FACING THE BUYING DECISION, PART II
Last time we discussed the pilot (you!); this time we discuss the many types of aircraft choices you have. In the last installment, we’ll put these together and help you narrow your choices to a few models.
What Kind of Pilot Are You?
Let’s just say you actually know yourself. While this sounds like a comment that deserves a “Duh!” response, don’t be too quick to judge. If every pilot or buyer of aircraft knew what they needed or wanted, my job would be easier. But it isn’t so. Most pilots know something about what they want, but many don’t have enough information to make the best decision.
Some readers are “experts.” A good many ultralight or light plane enthusiasts have been around long enough and owned enough variety of ultralights to know what they like.
These veteran sport aviators represent a lot of combined experience. If you’re new to ultralight flying, I strongly encourage that you seek out local experts. They can be your very best source of information because they know you. (However, as I reminded you last time, remember that anybody selling any aircraft — whether their own or one they represent — has a bias that you must not overlook. This does not mean their advice isn’t worthy, but you must consider their position.)
Be Honest with Yourself
The subject of who you are, pilot-wise, was discussed in the first installment of this three part series on buying an ultralight or light aircraft. If you are new ultralight pilot, you should start there (see Experimenter, August 1999, page 7).
To make this second installment more useful, I will refer to categories raised in the first series. I’ll try to remind you of the pilot part of the decision as I attempt to show specific makes and models that address what YOU, the pilot, wants or needs. (Though it will be helpful for you to read the first article, it isn’t mandatory.)
In the concluding third installment, I’ll try to put it all together… that is, I’ll try to link you up with a few of your best choices of ultralights. This information will be no better than the accuracy of your own answers about yourself and the type of ultralight or light plane you want or need. That is to say, if you are true to yourself when you go through the first two article installments, the third should help you narrow your choices to a few aircraft. If you fool yourself, you’ll fool me, too, and all bets are off as to the quality of my advice. Fair enough?
Choices, Choices, Choices
Ain’t America great? Your problem is trying to choose between many aircraft that might serve your desires. Around the world, most people don’t have this problem. For many reasons, from cost, to regulations, to lack of availability, most people who might like to fly ultralights or light planes can’t do so. We’re lucky indeed. Our big challenge is to pick the RIGHT airplane from a rather long list.
In order to keep this series of articles shorter and more readable, I will present about 80 choices among aircraft. The total list is at least twice that many and can approach three times that many depending on how you decide what qualifies.
I’ve deliberately limited the number of aircraft that I’ll refer to in this second installment. I am not excluding other designs because they are the wrong choice. Instead I will refer to only those with which I’ve had direct, first-hand experience, and those which have found a recognizable share of the American market. If I were able to update this series of articles, I would add a few new designs each year and eliminate some that have dwindled in popularity or disappeared outright.
I have also ignored many excellent international brands. Europe is particularly is rich in designs Americans have never seen. Most buyers don’t want to be the importer as it carries extra duties and we have plenty of choices here in USA. So, I’ve left out virtually all international brands that are not actively represented here. Even some Canadian designs aren’t discussed unless they enjoy a visible presence in the U.S. market.
If you own or represent a brand that didn’t get mentioned, please don’t feel slighted. The article simply had to be limited in size and I used my judgment as to the brands and models in which I perceive the greatest interest by the flying community. If you are reading this article much after the end of 2000, it is surely dated.
So, Up We Go
One more point bears explaining. In the following seven categories, some aircraft qualities deserve mention in more than one category. Trying to keep the article shorter, I did not cross index between categories. For example, under “Type of [Pilot] Experience,” no mention is made of three-axis versus weight shift control as that discussion appears under “Personal Preferences.”
Question 1 – Depth of Experience:
– Those trading up
– Those transitioning from other aircraft types
Fortunately, most ultralights and light planes can be handled by relative beginners. A few are clearly “move up” models, but less than you’d think.
