Last month a friend in Minnesota sent me an e-mail. “I saw an ad in Barnstormers last week about a Kolb MarkIII for sale in southern Oregon,” he wrote. “But now I can’t find the ad. Do you know anything about it?” I live in northwestern Oregon – hundreds of miles away. But only two weeks before, I had been part of a group of ultralighters (and ultralight-type E-LSAs) that were flying the Oregon coast. And one of them was a friend who owns a Kolb MarkIII– which he was trying to sell! I sent an affirming e-mail and got the two of them in touch. Just another example of the ultralight community – a community that enfolds you regardless of where you are.
[Before I go any further, I want to say that when I use the word “ultralight” I will always be referring to both legal ultralights, which meet FAR 103 criteria, and ultralight-type Experimental Light Sport Aircraft. Although the “high end” of Light Sport Aircraft now gets most of the press, I will always be writing about the “low-end” of E-LSAs…what used to be called “fat ultralights”. ]
When I think of flying I can’t do it without thinking of the ultralight community. It’s tightly knit, yet it’s always open to newcomers. You are “one of us” as soon as you declare your interest in ultralights. You don’t have to own one or even have ever flown one. Just your sincere interest is enough to be accepted. It is the experience of belonging. I’ve been the beneficiary of this community for many years.
When I first started taking flying lessons in 1988, Sandy River Airport was a somewhat ramshackle place, with deteriorating wooden open t-hangars. But there was nothing ramshackle or deteriorating about the welcome that you got once you started to hang around. And the open hangars allowed “lookie-lous” to wander in and out, gawking at these strange and dangerous-looking contraptions. Whether it was clear skies or raining or snowing, you were almost always likely to find someone puttering around, tightening bolts or replacing a bent tube or timing their engine. There’s always someone to talk to, to ask for help, to get – both solicited and unsolicited - advice.
Hangar flying is an art in the ultralight community. Since we fly VFR, and since our little aircraft aren't as weather tolerant as the "spam can general aviation machines", we spend a lot of time sitting under a wing or in a hangar, talking about our flying adventures. It's all I can do to keep a straight face when the stories get too flamboyant. And because telling tall tales is hard work, there's often food involved. Someone will drop by the local donut shop on their way to the airport, or bring some homemade zucchini bread. We gather for summer barbeques and pancake breakfasts. And there's always a potluck at our annual fly-in, where we have to time the competitive events so that they don't interfere with the pilots' ability to chow down!
Being “one of us” happens even when you’re a stranger. When I made the decision to fly my Maxair Drifter to Sun ‘n Fun, I put out the word over the Internet, via the four ultralight-related e-mail lists I subscribe to. I was overwhelmed by the response! Over 100 pilots from all over the country contacted me, offering to help me along the way. From getting gas to getting food to putting me up for the night in their homes – they reached out to me, a complete stranger, just because I was a fellow pilot, flying slow and slow across the country in a tube and fabric aircraft. My son, who is a deputy sheriff, was immediately suspicious. “Mom! You’ve got to be kidding! You’re going to get in a car with someone you’ve never met? Stay in the home of people you don’t know and have never heard of?” He just doesn’t understand the bond that flying an ultralight or an ultralight-type E-LSA creates.
Sandy River Airport is no longer ramshackle. The old t-hangars have been torn down and modern metal fully enclosed hangars now protect the aircraft from passers-by. But the community spirit still exists. Summer barbeques and pancake breakfasts, hot dog roasts around the huge fire pit that the new airport owners built, pilots gathering in old lawnchairs to swap tall tales. And it's not unique to our airport. As I flew cross country, I discovered that wherever ultralight pilots gathered, they had created community.
So if you’re thinking about flying, be aware that it will open up much more than the glory of flight. It will also open up a wealth of new friends, friends who will support and sustain you as you explore what flying is all about.