Aerial Maneuvers

Pilot an ultralight and what do you get? A bird's-eye view of the world and a dose of the maverick spirit of flying.

May 1, 2004
Outside Magazine
ultralight aircraft

I AM RISING UP INTO A LAVENDER DAWN, the desert dropping beneath me as if in a dream. A thousand feet above the red earth near St. George, Utah, I throttle back, level off, and glide through the expanse of sky. Yo, Icarus, check it out! I feel like a 12-year-old who has just lifted off in a flying machine he built in his backyard. Which—given the fact that I'm piloting what is essentially a three-wheeled go-cart powered by an oversize lawn-mower engine and hung by cords from a parachute—isn't too far from the truth.

There is no metal fuselage enclosing me, no scratched cockpit plexiglass to peer through. I'm strapped into the pilot's seat and dangling in the open sky, a thrumming propeller at my back and a cool breeze skimming across my face.

There are only three flight controls on this 50-horsepower Powrachute Rascal ultralight: the throttle, which determines your rate of ascent or descent, and two foot-operated steering bars. A pair of on/off switches power the engine, and a lever mounted to the front wheel steers the vehicle, but only when it's on the ground.

I gaze down between my legs, through fathoms of nothingness, upon the desert of southwestern Utah. Wriggling gravel roads, straight-shooting fences, dendritic arroyos, clusters of cottonwoods, the sprawl of St. George (pop. 55,000). On the ground, with nothing but the restrictive horizontal perspective—the curse of all flightless, earthbound creatures—it's a labyrinth. But from up here, Zeus's view, everything becomes cartographically clear. St. George is transformed into a toy town with checkerboard blocks and tiny sidewalks. Highway 9 and Interstate 15 are logical lines connecting St. George with the nearby communities of Washington and Hurricane. The Virgin and Santa Clara rivers snake easily between flat-topped mesas, following paths of least resistance. A miniature world exists down there, appearing so orderly and purposeful as to inspire a wondrous sense of serenity.

Until: "Mark!" The voice on the helmet radio screeches in my ears. "This is Frederick. Looks like you're enjoying yourself up there. Ready to try landing?"

I check my watch. I've been flying for over an hour, buzzing around in giant, meditative circles.

"Uhh, right. Why not."

"OK, Mark. Finish off the downwind leg, drop to 100 on the base, turn into the upwind leg, and let's see if you can bring her in."

No sweat. I cruise over the landing zone (LZ) and give Frederick Scheffel, my instructor, a heroic thumbs-up, stomp the left steering bar, arc tightly, ease back on the throttle, float down to 100 feet above ground level (AGL), and line up the landing field.

But something's wrong. I seem to be sliding sideways in the air, drifting to the left. The aircraft is unwilling to fly straight. For a moment I can't figure it out. Then my eyes snap toward the orange windsock on a pole in the field. On my final pass over the landing zone, I have been explicitly told to observe the orientation of the windsock. Now I realize that the wind has shifted 90 degrees since I took off. I'm descending into a gusty crosswind—a stupid, potentially dangerous mistake.

Suddenly I'm quite close to the ground. The wind is blowing me toward a barbed-wire fence. Scheffel's horror stories ricochet through my head: the "brainless fool" who tried to land on a moving train, tangled with some utility wires, and died when he smacked headfirst into the moving cars; the "idiot" who crashed into a barbed-wire fence and had to be pieced back together with 40 stitches. Starting to panic, I instinctively grab the front-wheel lever and try to steer away from the fence rushing toward me, but my terrestrial reflexes won't help me now, and turning the front wheel won't turn the damn aircraft. I frantically jam the lever as far as it will go, but, of course, the ultralight will not respond.

I realize I'm going to smash into the flesh-shredding barbed wire and become the next idiot.

"Mark! What the hell . . . ? Throttle. Throttle!"

My flooded brain is unable to translate this strange language, but somehow my right hand gets the message and shoves the throttle to the hilt. At the last nanosecond, when I can almost feel the barbed wire snagging on the seat of my pants, I zoom back up into the soft, welcoming sky.

EVEN BEFORE THERE were written words, humans dreamed of flying, envying the freedom of flitting songbirds and marveling at the raptors soaring overhead. The desire to fly is so ubiquitous in ancient myth and folklore that it seems hardwired into our consciousness.

Four thousand years ago, the Chinese emperor Shun was said to have taken off by flapping two large reed hats. Egypt's sun god, Ra, is often depicted wearing falcon wings. Greek mythology recounts the fatal flight of Icarus, whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. The Tang dynasty poet Li Po claimed to have been borne aloft in a chariot pulled by a phoenix and a dragon. Milarepa, an 11th-century Tibetan Buddhist monk, was said to have attained the gift of flight and ridden a small drum to the top of the holy mountain Kailas.

It was only a matter of time before actual mortals attempted takeoff. In the early 11th century, a monk named Eilmer leaped from a tower in Malmesbury, England, with winglike contraptions strapped to his arms and managed to glide several hundred yards before tumbling from the sky and breaking both legs.