For those just starting in ultralight flying, a few brands stand out in my mind. Among basic kits, beginners may focus on Aero-Lite 103, Sparrow UL, Hawk, FP606, T-Bird I, Challenger, GT400, and Quicksilver Sprint or Sport. One defining quality of these choices is that, besides have very straightforward flight characteristics, they are all tri-gear (or available that way) because tricycle gear brings the simplest landing qualities. I did not include any trikes or powered parachutes. For most U.S. pilots trikes will require trike instruction and it isn’t uniformly available. Conversely, while powered parachutes are primarily bought by newcomers (70% non-pilots according to market leader, Buckeye), they don’t all employ standard control characteristics. Powered parachutes make good starter aircraft but they may not prepare you well for other aircraft types.
For most beginning pilots, the conventional flying, three-axis, tri-gear models may be the best all-around choice. Certainly, however, if the look of trikes or powered parachutes interests you, you should pursue them if instruction is available. Since America is a big country and since aviation is not a huge enterprise, you should be prepared to travel to obtain instructions. Flying from one part of the country to another to get the best training is not a bad idea because it may not take too long. A one week vacation — say in Arizona or Florida where the weather is generally good — may be enough to get you to solo. This is not true in general aviation where weeks or months may be required. Once you’ve soloed you should join a local club where you can get further feedback and advice while you build your skills.
For those with some background and ready for a move up from the above designs, a few that may be interesting include Champion, Javelin, Thunder Gull, Sky Raider, Hurricane, Slingshot, Phantom, S-9, S-14, the Talon, Kitfox Lite, Hiperlight, or Tornado.
Pilots with time logged in simpler ultralights may want to make the jump to a trike for several reasons including portability, performance, utility in several ways, or just to have something different.
Those with specialized interest may also want to consider Aventura — or any number of ultralights on floats — for water-based flying. Others may want the look of old-time aircraft and they can examine several models from Fisher, Loehle, or others.
General aviation pilots used to Cessnas and Pipers may be best advised to stick with aircraft offering conventional controls, tri-gear, and faster speeds as these will most closely match what they’re used to flying. However, some GA pilots are looking at ultralights to do a different kind of flying. Many airline jockeys fly ultralights because they’re fun.
A piece of advice for any GA pilots is to get at least some ultralight instruction. Your Cessna or Piper (or airliner!) will not fly like these light machines. Ultralight takeoffs seems sudden, climb angles are steeper, roll rates are slower, the openness of a cockpit (or lack of side fuselage) may throw these pilots, and stalls feel the same but don’t lose nearly the same amount of altitude.
Questions 2 – Type of Experience
– Cross-over Factor (UL to GA or reverse)
– Amphibious or Float-Equipped
Immediately, you can perhaps see how the categories overlap. Your background of experience affects your purchase.
A general aviation pilots with thousands of hours can be expected to make the transition to an ultralight or light plane relatively easily. Or is that true? It depends on attitude, too. A 7,000-hour pilot with a closed mind will struggle to make an ultralight do what his Bonanza did, and he may not succeed. However, a 100-hour newly licensed Private Pilot may be more receptive to the transition process. If you like “how it has been,” you should stick with something common to your experience. GA pilots may want to stick with the Champion, FireFly, FireStar, Kitfox Lite, Stinger, miniMax, Air-Bike, or Drifter (if they have taildragger experience) and the Aero-Lite 103, Sparrow, Hawk, T-Bird, Airaile, or Tornado if not.
Clearly your background influences what type of control system you prefer. Someone with extensive three-axis experience may not want to learn weight shift, however fascinating that method may be. Many pilots don’t want to go through the beginner process again, an understandable though limiting attitude. Conversely, those who start in powered parachutes may never choose to try conventional three-axis ultralights.
By now, you may have cleverly observed that I’ve omitted many two seaters. Some GA pilots are looking at ultralights because they can keep flying after losing their medical. Others still have licenses and want two seats. The former group will be happy to find many good choices of Part 103-capable ultralights but you need to ask questions of the manufacturer to assure your particular aircraft will make the weight (usually the toughest requirement to fulfill).
Licensed GA pilots who want two seaters might consider the Beaver, Capella (with tri-gear), Hawk, Thunder Gull, Flightstar, Challenger, Coyote II, Revelation, Mark III, X-Air, Tornado, or Hornet.
