The Joys of Ultralight Flying

We approach the takeoff end of the runway. I go through the preflight checks — ailerons go up and down, rudder moves freely, elevators the same. It’s 7:30 a.m. as we depart St. John’s Airport in Reserve, Louisiana. I have seven hours in the airplane. I am 68 years old and a beginner at ultralight flying. I am anxious. My instructor has more confidence in me than I have in myself.

Gene Bever Borne, owner of Air-Tech Inc, has logged more than 8,000 hours in this type of aircraft. He was one of the pioneers in powered hang gliding and ultralight flying in Louisiana. He is calm, professional, gentle with the controls and with his instructions. He announces to the airport our intent to take off on Runway 35 departing to the east.

I line up on the 4,000-foot runway. My instructor applies power; I control the plane. With slight forward pressure on the stick to keep the nose on the ground, we rapidly reach lift-off speed. I gently pull back and we break from the ground. My takeoff is accomplished in a little over 100 feet. We have more than 3,800 feet of runway to spare.

I concentrate on the three basics — airspeed, direction and altitude. I maintain airspeed and use the middle of a tree line in the distance as my reference for direction. There is a drop in vibration as the plane and I slip through the air and escape the bonds of Earth. We climb gracefully as I apply the correct amount of rudder for a straight-climb course. I make a climbing turn passing the side of a chemical plant, riding the bubble of thermal it creates across the Mississippi River, then follow the levee before heading for the cane fields to practice turns.

The instrument panel that hangs in front of and above me indicates an altitude of 1,000 feet and an airspeed of 43 mph. Gauges are in the green. The morning sun is still low on the horizon. There are a few clouds. The sun shines brightly in some places; in others, it hides behind the clouds giving them an orange halo. We make a shallow turn around a plantation, admiring the maze of hedges that someone has sculptured in the back.

Returning to the airport, we enter downwind. I make our base turn and roll out into final approach to Runway 35. My instructor pulls power; I hold airspeed and direction as we slip toward the asphalt runway.

Just before touchdown, I apply slight backward pressure, and we gently make contact with the ground. I am pleased. My instructor is pleased. We have returned to the confines of gravity.

Ultralight flying is an attitude. There are no windows or windshields framing your view. You see and share the same sky as the birds. Through the headset, behind you, you hear the muffled sound of the engine. Looking forward and to the sides you see only sky. The wind is gentle upon your face, and life, as they say, is good.

Flying ultralights isn’t something done by crazy people with a desire to push the boundaries of danger. It is safe, challenging and fun. It requires a different attitude toward flying. It is slow. There’s an open cockpit, and the wind is in your face. Your shoelaces flutter. The traffic on the highway below is cruising faster than you are flying. The view is spectacular; the sense of flying is exhilarating.

As a memorable quote I once read said, "Learning to fly initially may feel like a daunting task, but like learning any new skill, it builds confidence and provides a sense of accomplishment."

You are never too old for a bird’s eye view.

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