Four centuries later, over a period of 40 years, Leonardo da Vinci produced more than 400 sketches and references, in his obsessive attempts to figure out the mechanics of flying. In the late 18th century, a British scientist named George Cayley formulated the basic principles of flight: lift, drag, weight, and thrust. In 1853, Cayley convinced his coachman to climb aboard a glider and soar above the English countryside; he became the first human being to fly and survive unscathed. Fifty years later, two American bicycle manufacturers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, ushered in the era of powered aviation with Orville's 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

The rest is history. Biplanes, the Red Baron, mail planes, Lindbergh, World War II bombers, jet planes, commercial airliners, the Concorde, the space shuttle. Decade by decade, planes grew bigger and faster until routine flight became about as adventurous as a bus ride across Kansas.

But even as aeronautical innovations accelerated, a small core of purists were determined to recapture the visceral sensation of birdlike flight. In the early seventies, aviation throwbacks would haul their rudimentary hang gliders up some remote hillock and leap off. Crashes were common; tinkering with new designs, habitual.

In 1975, a 32-year-old glider pilot named John Moody attached a ten-horsepower, two-stroke Chrysler motor onto his glider, the Icarus II. A year later, he flew it at the Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In Convention, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, introducing the world to ultralight flying. In early 1980, Dick Eipper, founder of San Diego–based glider manufacturer Quicksilver, began selling the first commercially successful fixed-wing ultralight kit, for $2,995. Three years later, the powered parachute (PPC), a twin-engine version powered by two counter-rotating propellers, made its debut at the Sun 'n Fun air show, in Lakeland, Florida. It was the rebirth of adventure flying: retro, counterculture, seat-of-the-pants.

"They were renegades back then, and I guess we still are," says Scott Wilcox, veteran pilot and editor-in-chief of Ultralight Flying!, a 29-year-old publication based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, not far from Lookout Mountain, one of the original hang-glider hills. "Ultralight flying isn't about transportation; it's about the magic of pure, simple flight."

Today there are more than 15,000 ultralight pilots and over 100 ultralight manufacturers in the U.S. Defined by the FAA as an aircraft that weighs less than 254 pounds and carries no more than five gallons of gas, modern ultralights fall into six different categories: fixed-winged aircraft that resemble stripped-down versions of conventional small airplanes; trikes, which have a hang-glider-type wing with a carriage for engine and pilot; motorized hang gliders; powered paragliders (PPGs), in which the engine and caged propeller are mounted on a backpack and connected by cords to a parachute; gyrocopters; and the go-cart-like PPCs. Although regulated by the FAA, ultralighting does not require a pilot's license. For the price of a used car, you can buy your own flying machine and soar away.

BUT FIRST YOU NEED to learn to fly. That's why I'd signed up for a four-day course at SkyTrails Ranch, a PPC training center in St. George. Founded in 1999 by Scheffel and fellow pilot Paul Gooch, SkyTrails takes advantage of the high desert's stable weather and consistent flying conditions.

At first glance, the powered parachute appears a hermaphroditic aircraft—half loud, thrusting engine, half soft, pliant airfoil. But the combination creates a surprisingly forgiving flying machine. The cart—which carries the engine, prop, and pilot—hangs like a pendulum below the 36-foot-wide canopy. In the air, the craft always self-corrects. For example, press a steering bar out as far as it will go and you'll begin to spiral downward, the cart swinging outward with considerable centrifugal force. Simply let off on the bar, however, and the cart will stabilize beneath the chute.

The parachute, a series of sewn-together hollow tubes that inflate when airborne, has the unique ability to rebuild itself in less than 50 vertical feet of drop. Translation: If for some reason your wing collapses in a freak wind, the chute will balloon back to shape within seconds. The PPC, in other words, is its own emergency landing device. Top speed for the PPC is 32 miles per hour, and its maximum range (due to the five-gallon fuel limitation) is about 50 miles.

Straightforward as they are to fly, PPCs are still aircraft, and not idiot-proof; learning aeronautical basics is essential. Three other students and I spent the first day at SkyTrails in ground school, working through concepts in the 260-page Powered Parachute Guide and Training Manual: the Bernoulli principle, thrust vs. drag, lift vs. weight, wing loading, propeller/ engine torque compensation, wake turbulence, density altitude—flight theory that seemed complicated on the ground but began to make sense once I was airborne. On day two, after practicing taxiing, turning, and kiting (accelerating until the chute pops up above your cart) on a dirt field southeast of town, we notched our inaugural flight, an instructor-assisted soar in a two-seater PPC.

Later that day, I took my first solo flight. After my near miss with the barbed-wire fence and after my heart rate dropped below 200, I managed to land into the wind, safely and properly. As I rolled to a stop and cut the engine, Scheffel ambled toward me.

"Just practicing my below-radar maneuvers," I said, pulling off my sweat-drenched helmet.