Two seaters meeting an alternative interest for modern GA pilots include the Fisher Classic biplane, Preceptor, Aventura II, Drifter (2-seater), or open-cockpit Quicksilver or Sport 1000. Some licensed GA pilots will want the “ultimate ultralight,” the twin-engined Air Cam, but such an aircraft will generally be bought only by knowledgeable pilots.
Floatplane flying is a highly desirable activity that actually works better in ultralights or light planes than in general aviation (because it’s much less hard on the airframe). If float flying interests you, many choices await you because most manufacturers have added straight or amphibious floats to their planes and even some trikes. Only the Aventura is a successful amphibian-hull lightplane and other choices demand a conversation with factory personnel to determine advisability of float operations. If the manufacturer has no experience to offer, then you’ll be the “test pilot,” a job most of us don’t want.
Taildraggers are also different in ultralights and light planes. They are generally easier to handle than general aviation taildraggers. The reasons are slower speeds at takeoff and landing plus flatter deck angles. The easiest taildraggers I’ve flown — requiring almost no transition — include the Hawk, FP202 and 404, Sky Raider, FireFly and FireStar, Parasol, Stinger, Talon, and Air-Bike.
Question 3 – Personal Preference
– Physical (entry, seating, dimensions)
– Open or Enclosed
– Part 103 or Trainer
– Building Evaluation
– Uniqueness factor (see genre)
– Maintenance Availability
– Features & Systems (laden or spartan)
– Genre (Vintage, Modern UL, Unconventional UL, GA-like)
– Control (3-axis, Weight shift, Other)
– Storage Features (Folding Wing, “Unplug,” Tear Down, None)
Now we have to get personal. In truth, we won’t get too personal here, but you must remember an article like this cannot address each reader on a personalized basis.
For those with disabilities or other physical restrictions, entry/exit ease are genuine considerations. Those that are easier include the Aero-Lite 103, Javelin, Hawk, Sky Raider, T-Bird (without doors), Drifter, FireFly or FireStar, Dragonfly, Challenger (without doors), GT400, Quicksilver, Sport 1000, and Stinger. Many otherwise fine airplanes can be tough to get in without twisting and turning. More challenging aircraft to enter/exit include the Mitchell Wing, Thunder Gull, Hurricane, some Loehle models, Phantom, and Tornado.
If you’re quite large, you may want to pay particular attention to any tandem two seater as they offer the most elbow room. A few aircraft seem built for big folks including Challenger, Hawk, T-Bird, Drifter, Talon, Beaver, Chinook, SkyWatch, Revelation, AirCam, Hornet, at least the front seat of most trikes, and virtually every powered parachute.
One of the easiest separations you can make involves the openness of the cockpit. Flyers with experience only in enclosed cockpits may not want the open quality of many ultralights. Even those with windscreens and nose pods may not offer enough protection for the inside crowd. You must judge for yourself whether an aircraft meets your need in this area. All I would add is to reconsider your attitude; open cockpit flying in a slow-flying ultralight can be a thing of joy. One way to help you differentiate is to eliminate faster flying aircraft that are not enclosed.
If you’ve lost your medical, you need a Part 103-compliant ultralight. Even those so advertised don’t always make the grade and especially this is true of the buyer (you) loads the plane up with accessories. If an ultralight qualifies with a Rotax 447 or 2si 460F-35 engine, it may not qualify if you take the Rotax 503 option. Some models claim they make Part 103 definitions by using the Rotax 277 engine that is only available on the used market. However, some manufacturers have worked hard to assure a powerful airplane meets FAA requirements. Some good examples are the Aero-Lite 103, Javelin, Hawk, T-Bird, Hurricane Ultra 103, Firefly, Phantom, N-3 Pup, Challenger UL, MX Sport and Sprint, Kitfox Lite, Hiperlight, Max 103, Weedhopper, and several single place trikes or powered parachutes. Those willing to become instructors approved under the EAA, ASC, or USUA programs can fly a large number of two seaters under the exemption to Part 103 but these aircraft are to be used for instruction only. All others require N-number which demands a valid FAA license with current medical.
