American Trikes

By Dan Johnson, Experimenter Magazine, March, 2002

Made in the USA and Yankee friendly!

Many pilots and even some experts believe trikes are a European innovation. Indeed, producers across the Atlantic took the breed to new heights, yet the fact remains that the earliest commercial producers of weight-shift trikes were here in the United States. In the early 1980s trikes were primarily an American phenomenon.

In the early days, before ultralights had been defined, hang gliders added power and slowly evolved to use wheeled carriages. The first producers included brands that transitioned from the hang gliding world, such as Soarmaster, Bennett Delta Wings, and Flight Designs (no relation to the German producer of the CT). All of these American names, and a good many more, are now gone.

Today, when you hear the word trikes, you may think of Air Creation, Cosmos, Pegasus, AirBorne, or other companies from Great Britain, Europe, or Australia. Most of the development work in trikes has seemed to come from imported brands. Some pilots aren't even aware American companies build trikes.

In fact, flying a weight-shift trike is often viewed as a European thing to do; true-blue Americans fly three-axis designs|or so the common perception goes. In fact, that perception is wrong. American companies have sprung up to replace those long-departed pioneers of the post-hang-gliding days. These companies have prospered and account for a sizable chunk of all trikes sold in the United States.

Like Harley, Like Trikes

The Apache trike is North Wing's two-place entry into the trike world. Fitted with a fairing and wheel pants, it competes with the more dressedout trikes produced by European manufacturers.

America once led the world of motorcycle production. Sure, lots of other countries made motorcycles, but much of the sport's early reputation was based on the likes of Harley-Davidson, among other brands.

Then came Japan Inc. Over many years, Japanese-built bikes got better and better. Honda, Yamaha, and Suzuki seemed to dominate the motorbike landscape. Eventually, a financially troubled Harley-Davidson nearly sputtered out of existence. However, the Wisconsin-based brand has now regained its prior shine and market mystique.

Like Harley, American trikes led the way in the early days of this aviation genre. But when the Europeans embraced the type, their manufacturers invested in and created better and better aircraft. They reset the standard. In America, pilots and manufacturers appeared to concentrate on three-axis aircraft, and trikes struggled along with a small piece of the market pie.

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But, like Harley, Yankee trikes are back. As trikes have become a solid part of the ultralight aviation spectrum, U.S.-based builders have reclaimed their share of the market. In fact, they've done better than that; they've also filled some areas of development left vacant by the manufacturers in other nations. The reasons why are numerous.

An Inexpensive Alternative

Europeans pay significantly more for their aircraft than we do here in the United States. High levels of taxation are one reason (a 15 percent sales-type tax is common), but dollar for euro dollar, prices across the Atlantic are higher due to certification, registration, and insurance. European pilots have also demanded more feature-laden, higher-performance machines. Trikes in Europe sell for more than $30,000 when equipped with four-stroke engines and elaborate carriages full of equipment. Such prices don't work well here.

My visits to Europe during the early days of ultralights identified the source of the differences. While America had a huge supply of used general aviation airplanes that one could buy for modest amounts of money, Europe had little to compare. Aircraft were scarcer. Airfields to use them-at least for sport use-were rare or dominated by sailplane gliders. And fuel in orders of magnitude more expensive.

In Italy, where auto gas exceeds $6 a gallon, a lowly Cessna 150 rented for more than $100 per hour|and this was years ago. In America, the same aircraft was available for $20 to $30 per hour. No wonder Europeans embraced ultralights/trikes as another, more economical way to fly.

The Maverick, by North Wing Design, taxiing out and in-flight. It is the first trike introduced with a strutbraced wing as opposed to cables. North Wing Design is headquartered in Wenatchee, Wisconsin.

So ultralights crossed the Atlantic in flocks. Quicksilvers once sold briskly on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1982, I represented Flight Design and tried to sell Europeans on the trike concept (the U.S. company was starting to sell the Jet Wing trike). When ultralights of any kind were new in Europe, few trikes existed.

