Flying For Fun

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There's been a lot of talk lately among the GA community about how to attract more people to flying, especially the next generation. But most efforts seem focused on getting new pilots directly into Cirruses, or 172s, or at least an LSA. All the other options out there that get folks into the air a lot more cheaply -- ultralights, gliders, balloons, etc. -- don't seem to enter into the equation. I talked with some other pilots about this recently and the answer I got, in essence, was that those kind of aircraft just aren't manly enough to appeal. They're like offering a moped to somebody who wants a Harley.

Yet the other day, a pilot friend sent me this video of a skydiving operation in Dubai. These guys seem to be having some serious fun (some of it in ways the FAA probably would not allow) and amid all the high-powered, high-adrenaline play, I spotted a few powered parachutes, a trike, and a hot-air balloon. Isn't this what fun flying is about ... taking off from a beach, hanging out with friends, just being free to be up in the air and go places and explore? Is the pool of people that would appeal to, really too small to bother with? Maybe this kind of flying just needs better PR -- it's not a moped, it's an all-terrain vehicle, a Jeep, a dirt bike, an adventure machine.

It could be that these are two completely different pursuits -- sport flying and GA flying -- so the groups that support GA just don't see it as a good investment to encourage people to fly for fun. But it seems to me that if the fun fliers grow in number, they would provide a great target audience for the GA message. If you've already made the big leap from non-flyer to pilot-in-command, you might be a better prospect for moving into a Cirrus or a Cessna down the line. Even if these pilots never do move up, they're still building the constituency for flight, adding more people who understand that the freedom of the air is a freedom we need to keep. And the pool of people who could find enough money and time to fly ultralights has to be way bigger than the pool of prospective Cirrus pilots.

So, it seems to me that part of the GA strategy should be to build a stronger sport flying community, with stronger connections to the rest of GA. For starters, I'd guess that a fair number of students who are curious about flying but drop out of traditional training programs long before earning their private certificate, would be lots happier learning to fly a trike for fun, if only someone had suggested that to them. Instead of trying to figure out how to retain those students in the traditional programs, maybe flight schools should try to offer more options at the outset, and find new ways to sell those students what they really want -- an awesome experience of flight.

Comments (20)

Well, from the other side od the pond, you might know Czech Republic as a place where a lot of LSA's are manufactured. But, beside that fact, there is a very large (well in our numbers, we are just 10mio nation) group of sport pilots, flying anything from paraglides, though various trikes (commonly called a "textile airforce") to 450kgs ultralights with glass cockpits and transponders, flying on the same level as other GA planes.
Just this year, a 600kgs category for homebuilds (here "heavier means safer") was approved by Ministry of Transportation.
All this is managed by a Light Aircraft Association (, which is in our terms "very friendly" supervising agency.
In terms of amateur flying, we are perhaps the most advanced in whole Europe.
Altough we have to follow the rules for "big flying", there is always place and time for flying for fun.

Posted by: Jiri Hubka | May 9, 2011 3:51 AM    Report this comment

Mary, you hit the nail on the head with this one. I started flying hang gliders in the 70's then went into ultralights, eventually a Luscombe and now a Grumman Tiger. At the age of 18 I certainly didn't have the money to go right into a used light single let alone something like a Cirrus but I could afford a hang glider and it was a blast. When climbing sand dunes got old and an engine sounded like fun it was only a couple thousand bucks more to get into an ultralight. You get the idea. Point is it kept me interested in flying as I became more financially able to move up to bigger and better things. All that's needed is the spark to not die out.

Posted by: Gary Caron | May 9, 2011 7:07 AM    Report this comment

Flying is a PERSONAL pursuit. That's why all this "we need more women pilots" or we need more black pilots" is downright silly. Quit trying to impose a "GA Strategy" to a personal pursuit.

Dubai ILLUSTRATES that it's personal; no one had to develop a strategy. No program was implemented. No GA community was involved. If PEOPLE want to fly, they will fly. If people don't, who cares?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | May 9, 2011 7:19 AM    Report this comment

I agree entirely. Work takes me to northern Germany frequently, and in the small town where I work there is a grass airstrip that is used almost entirely for recreational flying. Trikes, microlights, gliders, motorgliders, and the occasional Cessna operate every weekend with fair weather. Over half of the people flying are in the 30 and under age group, and you can get a 30-minute glider ride for the cost of a 6-pack (the instructors prefer the local brew). There is a small cafe and gasthaus on the grounds and a dedicated camping area, even though the field is only a 20 minute bike ride from the city center. There are no Bizjets, Bonanzas, twins, or turbo props to complain about slower aircraft and the pace of flying is busy, but not frenetic. People are friendly and inviting enough to allow a wandering American to walk onto the field and ask for a ride. The glider club especially is full of teenagers and their spirit of adventure makes flying all the more fun. You can easily spend an entire day there, have a decent meal, and have one or more fun flights around the local area. People aren't trying to impress anyone, and aren't flying to go anywhere (trains and autobahns are cheaper). They fly simply for the joy of flight and don't spend a lot of money and time to do it.

