Words of Whit


Steve Whitford

By the time folks get my age, some of us make what’s usually referred to as a bucket list; a list of things they would like to do while they still can. As we age, opportunities become more fleeting. We need to seize the moment and do, or live forever with regrets.

One of the things on my bucket list was to fly in an ultralight, and a few weeks ago I got my chance.

It so happens that I met a nice fellow who owns an ultralight.

My new friend is a backdoor type of person who enjoys his anonymity, so for this publication we’ll just call him “George.” He’s a product of my generation, retired and doing what he loves to do. He loves to fly and has been piloting ultralights for more than 20 years.

For those of you who are not familiar with these small flying objects, ultralights are not considered to be airplanes. They are actually more like a flying motorcycle.

George’s ultralight is about 20-feet long with a similar wing span. Empty, it weighs about 500 pounds and sports a rear-mounted 65-horse engine that under most favorable conditions can reach a top speed of 65 mph, reach as high as 10,000 feet. An ultralight can fly for about one hour on five gallons of fuel.

Weight and weather are key factors in flying. George and my combined weight were close to the limit of his craft so George took a short test flight to evaluate the weather conditions. He landed, gave me a thumbs up and told me to get on board.

Ultralights have a very small cockpit. When getting in, you have to be careful with your footing. The only places safe to step on are the two small foot plates and the seat. George’s ultralight has a floor made of thin plastic. If you step on it, you’d fall right through it. Some owners don’t bother with floors at all. Also there are no windows, doors or parachutes, just two seats, a seatbelt and us. In the event of a water landing…swim.

When I got closer to the craft, I noticed that the wing had been patched in several places with duct tape. That made me feel a little uncomfortable, so I queried my aviator about the tape and he said:“Not to worry, that’s 500 mph tape, we won’t be going much over 50 mph. Get in!”

Taking off was a bit unnerving as we accelerated from zero to about 50 mph.

Errant wind gusts would push us a foot or so sideways. When we neared the end of the runway, the nose lifted and we were airborne.

At first, it felt a bit like an amusement ride, but as we continued to climb, sudden gusts of wind bounced us up, down and sideways, not unlike a small boat in white-capping swells. After a few minutes, I could see that George’s flight corrections were automatic. His many years of experience made it seem that he and the craft functioned as one.

It’s amazing how flying affects the perception of size. We flew over small trees, tiny cows and a large herd of little elk. A group of miniature lumber jacks were busily denuding a minor hill. Houses were lined up on a checkerboard of roads with dime-sized cars.

By this time, I was completely relaxed and relishing the wind in my face and the panoramic views. We were cruising at about 1,000 feet and doing 50 mph, with George pointing out the sights. There’s no talk as the engine behind us roared. Wearing ear protectors was a must and just added to the feeling of flight.

All too soon George cut power to the engine and as the nose dipped downward the runway came into sight. We glided downward at about 25 mph or so, clearing some trees by what seemed to be mere feet. Touchdown was smooth and George gracefully taxied around my wife, who was seated in our car taking pictures.

After some talk and coffee at George’s favorite café, we said our goodbyes, but I knew I had found a kindred spirit in George, so it was really more of a “see you later.”A friendship separated only by miles, and I got to go flying on a motorcycle with wings.