Ultralight FAQ

Ultralight FAQ

prepared by Daniel Grunloh

Q201: What is an ultralight (or microlight)?
Q202: Are there any regulations on these things?
Q203: How can I locate ultralights flying in my area?
Q204: Are ultralights more dangerous than other aircraft?
Q205: What does it cost to build, buy, learn, fly?
Q206: Don't most ultralights in the USA exceed the allowable legal weight and speed limits?
Q207: Why would anyone want to fly these marginal machines when they could be flying "real" airplanes?
Q208: I fly regular airplanes so why should I need any training to fly these simple machines?
Q209: Who can fly 2-seat ultralights?
Q210: Are there any ultralight gyroplanes and helicopters?
Q211: I need information about powered paragliders. (or other non-fixed wing air vehicles)
Q212: How do I contact the ultralight mailing list?
Q213: How do I contact the hang-gliding mailing list?
Q214: How do I contact the FAA Safety BBS?
Q215: When is Oshkosh?
Q216: What are the ultralight regulations in Canada?
Q217: Where can I get a copy of the regulations for the USA?

What Are Ultralights and Microlights

Q201: What is an ultralight (or microlight)?

In the U.S.A. an ultralight is defined in Federal aviation regulations FAR Part 103 (and subsequent advisory circulars) as a single seat powered flying machine which weighs 254 lbs or less, has a top speed of 55 knots (63 mph), stalls at 24 knots (28 mph) or less and carries no more than 5 gal. of fuel. Excluded from the empty weight are floats for water landings and safety devices intended for deployment in an emergency. The default weight allowance for a parachute is 24 lbs. so an ultralight with a parachute may weigh 278 lbs.

There are strict operating limitations (see question Q202:), but no mandatory license or registration. Special 2-seat exemptions are granted to instructors for training purposes only. These training aircraft can weigh 496 lbs and carry 10 gal. of fuel. All single seat ultralights which exceed the above limits and any 2-seater not used solely for instruction must be registered as an Amateur built aircraft and must be flown by a licensed pilot. Regulations vary outside the USA, but many nations allow more weight, speed, fuel, and 2-seat operations at the expense of more safety requirements. Some call them microlights. The limits for ultralights in the USA are under review and it is hoped that they will be revised upward sometime in the future.

Ultralight Regulations

Q202: Are there any regulations on these?

Yes! Aside from the vehicle definition (see question 1) there are strict operating limitations (USA) designed to limit the dangers to the non-participant. (You are permitted to risk your own neck.)

  1. No passengers allowed.
  2. No flying over towns or settlements.
  3. No flying at night or above (or in) the clouds.
  4. No flying in airspace around airports with control towers and certain other airspace without prior permission.
  5. No commercial operations (for hire) except instruction.
  6. Ultralights must yield right-of-way to ALL OTHER AIRCRAFT.
  7. No! You don't have to have a pilot's license (yet).

Where can I find Ultralights?

Q203: How can I locate ultralights flying in my area?

The U.S. Ultralight Association is an organization of ultralight pilots and flying clubs in the USA. They administer the ultralight instructor program and the voluntary pilot and vehicle registrations. A monthly magazine, Ultralight Flying, is included with membership in USUA. The magazine is not available except by subscription and it is without doubt, THE major source of current information, flight reviews, and product announcements in the area of ultralights. You can contact the magazine directly at Ultralight Flying, P.O. Box 6009, Chattanooga, TN 37401. Phone: (615) 629-5375 / Fax: (615) 629-5379. Subscriptions are $30 (US) for 12 issues. (The January issue is the the annual buyers guide.)

Contact the U.S. Ultralight Assn at P.O. Box 667, Frederick, MD 21705. Phone (301) 695-9100 or fax (301) 695-0763. Membership is $39.95 (US). The USUA can give you information about flying clubs, instructors, and flight parks in your area.

The Experimental Aircraft Assn. (EAA) is an organization for all types of homebuilt, antique, warbirds, rotorcraft, and ultralight aircraft. They have a very large network of local chapters. Several magazines are available with membership in EAA. Ultralight enthusiasts should chose EAA Experimenter magazine at the $28 per year membership. Their flagship publication, Sport Aviation covers all the different types of sport aircraft with emphasis on the homebuilts for $35 per year. A week-long annual convention and airshow is held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin each summer. Write to EAA Aviation Center, P.O. Box 3086, Oshkosh, WI 54903 or phone (414) 426-4800. A large fly-in with ultralights is also held each spring in Lakeland, FL. Phone (813) 644-2431 for more information.