You’ll have to judge for yourself if you are a builder or a build-to-fly buyer. If you like building, nearly all doors are open to you except you may not want the quick kits. The rest of us who would really rather fly than build may want to focus on the fastest kits. I’m not a builder myself, but having spoken to many builders I think I can label the following group as among the easiest (though this list is not comprehensive): Aero-Lite 103, Mitchell Wing, T-Bird, Hurricane, Phantom, Challenger, GT400 and MX series, Sport 1000, and Stinger. The Aero-Lite 103, Stinger, and the Kitfox Lite are available as fully factory built, in a surprisingly rare situation allowed under Part 103. Some other companies are willing to fully build one of their 103 models for you at additional cost. In addition, if you read their literature closely you’ll find many kit companies offer fast-build options that can hasten your first flight, of course, at extra expense.
If you want something unique, you have two obligations. First, page through one the industry buyer guides to see what strikes your fancy. Secondly, visit airshows, read magazine reports, and scan the too-rare industry surveys to see what is common or unusual. Rather than try to be different, I recommend you merely stick with a concept you like and don’t worry about others who have them. Also remember that the more scarce a plane is, the harder it may be to get it serviced. Uniqueness comes with a price.
If you don’t want to do your own maintenance (like me), then you have a different challenge. Forget uniqueness. What you want is probably commonplace like the Quicksilver MX series that almost anyone might help you maintain or repair. Other than this one brand, the next most likely choice will be an aircraft sold by a local dealer who offers service. Given good local support, you can use this article to pick the best choice among those offered by your nearby aircraft representative. Engine and instrument (though not airframe) maintenance can be conducted by long distance but you must add down-time for shipping.
If you must have a Part 103 aircraft, get used to one with few optional features. With few exceptions, a 103 definition ultralight will be quite spartan to stay within the 254-pound weight limit (not including weight allowed for emergency parachutes or floats). However, some single place trikes or powered parachutes will allow you to add accessories as you like. Look for empty weights in the 200-240 pound range and don’t expect to find many.
If you are motivated by specialty, niche, or genre aircraft, then you must spend some time looking at buyer guides or going to airshows. These airplanes will identify themselves to you by their appearance and since this is a highly personal category, I have little to offer. You must use other criteria to narrow your choice to the perfect nostalgia, aerobatic, soaring, or other special aircraft segment.
In the area of control characteristics or handling, we have another intimately personal area. What is good for one pilot is bad for another in so many cases that it does not pay for me to try to advise you. However, some easy selections are available. If you want three-axis, you’re in luck. We have many. The trouble is, they aren’t all identical in control characteristics. For the most conventional of three-axis handling, I suggest you stick with the Aero-Lite 103, Beaver, Chinook, Capella, Aventura, any Flightstar model, Sparrow, Hawk, Thunder Gull, any Fisher airplane, Sky Raider, Hurricane, any Kolb, any Loehle, Phantom, N-3 Pup, GT-400, Coyote, Kitfox Kite, Talon, X-Air, Air-Bike or miniMax, Hornet, or Tornado. Even some of these won’t seem exactly like a general aviation airplane mainly as the speed ranges are lower where control surfaces act somewhat differently.
Aircraft with clearly different handling qualities include all trikes, all powered parachutes, the Mitchell Wing, many float planes, the Dragonfly, Weedhopper, and, of course, all forms of foot-launched powered paragliders or powered hang gliders.
Some otherwise conventional-flying aircraft give you an unusual perspective. For example, in the Drifter, Thunder Gull, Talon, Tornado, or Stinger, you sit so far out in front of the wing that you have less references and this may affect some pilots negatively. Conversely, for someone seeking “something different,” this forward seating may fit the request.
Finally in our personal category, your needs about storage of the aircraft can help you choose. Those with full-sized, wide-door access hangars at airports can choose anything. However, many people interested by ultralights want to hold costs down and other storage options can help.
Aircraft with quick-folding wings include the Champion, Sky Raider, N-3 Pup, Kitfox Lite, Air-Bike, Flightstar, any Kolb, RANS models that can use their folding wing retrofit kit, all trikes, all powered parachutes, all powered paragliders, and powered hang gliders. In many cases the folding operation can be done by one person.
Virtually any ultralight can be disassembled in 45 minutes to hour, sometimes less. But these efforts require bolt unthreading and packing efforts to transport them safely. Usually two or more persons are needed.