Still today, Americans enjoy a huge variety of aircraft that we can buy. Ultralights, including trikes, compete for sales against 25-year-old Cessnas. Kit-built aircraft of many descriptions and ultralight manufacturers compete with each other-with an amazing diversity in the ultralight arena alone. All of this competition tends to hold prices down.

Newer Entries

Foreign producers deserve credit for their persistence at marketing trikes to three-axis-oriented Americans. Standout companies like AirBorne and Air Creation have consistently spent many dollars traveling long distances to promote their slick trikes to Yankee aviators. American companies were not invisible, but the large air show spaces occupied by these international producers with their highly evolved trikes brought more attention to the segment.

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Because of their efforts, an increasing number of pilots began to pay attention to trikes, and today, estimates show the weight-shift machines account for somewhere between 1/6 and 1/4 of ultralights flying in the United States. Naturally, steady buyers of trikes brought more producers to the party. But, European trikes are deluxe and priced to match, so it should not be surprising to hear that American trike builders have largely focused on simpler airframes that sell at modest prices.

Companies popping up in the last decade include Sabre Trikes, Kemmeries Aviation, North Wing Design, Concept Aviation, Butterfly Wings, TC's Trikes, Top Dog Ultralights, Skyboat, and WeTTrike Inc.

Other producers have come on the scene from a different direction. Powered parachute producers like Buckeye believed their carriages were adaptable to trike wings in addition to parafoil wings. Most observers acknowledge that powered parachute producers build some handsome carriages, so the combination makes sense.

Others also joined this parade with Canadian producer Para-Ski showing video of a powered parachute carriage under a delta wing that had just replaced a square parachute wing. To date, none of these convertible systems have found a big market, but they did help diversify the companies building them.

Kemmeries Aviation's Trike Zilla trike features a very basic carriage. Kemmeries outfits their trikes with foreign wings, in this case the LeMouette wing manufactured by Chronos. Kemmeries also manufactures the Tukan model and imports a number of Air Creation trikes from France.

Companies like Sabre, Kemmeries, and North Wing Design are "Made in the USA" builders that have been able to compete alongside the sleek entries from other nations. Though Sabre has begun importing a trike from the Ukraine (Venture 500), it still does a good business with its Arizonaproduced models. By many accounts, Sabre remains one of the largest suppliers of trikes among Yankee builders.

Kemmeries Aviation, long a player at importing trikes, also has its own production models, the Trike Zilla and Tukan. In particular, the Tukan model has found favor, even boasting a second producer-Roger Johnston's J&J Ultralights, a veteran enterprise that also makes the Model C trike and the SeaWing. Proprietor John Kemmeries has represented Air Creation in this country for many years. As the American market become more valuable to the French manufacturer, Kemmeries saw an opportunity and recently bought a substantial percentage of Air Creation.

North Wing Design was born of a hang gliding company. Company founder Kamron Blevins built replacement parts for abandoned hang glider designs. From this enterprise he branched into making trike wings for producers who only built the trike carriage. North Wing Design still does that, but more recently it has offered buyers a line of whole trikes, including the singleplace Maverick-the first trike with a wing that has struts instead of upper cable rigging-and the soaring trike, ATF (Air-Time Fix). Just a couple years ago, North Wing Design added its first two-place trike, the Apache.

Concept Aviation, with Don Cooney handling the one-man shop, has made a distinctively different trike in the single-place Prowler. It is one of the first American models to feature higher speeds and snappy handling from a more highly loaded wing.

Sabre Aircraft's Elite model, featuring a full-body fairing, is another of the dressier trikes "made-inthe- USA." Sabre is arguable the country's largest seller of trikes made in this country. Sabre Aircraft also imports the Venture 500 trike from the Ukraine, and partners with Arnet-Pererya in importing some fixed-wing aircraft.

All the above builders have their focus and are players in the growing market for trikes in the United States. However, trikes are like three-axis designs in that they can go many directions. "Made in the USA" builders appear to have gone places with trikes that the European designers chose not to go.