Find a small airport in your area (not a major hub), go there in person and ask around. There are independent clubs and airparks that are not part of the above organizations. Make every possible effort to locate a flying club because a group of pilots can provide invaluable help choosing an ultralight and finding a place to keep it.

Ultralight Safety

Q204: Are Ultralights more dangerous than other aircraft?

No. Not necessarily. They have a tremendous advantage over regular aircraft due to their low weight and speed. Minor accidents cause little damage and major accidents are less often fatal. As with hang gliders, when they were first being invented, there were many poorly designed ultralights being flown by untrained pilots. Hang gliders and ultralights are now well understood and we know how they should be built and flown.

Is engine reliability a factor? Gliders have no engine and the operators do not consider that a safety factor. Hot air balloons can only barely control their direction. Skydivers only go down! Each type of aviation activity must be conducted within its design limits. Accident statistics are difficult to evaluate.

Airlines use seat-miles to get the best possible numbers. The various types of established recreational flying are reasonably safe if you follow good practices.

Several skydivers were quick to point out that they can achieve considerable lateral velocity in freefall or under canopy. A midair between two divers with a closing speed of 40 to 50 MPH can be very serious. Also a veteran firefighter claimed to have GAINED several thousand feet under canopy while over a giant forest fire in Oregon. What a ride that would be!

Costs of building, buying, learning, flying

Q205: What does it cost to build, buy, learn, fly?

You can build a variety of safe very serviceable ultralights costing from $3,000 to $6,000. A raw materials kit or construction kit without the engine is the cheapest way to start. Plan on spending at least six months to two years on the project. An assembly kit has all the parts prebuilt and you just bolt it together in a few weekends. Cost of these kits starts at about $6,000. You can buy a used or new machine ready to fly for anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000. Older models must definitely be inspected by a knowledgeable friend. If you build one yourself, you will naturally be better qualified to maintain it.

There are many ways to learn to fly ultralights. Formal flight training in a 2-seat ultralight from a real instructor can cost $600 to $1,200 or more. You could take a few lessons from an instructor or a friend in a conventional aircraft but the speeds and handling characteristics are quite different. It's better than the third option which is no training at all. In the USA it is legal but very stupid to attempt flight with no training whatsoever. Any experience in regular aircraft, sailplanes, hang gliding, or even RC-models is helpful. Much of the ground school such as weather, navigation, engines, safety, and regulations can be learned on your own simply by reading.

Actually flying the ultralight is usually very inexpensive. The engines burn only 2 to 3 gallons per hour. Routine maintenance and even a complete engine rebuild is minimal. You could damage a prop ($150) or wipe out your landing gear ($300). Almost all ultralights must be stored under a roof protected from sun and weather. Direct sunlight will destroy some types of fabric coverings ($1,000) in as little as 2 years! If you cannot disassemble the ultralight or fold the wings and trailer it home, you will need to rent hangar space if you can find it. Hangar rent can be the largest single operating expense at $30 to $90 per month.

Weight limits

Q206: Don't most ultralights in the USA exceed the allowable legal weight and speed limits?

Many ultralights do exceed the limits though most of them are only a little heavy or fast. Manufacturers design ultralights which just barely qualify so they can offer the most performance and features possible. Some owners then add bigger engines, more streamlining and other options which take it over the limit. The government relies on more or less voluntary compliance because they will never have the resources to hunt down every ultralight that is slightly over the limit. They realize that a little extra weight or speed does not significantly increase the risks involved. However, if you violate the operating limitations (see question 2), and someone reports it, you WILL be fined $1,000 for each occurrence. Exceeding those operating limitations very greatly compromises safety.

Ultralights vs. "real" airplanes

Q207: Why would anyone want to fly these marginal machines when they could be flying real airplanes?

First they are not marginal. Ultralights are designed to have the same structural strength as regular normal category aircraft. A major reason people fly them is the lower cost. In spite of what critics might say by comparing the cost of an old worn out conventional aircraft with a new ultralight, the average cost of owning and flying an ultralight is much less than conventional aircraft. Also, some people can never fly *real* airplanes because they can't pass the medical requirements. The most important reason people fly ultralights is because they are FUN! The slow flight, often open cockpit, and light responsive handling make them more like a motorcycle of the air than car in the sky. One final reason (in the USA) is freedom from excessive regulations.

Ultralight training for pilots of certificated aircraft

Q208: I fly regular aircraft so why should I need any training to fly these simple machines?

