A mile above the beach, I soar higher than the gulls, crisp air bathing my outstretched arms, bare feet dangling in the void. The faint whoosh in my ears could be my unfettered thoughts, some vacant, some frantic as bees.
I’ve always been enchanted by the dream of flight, the Icarus myth. This is my dream come true, my ultralight flying experience, my life’s greatest rush and the reason for my current obsession: flying lessons.
Ultralights are aircraft so lightweight and minimalist that the FAA doesn’t categorize them as airplanes. They are vehicles weighing less than 254 pounds, often resembling motorized gliders.
When I took the ride of my life some eight years ago, I sat piggyback behind the pilot in a canvas sling seat. The plane had a rear-mounted propeller with no fuselage: no dashboard, no walls, no floor, no roof to obscure the view. Equipped with an extra seat for training purposes — ultralights by definition have only one seat — it was probably heavier than normal, presumably with a more powerful engine.
Chesapeake Sport Pilot at Bay Bridge Airport: 410-604-1717; www.chesapeakesportpilot.com
Freeway Aviation at Freeway Airport near Bowie: 301-390-6424; www.freewayaviation.com
Navy Annapolis Flight Center at Lee Airport in Edgewater: 410-956-1280; email@example.com
1 World Aero & Flight Club at Tipton Airport at Ft. Meade: 240-481-4023; www.1worldaero.com
The Experimental Aircraft Association says ultralights offer, “high-performance slowness … governed by the most lenient rules in the world.” But decades of popularity combined with lax enforcement of regulations led to abuses. So many ultralight pilots were pressing weight and seating limitations to carry paying passengers under the guise of instruction — as happened in my case — that the FAA recently banned passenger seats in all but foot-launched powered hangliders and paragliders. That ruling not only effectively outlaws ultralight joyrides but also legitimate instruction.
The irony is that the only way to train to fly an ultralight now is on bigger planes.
No license is required to fly an ultralight, but only a fool would try flying unschooled. Yet people do. I know a man who broke his neck on his maiden flight when an updraft flipped his aircraft. As my instructor, Bob Snyder, an ultralight enthusiast, says, “Without training, you will almost certainly crash.”
A pilot is not as free as a bird if she hopes to fly another day. She must know what a bird knows about aerodynamics and the weather, what to do in case of engine failure and how to avoid being some other aircraft’s obstruction. That’s why I am working toward a sport pilot license, which will qualify me to fly sport planes, which are larger than ultralights, during daylight hours only.
My father planted the idea of flight in my little head. I treasure a photo of him steadying my toddler self on the wing of a small plane at a local airstrip where we spent many a Saturday afternoon watching take-offs just for fun. He regretted not having taken the training as a teen, when he had the chance, but $200 was a lot of money in 1950. When I was 10, we flew regularly in his friend’s Piper Cherokee, taking turns as copilot and making the plane climb, dive and bank. Sometimes our pilot friend did acrobatic rolls and loops. We loved it, but by the time Dad got around to pursuing his dream, his health disqualified him. I don’t want that type of regret.
I’ve flirted with flight for decades — in four-seaters, a hot air balloon and a glider — but that open-air Icarus experience in the ultralight, which Dad introduced me to, is the sensation I am compelled to reclaim before I’m too busy, broke or broken. My children aren’t dependent on me anymore, and I’m not afraid to die — not that I plan to. At just past 50, I’m free as a bird and eager to learn.
My daughter sparked this latest mania with a Groupon for an introductory lesson at the Bowie Airport. Just one flight in the high-stress Washington-Baltimore corridor dissuaded me from that training path. Still, it reminded me of my goal, and a little research led me to Chesapeake Sport Pilot at the Bay Bridge Airport, just 10 miles from my home.
Chesapeake Sport Pilot owner Helen Woods, booked me for a lesson that same week in their smallest plane, the tandem-seat, high-wing Sky Arrow. The product of an Italian government research program, it’s been used for territorial and environmental surveillance for over 15 years. (Follow this link to see a video of the Sky Arrow flying over the Bay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u__55b8LQk4.)
This choice was a win-win proposition for me. Win one: We train over the less regulated air space of the Eastern Shore. Win two: A sport pilot license is faster and cheaper to pursue than a standard private pilot license.
In the air, I can see all around me and hear my own thoughts. The Bay and the Eastern Shore’s farms stretch beneath me as far as I can see, every detail of the land and its run-off clearly visible. My instructor points out a stretch of beach groomed for sea turtle nesting. It’s right across the Bay from my community, and I never even knew it was there.
I am hooked.
I buy a logbook and a textbook. The author is the corniest writer I’ve ever read, but he sure knows how to bring scientific theories down to a poet’s level. I’m reading a chapter a week, devoting entire evenings to 10 illustrated pages — and lapping it up. I wonder why I thought this stuff was boring back in school.
The Sky Ahead
The quest to challenge myself has driven me to extremes before, but not like this. I’ve studied languages, music, handwriting analysis and ham radio. Those pursuits were easy compared to the theory and practice of aviation. I was the poet who took the minimum math and science required to graduate. Now I’m immersed in abstruse reading for an hour or two every night.
I feel like Alice in Technoland, where gyroscopes and compasses are tools rather than toys, and vacuums and batteries have an essential purpose outside the cleaning-supply closet. Aerodynamic theorems inhabit the space in my head where pop songs used to be. I cram lists of velocities and structural loads, memorizing numbers to which I can’t even attach meanings yet. This is normal, I’m told.
It’s like giving birth to a giant with horns. What is this monster to which I’ve devoted my life?
Once a week, I put my text book down and go to my lesson. Ready to soar like an eagle, I find myself jouncing like an American goldfinch, that cute little yellow bird, so populous in our region, that flies like it’s drunk.
A substitute instructor, a real jet jock, makes me feel like I’m the worst student he’s ever had. It’s embarrassing. It’s frustrating. It’s enough to make me want to quit. Or go home and study twice as hard, perfectionism and reputation being prime motivators. More than that, though, I keep my eyes on the prize. I picture myself in that little ultralight, soloing over the Bay.
When I return the following week, he teaches me tight turns, a notoriously difficult maneuver. He expects me to bomb. I turn out to be a natural. Like a vulture circling its prey, I execute not one but four perfect 360-degree turns at a 45-degree bank, in both directions. I even catch the wake of my own turbulence, a mark of professional mastery, he says.
I can’t explain why it was easy. I’m just grateful there’s something I can do right.
The syllabus says in four more lessons I’m due to solo. Even as a professional singer I found soloing nerve-racking. But solo flight? When I still feel like take-offs and landings are my weakest skills? I have my work cut out for me.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Read more about ultralights at http://www.eaa.org/ultralights/ or www.usua.org.