What a Difference Some Decades Make: Ultralight Turf Turns 20

It's been almost 25 years since the first ultralight aircraft made their sometimes embarrassing debut at OSH. The rest, as they say, is history. So historical, in fact, that the industry has created a Hall of Fame installing its first inductees this week at EAA AirVenture '99. AVweb's Dave Higdon reflects on the mature ultralight industry and its 1975 debut.


First Pioneers Tapped For Ultralight Hall of Fame

Twenty-four EAA conventions back, a flyer of slight stature stepped off theOshkosh grass and into the air – before his Easy Riser tumbled to the groundbefore tens of thousands of eyes. But three years later, John Moody’s minormishap in his McCullough 101 chain-saw-engine-powered flyer was hardlyremembered compared to the large leap in light flying he helped launch withthose few small steps. It was 1979 and the EAA had literally given The Farm to aswarm of Risers, Quicksilvers and sundry other unconventional flying machinesnewly dubbed “ultralights.”

Twenty years later Moody’s prop wash can still be felt in the midst ofhundreds of ultralights and light planes flying from a sod strip in the shadowof The Farm’s headquarters, a big red barn. In the two decades that have lapsed,thousands of rated and unrated pilots have become Oshkosh pilots in what hasgrown into a dizzying array of designs to follow the powered hang gliders thatspawned the sport.

Fixed-wing and rotary, rigid-wing and flex wing, conventional andunconventional, it’s hard to imagine a niche with more variety of design andsingularity of purpose: fun flying.

The Envelope, Please: Ultralight Hall Of Fame Names First Three Inductees

This week, 20 years after ultralights officially became part of Oshkosh, theEAA recognized Moody and two other pioneers of ultralight aviation, Homer Kolband Chuck Slusarczyk, as the inaugural members of the EAA Ultralight AviationHall of Fame. They’ll be officially inducted at the EAA AirVenture Museum inOctober

Each contributed something individual to sport flying; all three remaininfluential even today; and all three are still flying light.

Moody, of course, remains the guy who first wowed crowds in the late 1970s,in a machine that was part hang glider, part chain saw and totallyunconventional. Moody’s foot-launching gave the FAA an impetus to declare that amachine that could be foot-launched and foot-landed was not subject to aircraftor airman regulations.

About the same time, even before the name ultralight had been invented, Kolbbuilt a tiny Briggs & Stratton-powered twin machine to fly from his farm inPennsylvania; he caused a stir at ultralight flying’s early Oshkosh appearancesby using actual landing gear in an era of foot-launch fervor. Later on, Homer’scompany, Kolb Aircraft, set a standard for a series of honest aircraft thatreflected their creator’s individual philosophy.

And Slusarczyk, a former NASA engineer, single-handedly revolutionizedultralight power when he patented a propeller-speed-reduction drive forultralight engines. Slusarczyk opened the door to quieter, more reliable lightpower for these little planes and ended the era of direct-drive engines thatdeafened with the supersonic tips speeds of their tiny wooden props.Manufacturers feared Slusarczyk might impose an expensive licensing fee to usehis creation, but “Chuckles,” as some friends call him, never enforcedthe patent. He basically gave away a potential fortune to the benefit of theultralight community.

Ultralight flying is, strangely enough, old enough to appreciate its elderstatesmen and still be young enough to have them around.

Chuck owns and runs CGS Aviation, manufacturer of the award-winning Hawkultralight; Homer sold Kolb Aircraft several years ago but he still fliesmachines he designed from his farm strip in Pennsylvania. And Moody still flieshis weight-shift Easy Riser, awing crowds with foot-launched flights of abi-winged machine powered by the thrust a tiny two-stroke engine.

And ultralights have as much appeal as ever.

We’re All Only A Medical Certificate Away From Being Ultralight Pilots

Each Oshkosh, thousands of spectators flock daily to The Farm to watch thesehappy folks and their colorful flying machines as the dot the sky in poweredparachutes, hang-glider trikes, and conventional-design ultralights. In the warmglow of dawn, during most of the day, and on until dusk, the sounds of tinyengines draws the faithful and the curious, many would-be pilots ineligible fora pilot’s license but still drawn inexorably toward the sky.

Curiously, ultralights originally were viewed by many as the budget-orientedpath to flight for people uninterested in tackling the rigors of formal flighttraining. Thanks to the advent of FAR 103, which defined what is an ultralightin 1982, ultralight aviation remains largely free of FAR-reaching influence. Nolicense or registration is required; the FAA sets no standards of airworthiness;participants largely self-regulate their flying.

And, fortunately, FAR 103 eliminated foot-launching as a requirement.

Over the years, however, the predominant profile of an ultralight flyer hasbeen that of a licensed pilot who also flies certificated aircraft. Seems someaviators just want to have fun once in a while boring holes in the sky.

“These machines are the great leveler of aviation,” said FrankBeagle, who provides color and commentary as the public-address announcer at TheFarm. The owner and pilot of a vintage (at least in ultralight terms)Pterodactyl ultralight. “Up there, it doesn’t matter whether you fly jetsfor a living or Cessnas for family travel,” he said.

“We’re all up there to have fun, for the simple thrill of flying and theenjoyment of flying with others of our ilk.”

History Repeated: Grass-roots Flying Machines Even The Wrights Would Love

Watching the sunset flying down on The Farm this week reaffirmed somethingEAA founder Paul Poberezny predicted back at the beginning, when he noted thatthe ultralight pioneers were simply reinventing aviation in much the same waythat aviation’s first pioneers progressed early in the century: bytrail-and-error, science and experimentation, innovation and piracy.

“They eventually will come full-circle back to simply being very lightairplanes for using that vast ocean of air above us,” he said back in theearly 1980s. “Every generation has its pioneers, and the people that arereinventing aviation today will be the pioneers we look back on years fromnow.”

Watching the variety of styles and designs and configurations flying The Farmthis week, it seems Paul hit it right on the head.