Posted by: Scott Thomason | May 9, 2011 7:58 AM    Report this comment

Part 2 -

I've decided that GA sacrifices too much time and money from my family (who aren't airplane nuts like me) and will sell my share of a Cessna 152. I never have money to go anywhere anyway. Perhaps a 2-seat trike will be in my future, maybe electric. I can fly locally for fun and trailer it with me if I want to go somewhere. I'll leave aerial transportation to the pros.

I think it (painfully) ironic that owning an aircraft actually prevents me from taking the family traveling, due to costs on my limited income. I think once we face the fact that recreational flying cannot be about family-hauling transportation (for most of us) then the more likely we will have a more vibrant sport flying population.

Posted by: Scott Thomason | May 9, 2011 7:59 AM    Report this comment

I, for example, fly ultralights from Letnany airfield in Prague. It is within a Military CTR and under TMA of Prague Ruzyne Airport, we have to use the transpoder and talk to the Tower, but, at the same time, we have our share of space and everything works (even gliders!).
And now the real deal. As a "graduate" of local flying school I can rent their airplane to go anywhere I want. They have quite a range of airplanes, from trike-like ULL, through Eurostars, Zlin 126, 152's and 172's.
So, provided I have the licence, I can go "castlestroming" with the microlight today and tomorrow, I can take my family to Germany or to Croatia for a weekend. The rent cost is quite good, actually, compared to share of own airplane.

Posted by: Jiri Hubka | May 9, 2011 8:44 AM    Report this comment

1- "Could ultralights be the gateway drug for the next generation of pilots?"
Are you out of your freaking mind ? Referencing aircraft to drugs ...? BAD journalism and STUPID !

2- You have, apparently not heard much about the EAA,
Ultralight clubs, Light Sport Aircraft, Oshkosh, Sun and Fun, Arlington. You speak (write) as if these do not exist.
Flight could always use more PR and exposure to the public to it's benefit, but this is not new news.

Jim Vroom, pilot: Experimental,cert GA,Ultralight, LSA.

Posted by: Jim Vroom | May 9, 2011 9:02 AM    Report this comment

Getting into the air can be done very cheaply. The avenues touted by the traditional flight shcools are NOT the only way to the sky. Unfortunately, since the ultralight end of aviation has less money for advertising and promotion than other parts of big business aviation, UL flying gets less attention, especially with the major aviation media outlets. Canada has some outstanding ultralight aircraft rules, allowing planes like Cubs, Champs and Merlins to fly as ULs. And you can't believe the fun we're having in the air up here! Our planes are cheap to fly, easy to maintain and insure, and cheap to get licenses for. Start looking for the local EAA chapter, the local COPA or AOPA flight, or the local flying club NOT tied to a training school, and you'll immediately start seeing cheaper ways to fly that are vastly more fun than 13 gph on autopilot with an avionics suite that costs more than most annual salries. If you want true stick and rudder fun and adventure, the light end, and especially the ultralight end, of aviation is where it's at!

Posted by: Stu Simpson | May 9, 2011 9:05 AM    Report this comment

Per Stu's comment: Well stated.

We do not have to buy new Cessna, Piper etc, LSA.
Safe aircraft are not cheap but there are good, used and affordable aircraft out there ... just get off the lazy butts and look !!

Posted by: Jim Vroom | May 9, 2011 9:14 AM    Report this comment

I own and fly a 1946 Cessna 140 and have flown various light aircraft over the years. There are plenty of affordable, certified aircraft out there for our use. I've never flown professionally and use my aircraft for business travel only rarely (maybe once every few years). So, I fly mainly for the joy of it. But, some of the most *fun* I've had was flying an untralight (the prototype Sky Pup). It's not much use for going any distance and I wouldn't be comfortable in it with much wind or in rough air, but it was pure, unadulterated FUN. When I watch the ulralights at AirVenture flying off a short little grass strip at about bird height and, in many cases, at about bird speed, well... That's nothing more than flying for the sake of being in the air. There's certainly room for that and that experience might indeed be closer to why people initially want to fly. Afterward, maybe they'll see utility as an additional facet of flight, but if they don't, at least they're flying. This isn't, and should never be, an "us vs. them" situation.

Posted by: Kim Elmore | May 9, 2011 9:28 AM    Report this comment

Ultralights are a great introduction to flying and although only a minority of those who partake are motivated to invest the effort and money needed to continue onward, the activity at least gets more people into the skies and sympathetic to aviation.

It would be wonderful if, as is done elsewhere in the world, we could develop viable ultralight clubs operating club aircraft to lower the entry barrier. Unfortunately, I fear that the parasite drag of America's fabulous tort system makes getting THAT particular craft off the ground pretty much impossible.

