In the late seventies the sport of hang-gliding was maturing, and pilots hungry to stay aloft longer began experimenting with adding small gasoline engines to their fixed wing and flex-wing gliders. Early pioneers invented the reduction drive unit which allowed smaller 2-cycle engines to swing a larger propeller which was a game-changer.
Snowmobile engines fitted with reduction drives proved to be the optimum power-plants. The early ships were foot launched. To handle the additional performance when adding a motor, designers modified their weight-shift gliders by adding flight controls for improved maneuverability and eventually wheels for take-off and landing which allowed the use of more powerful engines.
These early light aircraft pioneers gave birth to the Ultra-light movement and the creation of the organizations that supported the exploding sport (USUA, ASC). Tens of thousands of aircraft were designed, built, and flown in every state. In one year alone, the manufacturer of the Quicksilver brand ultra-light sold more aircraft then all of the other aircraft manufacturers combined including Cessna, Piper and Boeing. Modifications came quickly and many copied others designs in garage workshops where new brands were given birth at an ever exploding rate. Some of these designs were unsafe.
After a shakeout in the late 80’s and early 90’s most of the unsafe designs were gone and the remaining manufacturers, most of which were the early pioneers, remained with names like Quicksilver, CGS Hawk, Kolb, Challenger and RANS producing reliable designs that were sold as assembly kits for very reasonable prices.
In response to the explosion of this segment of aviation, the FAA created Federal Regulation Part 103, which defined an ultra-light, and the privileges and limitations of operating one.
Early training was done by CB radio from the ground and by towing aircraft behind ground vehicles. There was an outcry from the manufacturers and organizations to allow 2-seat trainers to be developed. After considerable industry pressure the FAA allowed the industry organizations to authorize 2-seat ultra-lights to be produced and only to be used for training under an exemption to Part 103. This exemption allowed training by instructors that were approved and certified by the organizations. Safety quickly improved as the trainer aircraft allowed proper techniques to be learned and practiced.
In 2004 the FAA created the sport pilot rules and the ultra-light trainer aircraft were no longer allowed to be used for training after 2009. Ultra-light instructors are now required to be certificated by the FAA as Sport Pilot Instructors and aircraft used for training must be factory designed, built and tested (SLSA). The existing ultra-light 2-seat training exemptions were cancelled and 2-seat ultra-lights became illegal unless they were converted to ELSA (Experimental Light Sport Aircraft) and registered with the FAA and flown by FAA licensed Sport Pilots, but not for instruction.
These changes meant to make the sport of ultra-lighting safer actually all but extinguished the ultra-light industry. The demand for inexpensive single seat aircraft didn’t diminish and a rebirth of ultra-light flying has been underway since the early 2000’s but had a setback after 911.
Today four established manufacturers in the US, two of which are the original pioneer companies under new ownership are producing safe, reliable, ultra-light fixed wing aircraft kits for sale. Two will provide a ready-to-fly aircraft. These have modern power-plants and many refinements from the original designs.
Ultra-light flying is being reborn and it is safer, more exciting and affordable than ever before. With a new Cessna selling for over $300,000, a brand new ultra-light airplane for under $20,000 is still a terrific value.
Our instructor was on the board of directors of one of the founding organizations supporting ultra-light flying and has been instructing in ultra-light airplanes since the late nineties. We meet all of the FAA regulations regarding instruction and have made arrangements with the leading manufacturers to assist you in purchasing your own new ultra-light aircraft.