Flying Boats

I was part of early attempts to work with trikes on floats. With no way to steer in the water and no protection for the prop, we struggled to perform a water taxi (you had to alternately dip one wing and then the other in the water to zigzag your way to shore). Spray from improperly placed and too-small floats caused us to chew through numerous wood props (composite props weren't available for ultralights in those days).

Today trikes are fitted with floats more routinely, and they work well enough. But the concentration of effort seems focused on the boat-style hull in lieu of separate floats. One positive: it protects the prop. Several different brands compete for customers.

Matt Taber of Lookout Mountain Flight Park gets airborne in his company's SkyCycle. Lookout Mountain Flight Park is one of the country's leading hang gliding schools and glider dealerships. Their development of a trike that can be used on a wing that a hang glider pilot already owns makes good sense. The SkyCycle appears to perform well.

The granddaddy of this concept is a European company called Polaris. They initially produced hang gliders but later moved into powered trikes. Eventually, flying boats took over the entire company, though they retained their knowledge and expertise in building wings for trikes. Polaris experimented with an inflatable boat as the hull or floats for one of their trikes back in the late 1980s. Being even more unusual looking than trikes alone, the concept worked in the world of beach resorts where tourists look for new things to do. Entrepreneurs today operate hundreds of these at beach resorts around the world, and a reported 1,200 of them are the Flying Inflatable Boat, or FIB, from Polaris.

But as we enter 2002, several American producers are taking a piece of the action. J&J Ultralights' SeaWing is one of the more established. The SeaWing is quite unique in that it has a wing you can fold, with a hand crank, while it remains on the trike. J&J has worked with wing provider North Wing Design to accomplish this.

More recently, Personal Flight-the importer of Cosmos trikes-has offered its own Sky-Tender made of parts originating in Italy, France, and Austria but assembled and finished in the United States. Thus, Sky-Tender isn't truly made in the United States, but the idea was an American one and Personal Flight owns the name.

Still newer entries include the radically different flying boat (with a non-inflatable hull) called WeTTrike from a company of the same name, organized by ultralight veteran Ronnie Smith of South Mississippi Ultralights. Another is the Soaring Eagle Incredible Flying Boat. (I was unable to contact Soaring Eagle before press time, despite numerous attempts.) In time, U.S. companies may come to dominate this niche of the market. Meanwhile, in another sign of increasing American interest in the trike concept, Polaris founder Doi Malingri has set up the Polar Star Group in Florida.

Nanolight Trikes

Mike Jacober of Anchorage-based Arctic Sparrow Aircraft, taxies in with an Antares trike carriage mated with a North Wing Design wing. Jacober offers a variety of wings with the Antares trike, depending upon the purchasers experience and intended use of the aircraft. Sourced with American-sized tubing and bolts rather than metric, repair and replacement of parts on the North Wing wings is easier. In addition, many American pilots like the way the North Wing wings fly.

Another piece of the American trike puzzle is super-light trikes. European hang glider enthusiasts have developed some "powered harness" systems that are not trikes in the usual sense. Sweden's Mosquito, Britain's Pegasus Booster, and the Flylight Doodlebug are examples of power units attached to a harness that supports a hang glider pilot. Usually these are foot launched, though some wheel-equipped models like Germany's Minimum are in use. They overwhelmingly sell to hang glider pilots.

Americans took a different direction, and the niche is still developing. In the United States, trike carriages like Lookout Mountain's SkyCycle and North Wing Design's ATF have offered hang glider pilots the minimum in wheeled carriages with weights below 100 pounds for the chassis components, including engine and prop. Others are in development at this time. Both American nanotrikers made their machines significantly lighter than the French Cosmos Samba, but they are on par with the Italian Polaris Slip.

Yet another variation on the theme involves the powered paraglider entry to trikes, which are usually foot launched. Over the years of their evolution, tiny trike carriages have emerged for those who don't want to run. And it had to happen that these builders discovered a conventional hang glider wing could work as well as the paraglider wing with a few extra pieces of hardware. Powered paraglider trike producers found a market in those who like the convertibility of using two kinds of wings. Since both are lighter than regular trikes or powered parachutes, the wing-swap method seems to function better.

