will reap
huge rewards. The price range in the fixed-wing category,
for instance, is so large that a little assiduous phone
calling and brochure reading can easily save a buyer
$5,000. Yet it is at least as important (if not more so) to
get some company history while you are shopping. How long
has the company been in business? How personally involved
in the design have they been, or are they merely
distributors of a larger company’s designs? Don’t be
bashful about asking for accident reports or incidents of
structural failure. Any good company will immediately
report what you can safely do with their aircraft or any
problems they’ve experienced in the past.

What many ultralight owners opt to do, to further reduce
their costs, is share the expense of a kit with a friend
and keep the ultralight at a local airpark, or in a
backyard if there’s an expanse of grass more than a few
hundred feet long.

Finding, at long last, an opportunity not only to escape
the confines of ground and gravity but the entanglements of
the federal bureaucracy is ultimately what keeps ultralight
enthusiasts in the pilot’s seat. I spoke with Donald McKay
one afternoon near a local airport as he was in the process
of celebrating not only his 70th birthday, but his new
ultralight license. “My son was a military and commercial
pilot and I’ve always had the bug to get in the air, but
lacked either the time or the money. It’s just great fun
for us older guys to have an opportunity to get back to the
‘Smiling Jack’ stick and rudder days when the sport of
flying . . . was a sport.”

Surprisingly, most ultralight buyers are not daredevil kids
looking for a cheap thrill but women and men very much like
Don. Whether they were ex-pilots who can’t pass the
physical or business people who’ve just never had the
opportunity to fly before now, the sport has given them a
second chance to get a taste of the air.

As I cruised over the Connecticut River that afternoon,
watching the stone-walled farmland patchwork extending to
the edge of the Adirondacks, 2,000 feet in the air, I
glanced over my left shoulder and saw a formation of geese
not 200 feet away, marking the season. As I banked right to
give them some room, it occurred to me, I was as happy as
I’d been in months.

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