Monday, June 16, 2003

Ultralight fliers soar for the scenery

Wings across the Tristate

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Brenda and Bob Ferguson pose with their two seated Ultralight on a grass landing strip in Pleasant Plain, Ohio.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the first flight, this is the fourth in a series of stories about people who take to the air in the spirit of the Wright Brothers.

Low and slow is the way to go.

So say the people who fly ultralights. The lightweight flying machines buzz the sky at a leisurely 50 mph. They cruise a few hundred feet overhead, low enough for folks on the ground to see a pilot wave.

They're not for people in a hurry to get from point A to point B. For that, try a Learjet. But when flying for fun, ultralights are the ultimate, pilots say.

"It's like having a motorcycle in the air," says Rich Jennings, who lives in Kettering.

"It's a natural high," says Gene Swing of Dent. "I've flown with hawks and all kinds of birds. I look over and they're right next to me."

"I come home from work and I feel lousy," says Bob Ferguson, a pipe fitter from Blanchester. "I get in this (ultralight) and fly around for an hour and I feel great. It's just the freedom, the fresh air. It calms me down so much."

Jennings, Swing and Ferguson were among several dozen people who gathered June 7 at Butler County Regional Airport to celebrate the 20th anniversary of TUPA, the Tri-State Ultralight Pilots Association.

Several members arrived in their flying machines, some of which resemble small conventional airplanes. Often, though, an ultralight isn't much more than polyester-covered wings and an engine bolted to a skeletal framework of aircraft-grade aluminum tubing and steel cable.

"They do have a flimsy appearance," says Bob Dombek of White Oak. "But if they're flown in the right conditions, and you recognize the limitations and don't push your luck, it can be a wonderful experience."

The Federal Aviation Administration defines an ultralight as a single-seat vehicle that weighs less than 254 pounds and carries at most 5 gallons of fuel. It can't exceed a cruising speed of 63 mph; can't be flown over congested areas, and can be used only for sport or recreation.

Dombek, a 58-year-old physical therapist who started flying regular airplanes more than 30 years ago, was introduced to ultralights in 1982. He flew them for 19 years before turning his attention to an experimental aircraft a couple of years ago.

"You can feel what (an ultralight) is doing in the air, and you can feel the interaction of your body with the plane itself," he says. "It's a more intimate contact with the environment."

Hang gliders with motors

The sport started in the 1970s when people seeking that wind-in-the-face experience began outfitting hang gliders with motors and propellers. Then, as now, the FAA required no license to fly an ultralight.

In those early days, a combination of inexperienced pilots and poor ultralight designs often spelled disaster.

"Just about every flight was an accident waiting to happen," says Gerry Geisen, 60, of Blue Ash, who helped bring the activity to Cincinnati in the late 1970s.

Taking to the air in his first ultralight was "like flying a washing machine with a motor on it," he says. "I landed on top of a sycamore tree once. It stalled right in the top of the tree."

Over the years, ultralight reliability and designs improved, pilots say. Also, two-seat trainers were built that allow novices to receive in-flight instruction. (The FAA requires pilots of the heavier, more powerful ultralight trainers to be certified as basic flight instructors.)

What's more, some ultralights now are outfitted with parachutes designed to bring the entire vehicle down in an emergency.

Still, it's not hard to find an ultralight pilot with a heart-thumping story to tell.

Dombek, for instance, says on two occasions he ran out of fuel while airborne.

"That sounds horrible, and it can be," he says. "But the thing about ultralights is, they glide very well." In both instances he landed safely, although once he came down short of the runway and damaged his landing gear.

Ferguson, too, had a rough landing once when his wing clipped a small tree. Wing cables snapped, badly scratching his arm.

And Swing, the 64-year-old president of TUPA and a basic flight instructor, was giving a lesson in a two-seat ultralight when it caught a sharp crosswind. He quickly took the controls from the student pilot, but couldn't avoid a crash landing. The wing, landing gear and propeller were damaged, but neither Swing nor the student was injured.

The student thanked Swing for saving his life. "I said, 'My butt was in the seat right next to you.' "

The FAA doesn't track ultralight fatalities. Accidents usually are the result of pilot error, flyers say.

Wind is an ultralight pilot's chief nemesis. Jennings, 53, president of the Dayton Ultralight Club, says he doesn't fly if winds exceed 20 mph.

He'll hope for good weather this month when he and about 30 other ultralight pilots from 10 states honor the Wright Brothers by flying from Dayton to Kitty Hawk, N.C., site of the first powered flight. They plan to depart Sunday, fly mostly at an altitude of about 500 feet, make 13 refueling stops and arrive in 21/2 days.

Likes ultralights better

Jennings has a license to fly conventional airplanes, but prefers ultralights. For one thing, they're much cheaper to buy, fly and maintain.

The cost of a new, single-seat ultralight starts at about $9,000, according to the United States Ultralight Association. A new single-engine Cessna Skyhawk, on the other hand, is $155,000. Even used two-seat airplanes can cost $25,000 to $40,000.

And then there's the fun factor. Ultralights do almost everything a regular airplane does. They just go slower. Which allows the pilot to enjoy the scenery.

Says Ferguson: "If you're going 120 mph (in an airplane), you're going to miss a lot, compared to 40 mph (in an ultralight)."

Ferguson, TUPA's safety director and a basic flight instructor, often flies with his wife, Brenda, the club's secretary and editor. The club has no active female pilots.

Gene Swing didn't fly to the club's recent get-together; he had to buy party supplies. But he'll be back in the air soon.

"I love sunrises, but sunsets are the greatest," Swing says. "If you're up there, and the sun is just disappearing, you know you've got a half hour or less, and you don't want to come down. You just want to stay up there, and fly."

No license needed, but good training is vital

A pilot doesn't need a license to fly an ultralight, but experts strongly recommend training from a certified ultralight instructor.

"It's a hobby that can kill you if not done right," says Rich Jennings, president of the Dayton Ultralight Club.

With instruction from an experienced pilot, a novice can usually learn to fly an ultralight in 10 to 15 hours, experts say. It might take another 25 to 50 hours of flight time to become proficient.

Prospective pilots can find instructor lists and information from the following groups.

• United States Ultralight Association (

• Experimental Aircraft Association (

• Aero Sports Connection (

• Tri-State Ultralight Pilots Association (

• Dayton Ultralight Club (



Kiesewetter: A late-night Jones
Ultralight fliers soar for the scenery
Green shines; sound spoils Musiq show
Porgy and Bess hit of Gershwin show
LaBeef treats crowd to rockabilly jam session
Hedwig rocks with a vengeance
Dance Theater announces 2003-04 guest companies
Get to it

Hip-hop to an energetic workout
Ways to stay active and healthy
Harder workout improves form, focus