Two leading producers of these convertible trikes are Airsports USA with their DFS trike and Japan's Whisper. Formerly located in Greece, Airsports USA is a now an American company, and the New York-based operation says it now produces all parts domestically.

Domestic Content, Foreign Opportunities

The WeTTrike, on land and sea. Introduced at Sun 'n Fun 2001, the amphibious vehicle turned lots of heads. Ronnie Smith, of South Mississippi Light Aircraft, a veteran ultralight pilot and Rotax engine Repair Station, led the introduction of this combination trike/flying boat.

Exactly what does "Made in the USA" mean? How did I determine which American trikes to include in this article?

Automobiles "Made in the USA" aren't|not completely anyway. Virtually every finished product built in America has some components that are imported. Complicating matters, imports are sometimes from a partly or wholly American-owned company operating overseas, a process sometimes called reimporting.

Therefore, my criterion was 51 percent, much like the amateur-built rule. If more than half the aircraft comes from American-sourced material AND if the aircraft is assembled for kit or ready-to-fly delivery in the 50 states, then I considered it "Made in the USA."

A great majority of U.S.-built ultralights use the Rotax engine, an Austrian-imported brand. If an engine runs 25 percent or more of the unit's total cost, those aircraft are basically somewhat imported. However, a majority U.S.-built airframe still makes it a "Made in the USA" product.

The Polaris Flying Boat originated in Italy, where it cut its teeth in resort areas along the Mediterranean Coast. The company has now established a base of operations in Florida. The Polaris Company began life as a hang glider manufacturer, but eventually moved onto powered trikes and lastly flying boats.

In another kind of re-import, Alaska-based Arctic Sparrow Aircraft has adopted the Antares trike from the Ukraine. After selling fully imported models of this trike, Arctic Sparrow proprietor Mike Jacober changed gears. When the experimental amateur-built glidertrike category became a reality and with the proposed sport pilot rule on the horizon, Jacober wanted to make a fully amateur-built aircraft out of the trike. This process has never been validated as thoroughly as Jacober has done with the Antares' designer, Ukrainian partner Sergey Zozulya.

Mike found Zozulya's Antares design to be tough enough for American use as a hunting and fishing vehicle and for flights into the wilderness, which Alaska has a lot of. Being involved with the glider-trike rule, Mike further wanted an aircraft that FAA would approve for this application. It needed to be a kit, but trikes are usually not kits. European and Australian regulations have allowed manufacturers to sell readyto- fly machines, so companies in those countries prefer to deliver aircraft that require only quick-field assembly from shipping containers.

For the past 15 months, Sergey and Mike have worked ceaselessly to create an American-sourced aircraft fitted to the 51-percent rule. They've even created a fully documented assembly manual with more than 400 photos and step-bystep written instructions, edited carefully by an American expert.

J&J's SeaWing trike, with a North Wing Designs wing and mounted on Full Lotus inflatable floats, gets airborne off Lake Parker in Lakeland, Florida during Sun 'n Fun 2000|and eventually lands back on the ultralight runway at Paradise City.

"Ninety-five percent of the bolts, all the tubing, and many other parts are bought here in the USA," says Jacober. "Many of the manufacturing jigs have been transported to Alaska from the Ukraine," he adds. But the sail and certain labor-intensive parts are still sourced from the Ukraine. "You can't beat their labor cost." Nonetheless, the kit alone passes the "domestic content" rule. When an Antares Ltd. trike flies in the United States, it will be mostly Americanmade.

The American Way

As usual, we did it our way. American trike builders have addressed the American market in ways foreigners never could. You have to live in a culture to fully appreciate it. The international supplier may offer a selection of certificated trikes (some will surely qualify as light-sport aircraft), but American trike builders understand American trikers the best.

I take nothing away from several superb trikes from far-off lands, but the good ol' "Made in the USA" label still has lots of influence. Americans will buy plenty of imported trikes, but many love the way homegrown builders meet their requests. Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise, given that Yankees invented the original trike.

 



 

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