Monday, August 2, 2004 Those magnificent ultralight machines It's easy to fall in love with these slow, maneuverable, affordable airplanes. By LIZ HAMPTON The Jacksonville (FL) Times-Union ST. MARYS -- Ultralight planes offer sightseeing at its best from the air, and more than a dozen fliers have discovered this at the St. Marys Airport. Greg Bird, who owns Bird Aviation at the airport, has been flying ultralights for six years. "My first plane was a float plane," he said. It would gracefully take off from water or land with perfect ease. "Ultralights are gentle enough to fly with seagulls and pelicans -- they fly slow enough. They are known for slow and low, which is great for sightseeing. It's purely recreational. I haven't flown anything more fun. I've cruised along outside the beach about 50 feet above the water and can see people's faces on the beach." Bird said another advantage is that you can land on small runways. "I travel to Waycross sometimes and have landed on dirt roads and in a field between crops," he said. Ultralights are single-passenger, open-cockpit planes with a maximum weight of 254 pounds, a 5-gallon maximum fuel tank capacity and maximum airspeed of 63 mph. "They use auto fuel at auto fuel prices," Bird said. "Ultralights run in the price range of a regular motorcycle. Most people don't know this. It's aviation's best kept secret." Larry Starratt of Jacksonville regularly flies his plane into the St. Marys Airport. His plane is called a flex wing tricycle ultralight, because it is flown by the pilot actually pivoting (flexing) the whole wing rather than moving small control surfaces attached to a conventional airplane wing. Starratt keeps his plane at his home and flies from a grass strip on his property. "I've been flying for 2 years. I've always wanted to fly," he said. "I took instruction and had 12 hours with an instructor before flying solo. "I can travel about 50 miles distance max. The plane will go as high as 1,000 feet, but I fly at about 400 feet when the conditions are hazy." There is a bit of good-natured technical discussion about the flex wing versus the fixed-wing design among the local pilots. The control yoke of the flex wing must be moved in the exact opposite direction of the fixed wing to get the same flight response. If your car was a flex wing, you'd turn the wheel to the left to make the car turn right. Then again, walking around the hangar and observing the dozen or so flying machines there, no two of them were identical. They do all have one important thing in common: they all fly. And all the pilots love to fly them. Bird commented on the importance of taking flight instruction, even though lessons for ultralights are not required by the Federal Aviation Administration. "It is good to have eight to 10 hours of instruction before flying solo," Bird said. "It's important to learn safety and emergency procedures. You can teach yourself. No license is required, but your life is more important than that. It needs to be safe and fun." Ultralights are flown by visual flight rules. There are no instruments required. However, many of the ultralights at the St. Marys Airport have some basic flight instruments like an altimeter and airspeed indicator, as well as basic engine monitoring instruments. Wayne Turner is an ultralight flight instructor at the St. Marys Airport. He has a T-Bird II, which is a two-seater. FAA regulations allow two-seaters for flight instruction only. "I've been flying since 1986. I love flying," he said. Turner is an FAA-certified basic flight instructor. He gives lessons that enable students to learn to fly and obtain an ultralight license. "You can qualify for insurance if you are licensed," he said. The instruction plane has two side-by-side seats and controls for both instructor and student. The instructional plane is a bit larger than the standard one-seater ultralight and will travel slightly faster at 70 mph. Turner's plane, as well as several others at the airport, is equipped with a safety device called a ballistic parachute in case of emergency. The parachute is actually attached to the airframe, so when deployed by the pilot it brings the whole plane and the plane's occupants, securely seat-belted in, safely to the ground. "Pre-flight inspection is important before going up each time," Turner said. He checks the overall structure, makes sure controls are working, looks at the engine spark plugs, carburetor boots, the propeller and control surfaces. Turner said he enjoys flying low over the marsh. "At a height as low as 5 feet over the water, you can see the fish scatter. They react to the plane as if it were a bird diving for food," he said. Allan House, another pilot, is building a plane that is classified as a light sport. "It's the hot rod version of the ultralight," he said. "It's heavier and faster. It also has a lot more instruments than the regular ultralight." House is customizing his plane from a kit plane he bought. It is referred to as an experimental because he is building more than 51 percent of it himself. He has incorporated a folding wing design and plans to put floats on it so he can take off from land or water. House, who lives aboard a 41-foot sailboat, said he hopes to carry his plane on his boat. "I'd like to have the plane on floats and keep it lashed down and under cover on the boat deck. Then I can fly out of the water. It's a pipe dream right now," he said, referring to some of the expense involved in making his plane seaworthy for take-off and landing. House will have a flying partner when his plane is ready for takeoff. Missy, his golden retriever, accompanies him to the airport regularly and is learning her way around planes. Attached Photo's: Wayne Turner's T-Bird II ultralight trainer soars over the St. Marys River on Saturday. Turner has been flying the small open aircraft since 1986 and gives lessons out of the St. Marys Airport Wayne Turner at the controls of his ultralight. The planes usually sit one, but FAA regulations allow two-seaters for flight instruction. Wayne Turner inspects his ultralight trainer before taking a flight out of St. Marys Airport on Saturday. As a flight instructor, Turner stressed the importance of the pre-flight inspection.