Posted by: John Wilson | May 9, 2011 12:26 PM    Report this comment

Kim - I have a 1947 Cessna 140 for 18 months with some partners and absolutely loved it. Gas was $2.50/gal and it only burned 4.5 gph, and we had a spot in the EAA hangar for very little per month. Alas, I had to move away and that gateway to flying closed for me. Also, that was in S. California and there were MANY places to fly to and see/do stuff in only an hour's flight. Not so in my new location.
The only drawback I can see for Ultralights is the storage issue. Most are fabric and need to be hangared to be kept safe in most areas of the country. Unfortunately, hangar space is rare and expensive enough to prohibit still more people from flying. That said, a 2-seat, 40 to 60 mph flight above the trees is about as much fun as you can have in this life.

Posted by: Scott Thomason | May 9, 2011 2:24 PM    Report this comment

Encouraging the young (of all ages) in regards to ultralights is one of the best ways for them to experience the joy of flight. If only 1 in 50 goes on to get their PPL and eventually a certified aircraft, how many would that add to GA? Seems like there's a few ultralights around these days, many for sale at prices the young can afford. Encourage them, help them fly safely. And quit complaining about that 50mph thing in front of your 150 knot Whizbang Special. We had all better hang together, pilots.

Posted by: Tom Mitchell | May 9, 2011 8:13 PM    Report this comment

Mary - spot on - great article. Mark, in my personal pursuit of aviation, I like to go different places in my airplane and land at other airports. I like to fly in the airspace above other peoples property. For this reason, it is in everyone's interests to foster growth in aviation or there will no longer be the opportunity to fly solely for personal satisfaction.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | May 10, 2011 1:41 PM    Report this comment

When I first got interested in ULs, I talked with with very prominent people in the UL industry about any possible updates of Part 103. I was told quite emphatically that there wouldn’t be any, ever, and not to talk about Part 103, because there was no way anything like it would be approved today, and if people (and government) find out it is out there, it might be taken away. So much for promotion! And I can’t tell you how many GA pilots who HATE ULs, and anything having to do with them. (I’ve also met a few PPLs who let their ticket lapse after getting into UL, and would never have gotten a PPL in the first place, if they’d gotten into UL first.) So, you’ve got something that is largely HATED by people outside of it, and the people in it don’t want others to find out about it. Hardly a recipe for success!

Posted by: Ken Finney | May 11, 2011 12:48 PM    Report this comment

Ken, I absolutely believe ultralights are part of the future of GA. That being said, many of the UL pilots I know are intentionally giving the segment a black eye. We've got a UL pilot at our local field who buzzes the windsock, the runway, and everything else at 30 feet. While fun to watch once or twice, it gets real old and really interferes with operations (not to mention, one of these days this guy will likely be a smoking hole!) I think if the UL community were to make an effort to integrate into the normal operations at an airport, many uncontrolled fields would welcome them (i.e., get a handheld radio and use it, fly standard traffic patterns, don't use the runway as your personal airshow box, etc) Yes, I know radios aren't required, I know, I know, but it would help the relationship with other pilots a lot.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | May 12, 2011 7:43 PM    Report this comment

Josh- I also firmly believe ULs can and should be part of GA, but as an alternative, not necessarily as a stepping-stone. It could (and should) be done, but it would take money and commitment; but I don't see much of either. Many of the links on UL websites are broken, even on the EAA's UL section. I have a lot of ideas, but like I said originally, many of the "insiders" in the UL "industry" DON'T want it advertised. Electrics can be a huge step function increase for ULs, but they will add some challenges, as well. I'd like somebody (like the EAA, hint, hint) to step forward and say "ULs are coming back, and we are going to head up the return!"

Posted by: Ken Finney | May 13, 2011 3:45 PM    Report this comment

I am a low-time IFR pilot in Cessnas. I have considered many less expensive options to fly, but am simply not willing to decrease the safety margin any more than it's already being pushed.

In order to get folks in to these smaller craft, a lot of work needs to be done to change the reality (or appearance, if it's not real) of added risk.

Posted by: jack test | May 16, 2011 4:02 PM    Report this comment

Ah yes, "flying lawnchairs"! ;^)
The last time (and it has been awhile) that I saw any reasonable statistics, ULs piloted by people will PPLs were pretty safe, ULs piloted by newbies had horrendous safety records, which appears to indicade that they are reasonably safe. No one ever died colliding with the sky, you die by colliding with the ground. With BRSes and S-L-O-W stall speeds, ULs should be a lot safer than they appear.

Posted by: Ken Finney | May 16, 2011 4:16 PM    Report this comment

Josh said "I like to go different places in my airplane ...For this reason, it is in everyone's interest"

By definition, it's in YOUR interest, not everyone's interest. I'm skeptical of fostering growth just for the sake of growth. That means more traffic, more accidents, more incidents.

I also fly because it's personal. It's actually a good thing that the future is not choked with flying cars and an airplane in every garage (in my personal opinion).

Posted by: Mark Fraser | May 23, 2011 10:26 AM    Report this comment

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