Ultralight aircraft became popular in the 70’s with the Quicksilver brand alone outselling all general aviation aircraft combined over a several year period. The FAA created federal aviation regulation (FAR) “Part 103” to define what was and was not an ultralight aircraft and the privileges and limitations of flying one. The rules are few and uncomplicated.
Basically an ultralight is an aircraft (the FAA calls it a vehicle) that has only one seat, (can carry one person only) holds a maximum of 5 gallons of fuel and weighs no more than 254 lbs when empty (no fuel). There are speed limitations for stall and maximum straight and level.
Due to many early training accidents several organizations that were supporting the ultralight movement petitioned the FAA to allow two seat trainers to be authorized and used ‘for training purposes only’. Once the FAA exemption was approved the ‘ultralight trainer’ (2-seater) and the basic flight instructor (BFI) were born. The trainers eventually outsold the Ultralights as many pilots became a BFI not to teach, but to be able to legally fly their 2-seat ultralight and give rides to friends and family. The FAA was monitoring these activities.
In September 2004 when the FAA gave birth to the Sport Pilot rating (license) and the Light Sport Aircraft category, a deadline was established to allow the ultralight trainers and single seat aircraft that were too heavy to be legal Ultralights to transition to experimental light sport aircraft (ELSA) to remain legal to fly. After that date (Jan, 31, 2008) any two seat ultralight-type aircraft that does not have an FAA issued Airworthiness Certificate is forever grounded and illegal to fly.
Once registered with a government “N” number and authorized with an air-worthiness certificate an ultralight BFI could no longer fly or teach until becoming a Sport Pilot or Sport Pilot Instructor (CFI). The BFI program expired and the training exemptions were cancelled by the FAA (See ‘Sport Pilot Explained’) but FAR Part 103 remains.
Single seat, less than 254 lb empty aircraft are still legal to fly under the FAA Ultralight Rules (Part 103) and no license is required to fly these types. However, flight lessons are required to be able to fly safely and have knowledge of the US airspace system. The ultralight pilot must adhere to the rules outlined in FAA Part 103 regulations which are covered in detail in the UL training. Due to no similarity to any ground based vehicle it is impossible to teach yourself to fly safely. Many have tried and failed (or worse). Flying lessons are mandatory. We know of many ‘experimenters’ with Ultralights who have become injured or disabled while attempting flight without training. Even a ‘fast taxi’ can be perilous. See our ‘Ultralight Lessons’ page for our training program.