The Mitchell Wing folds in somewhat more time and unconventionally but can transport well in that mode. Trikes and powered parachutes can sometimes be carried two or more to a vehicle.
Question 4 – Usage
– Local and Short XC
– Longer Cross Country
– Water-based (Ski-based)
– Other Work Purpose
If you want to enjoy flying within, say, 50 miles of your home field, then just about any ultralight or light plane can suffice. Few are too fast for such “limited” use. In fact, this is how most ultralights are used, according to industry surveys.
Those who want to go farther need either more patience and time or a faster aircraft. Part 103 machines are limited to 63 mph at max rpm, but others can run away. Swifter ultralight-type aircraft include Thunder Gull, S-9, S-14, Tornado, Capella, Coyote, and Hornet. Many can operate in the 70-90 mph range, but some cannot. The slower range of ultralights include the Aventura UL, Sparrow UL, FP202, T-Bird, FireFly, Drifter, Breese, Dragonfly, GT400, Quicksilver MX Series, Kitfox Lite, Max 103, Weedhopper, single-surface wing trikes with smaller-engines, plus all powered parachutes, paragliders, and hang gliders.
While most ultralights could be fitted with floats, you’ll need to speak to the manufacturer to find out how much development has been done on which models. However, some aircraft have long histories of successful float operations, including the Aventura (1 and 2-place) models, Hawk, T-Bird, FireStar and Mk. III, Drifter series, Challenger (1 and 2-place) models, GT-400 and 500 plus all Quicksilver models, Kitfox, Tornado, Beaver, Chinook, and Flightstar. Air Creation and Cosmos have both developed floats for trikes. While powered parachutes generally aren’t used with floats, Canadian maker ParaSki has flown this way.
Question 5 – Weather
– Wind Velocity Restrictions
– Crosswind Restrictions
As ultralights evolved from the simplest early models, they gained weight and used larger engines. Today the average ultralight can zip along at faster speeds and has crisp enough control to better handle windy conditions. Virtually all models can be handled by experienced pilots in winds of up to 20-25 mph without undue difficulty — though most flying is conducted well below this wind speed. In many cases gusty conditions are more challenging as some ultralights respond more slowly to control input (party a function of the slower speeds compared to general aviation aircraft).
Some aircraft are simply more fun below the 20-25 mph windspeed level and these might include Aero-Lite 103, Mitchell Wing, Aventura, Sparrow UL, FP202, 404, and 606, T-Bird, Parasol, Air-Bike, and Weedhopper. A factory pilot could still fly these planes in stronger conditions. In fact, the bigger issue is crosswind operations.
Most trikes — at least those with double surfaced wings — are fine in stronger winds as long as a heavy crosswind isn’t part of the conditions. In fact, trikes handle windy, gusty conditions as well or better than most fixed wing designs. Powered parachute and paragliders are definitely low-wind aircraft, far below 20-25 mph. However, most hang gliders can handle winds without much problem and because powered hang gliders are foot landed, they don’t face much problems with crosswinds either.
If you live in a cold climate, you can either stop flying in winter or rely on good clothing and an enclosure on your plane. Its easy to eliminate the open cockpit airplanes but others are harder to judge. Of those with a windscreen and nose pod (therefore the somewhat warmer variety of ultralight), some don’t lend themselves to fuller enclosure or can’t afford the extra weight under Part 103. These include Aero-Lite 103, Javelin, Hurricane, Firefly, Drifter, Parasol, Dragonfly, Quicksilver MX series, Stinger, Air-Bike, Weedhopper, Revelation, AirCam, all trikes, powered parachutes, powered paragliders, and powered hang gliders.
Moving out of Part 103-compliant aircraft, you have many more choices to address issues of weather and the next category involving performance requirements at your home field. For example, most two seaters do offer full or at least more-full enclosures.