Scheffel grimaced and stared at me through his aviator sunglasses. A stubby, suntanned, sandy-haired 52-year-old, he is normally chipper as a sparrow.

"The powered parachute is the safest ultralight there is, Mark. Only 26 people in the past two decades have figured out how to kill themselves flying one." A smile was sneaking up on him. "I've taught hundreds of people to fly, and no student of mine has ever even broken a fingernail. I don't expect this to change. Now, what'd you do wrong?"

I humbly enumerated my mistakes. Showing off and not checking the windsock. Consequently trying to land across the wind. In a panic, mixing up ground steering (wheel-turning lever) with aeronautical steering (foot bars). Forgetting to throttle up when it was apparent the landing should be aborted.

"You got it," Scheffel said. "Put your helmet back on. I want you to kite your chute and do a pre-flight. You're going right back up."

I refueled the PPC, gave it a thorough inspection, and flicked the engine switch on. As soon as the motor warmed up, I shoved the throttle forward and began rolling fast down the dirt. Within a few seconds, the chute leaped up above me, and I was airborne.

An hour later, when I came safely back to earth, I'd been grinning so hard my teeth were speckled with bugs.

BECAUSE OF THEIR unique ability to fly low and slow, ultralights offer pilots an unparalleled proximity to the avian world. In 1982, ultralight pioneer Tracy Knauss filmed the endangered Peruvian condor for ABC Sports' The American Sportsman series, setting a precedent for ultralight-assisted wildlife research. In 1988, an organization called Operation Migration began using ultralights to teach flight routes to Canada geese; for the past four years, it's been raising and training flocks of endangered whooping crane hatchlings to follow safe migratory paths.

Certainly the most poignant and widely acclaimed example of the use of ultralights is the 2003 documentary film Winged Migration, by French director Jacques Perrin. Using ultralights, Perrin and his crew of 18 pilots and dozens of cinematographers flew in formation with bar-headed and greylag geese, red-crowned cranes, white storks, and two dozen other species on their astounding thousand-mile global journeys. Taking advantage of birds' ability to imprint on their human "parents," Perrin's team of ornithologists spent a year breeding, raising, and training the chicks to tolerate close-quarters filming, and three years shooting the documentary. The result is the most intimate portrait of avian flight captured on film. It makes you want to fly. It made me want to fly.

Day three at SkyTrails Ranch, and I'm drifting through the sky at 1,000 feet AGL. This morning I practiced flybys: cruising over the LZ and attempting to hold the PPC level at various elevations. First 100 feet, then 50 feet, then 40, then 20. In the early afternoon I practiced touch-taxi-and-go landings, in which you graze the earth, kite your chute, then rocket right back into the sky. I reduced prop RPMs on each landing, finally alighting with the engine at a low idle.

Now for the final test: an "emergency" landing with the engine turned off.

"Mark, this is Frederick. Are you ready?" I'm not, but I say I am.

"All right, anytime you want."

I reach my arm out, place my fingers on the engine-off switch, and hesitate.

The PPC's engine is needed only for propulsion. Without the engine, the PPC will float back to earth at half the rate of an ordinary parachutist, practically landing itself. I know this intellectually, but that doesn't mean squat. It seems like unshakable common sense to believe that when an aircraft's engines go, everybody dies. For a split second, ugly scenes try to squeeze into my brain: planes nosediving, twirling, horrific screeching, explosions on impact.

I hit the switch. The engine sputters, the propeller slows to a click. Silence.

My heart jumps when I find that I am not falling out of the sky. I have tipped slightly downward and am gradually, gracefully descending. The experience is so viscerally thrilling, so primeval and satisfying, a huge laugh of relief and joy escapes from my chest. I float back to earth as calm as a feather.

ON THE LAST DAY of class, I fly a cross-country loop. Out over a sea of red sand dunes, I skim just above one butte after another, eventually arcing left and following the silvery Virgin River back to the landing field.

It's supposed to be the end of the course, but I can't get enough. I want to go up just one more time.

It is early evening when I lift off; long purple shadows streak the scarlet desert. I head off in a direction I've never gone before and fly higher than I've ever flown—1,000, 2,000, 3,000 feet. From this height I can see the gentle curve of the earth. From this height the magnificence of landscape overwhelms the minuscule marks of humankind. Up here, there is only open sky and unspoiled earth. It's a perspective so holistic that every human should have the opportunity to experience it.

At 3,500 feet AGL I shut down the engine. The empty silence surrounds me. I am alone in space. Only the faint flutter of the nylon wing above me can be heard. I've spent much of my ascent looking down; now I look up and out and am shocked to find I'm not alone. From out of a clear blue sky, a bird: Flying beside me is a juvenile bald eagle. For unknown reasons, perhaps just youthful curiosity, the eagle is escorting me through the warm welkin.

We are parallel, so close to each other I can see the animal's feathers tremble. The eagle twists its head, looks me in the eye, and turns its regal beak back into the wind.

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