Question 6 – Locale
– Elevation/Humidity (Density Altitude)
– Populated or Sparse
Any lower-powered ultralight that cannot sustain at least a 500 fpm climb rate is not a good candidate for high elevation, high heat, or high humidity climates as these density altitude factors further cut performance. Remember, most ultralight or light plane manufacturers operate nearer to sea level and state performance figures at lower elevations. Be suspect of any Part 103-compliant ultralight that relies on a single cylinder, low-horsepower engine in order to squeeze under FAA’s weight limit. I find nothing wrong with these airplanes, but in Denver you may find climbout too slow for safety. Among those Part 103 aircraft that should do well are those with more powerful engines including Aero-Lite 103, Hawk, Hurricane, FireFly, Phantom, Challenger, MX Sprint or Sport, Kitfox Lite, Air-Bike, Max 103, Weedhopper, (and trikes) Fun Racer, Cosmos Echo, Tukan, Maverick, (and powered parachutes) Eagle 503, Falcon 582, High Flyer, ParaCycle, and Parascender.
Essentially all the above applies when considering runway length and approach. The lower-powered ultralight may be able to land incredibly short, but could consume more of a takeoff run, especially if your chosen runway has a little upslope to it or long grass on it. A machine with apparent deficiency on the uphill turf strip can do fine at a sea level hard-surface airport.
The issues of how remote your flying area is may allow lesser powered aircraft to add to the above list. Or in another example, those who want to soar may want greater distance from regulated airspace.
Question 7 – Affordability
– Build Time
If you are more oriented to building than buying, you may want to work with certain materials, perhaps mediums with which you are personally familiar. Those more intent on flying than building may want the faster build materials regardless of which type they are. Within two groups, I can see four basic types of materials. In the airframe group you have bolt-together aluminum, welded steel, wood, and structural metal (stressed skin). In coverings, you have dope-and-fabric, sewn Dacron, and metal or fiberglass.
These two subgroups can link together to produce faster build kits, medium build kits that are highly personalizable, and more intensive kits that may feature special capabilities or longer life. Examples of the faster build kits include those listing less than 100 hour build times, such as Mitchell Wing, Aventura UL, Javelin, T-Bird, Spad III, Breese SS, some Challengers, Quicksilver Sprint and Sport plus their two-place versions, Weedhopper, some Flightstars, Revelation, X-Air, nearly every trike model both one- and two-place, every powered parachute, powered paraglider, and powered hang glider.
Those in the 100-200 hour range are still relatively faster builds but may include dope-and-fabric aircraft for which painting finish work can consume many hours. These medium-fast build aircraft include Champion, Hawk, Thunder Gull, Flightstar, Hurricane, Drifter, Dragonfly, Phantom, some Challengers, GT400/500, Coyote, Airaile, Kitfox Lite (though see next paragraph), Talon, Air-Bike, Beaver, Chinook, SkyWatch, and Sport/Sprint 1000.
Those in the longest build time categories include Sparrow, most Fisher airplanes, most Kolb designs, most Loehle aircraft, N-3 Pup, many RANS models, most TEAM models, Tornado, AirCam, and Hornet.
The above lists omit some viable factory-built options such Aero-Lite 103, Kitfox Lite, Stinger, and the only certified aircraft in this group, the GT500, plus any custom factory-built offerings.
If an importer was available for all of them, the rest of the world produces some fascinating aircraft. However, without someone dealing with the intricacies of importing, most won’t be available. Among ultralights and light planes, the main work of importers covers trikes and powered paragliders. Most of these choices are imported. During 1999 we saw other Yankee entrepreneurs starting to import some fixed wing models but future market presence cannot be determined at this time. Powered parachutes seem to be an American phenomenon.
Of course, the most of all choices will come from used aircraft rather than new, and this segment will make up a lot of all sales. With a used aircraft, building is unimportant except as it applies to repair effort. Material content is only important for repair considerations and longevity. Many articles have been written to advise buyers of used aircraft but this is not my focus. Fortunately much of the information in this series of articles will still apply to choosing the right used aircraft.
In our final edition of “Facing the Buying Decision,” we will attempt to put the information together from the first two installments.
We’ve discussed you and your personal preferences (first article, Experimenter August 1999). We just finished a review of which aircraft types tend to serve which pilot preferences. In the final version we’ll try to tell you how you can select a few models that fit your needs.
Keep reading Experimenter, and please train or fly safely.