Conventional pilot training is a tremendous asset when learning to fly ultralights but some habits will have to be changed. They have much less mass and inertia and thus do not retain airspeed as long as other aircraft. Control response time is often quicker so the regular pilot may tend to flare for the landing much to early. Also, headwinds and crosswinds have a much greater effect and can more easily spoil your navigation and use up all your fuel. Ultralights really should always be flown such that there is a safe emergency landing area within gliding distance. The pilot should be comfortable making power-off landings. You should get at least a few flights in a 2-seat ultralight and some ground school covering 2-strokes engines and ultralight regulations.

Pilot requirements for 2-seat ultralights

Q209: Who can fly a 2-seat ultralight?

First, in the USA, there is no such thing as a 2-seat ultralight. Many other nations do have 2-seat ultralights or microlights but in the USA, ultralights can only have one seat. Anything with two seats is an AIRCRAFT and normally subject to all the pertinent FAA regulations about aircraft registration, airworthiness, and pilot certification. All 2-seat ultralights in the USA are actually 2-seat "ultralight-type" AIRCRAFT. There are about 4 different kinds.

  1. Probably the most common 2-seat ultralight-type AIRCRAFT is the 51% Amateur-built, registered in the experimental category. These aircraft will have the FAA "N-number" marking on the fuselage or tail, and will have the word "EXPERIMENTAL" near the cockpit where it can be seen by passengers as they enter. The pilot must hold a FAA Private or Recreational license or better. An FAA student pilot could fly such a machine SOLO ONLY, if under the direct supervision of a CFI.

  2. A new type is the 2-seat ultralight-type AIRCRAFT registered in the new Primary category as a "Sportplane." These are FAA certified kitplanes which will have FAA "N-number" markings but do not have the EXPERIMENTAL placard. The Quicksilver GT-500 was the first to qualify. Pilot requirements are the same as above.

  3. The 2-seat exempted ultralight-type trainer AIRCRAFT is a special type that can only be used for instruction. It is exempted from the normal pilot and vehicle requirements, provided the pilot qualifies as an official ultralight instructor. The pilot must carry documentation that he has such an exemption, available from the USUA as part of their instructor program, or from the EAA, which has a program for CFI's. The instructor cannot use this 2-place machine as his personal recreational vehicle! It can only be flown solo to ferry it to and from an instruction site, for test flights, and for the initial student solo flights. Finally, the aircraft must be marked "FOR INSTRUCTIONAL USE ONLY."

  4. Lastly, there is the illegal 2-seat ultralight-type AIRCRAFT. If there are no markings on the aircraft of any kind, and it's flying, it is most certainly illegal. If it has two seats, you must see "N-number" markings, or the placard for "INSTRUCTIONAL" use. FAA certificated pilots should avoid flying illegal 2-seat aircraft (even only solo), because they risk losing their license and paying stiff fines. Unlicensed pilots face the same fines, usually multiple $1000 fines for each flight. Passengers are strongly advised to avoid riding in unregistered, 2-seat ultralight-type AIRCRAFT which are flown by unlicensed pilots.
And now one final point. It is not possible to have a convertable or dual purpose vehicle which can be used both as a single seat ultralight and as a 2-seat trainer or experimental homebuilt depending on it's configuration. While it's theoretically possible to make such a conversion, you must surrender the original aircraft registration and cannot change back and forth at will.

Ultralight rotorcraft

Q210: Are there any ultralight gyroplanes and helicopters?

Yes, there are indeed ultralight gyrocopters which meet all the requirements of weight and speed (USA) to qualify as an ultralight. For more information, contact the Popular Rotorcraft Association, P.O. Box 8756-UF, Clinton, Louisiana, 70722 or phone (504) 683-3545.

You absolutely MUST obtain instruction to pilot a gyrocopter regardless of your experience in regular aircraft or ultralights. Numerous skilled pilots have learned the hard way that the controls are very much different.

Helicraft Inc., P.O. Box 50, Riderwood, MD 21139, phone (410) 583-6366, fax (410) 692-5902 offers plans, information ($10), and kits for all kinds of rotory wing aircraft. Most are too heavy or fast to qualify as an ultralight but they do have one ultralight gyrocopter. Plans for a tiny helicopter with jet engines on the rotor tips are available but this craft has never been widely built presumably because of it's VERY high noise level, and probable high fuel consumption. Incomplete plans for an unproven 2-stroke powered UL helicopter are available.

Until recently, it could be said there are no PROVEN ultralight helicopters in the USA. The weight limit of 254 lbs has been the barrier with the current technology. In 1993, a true ultralight helicopter built using modern composite construction was introduced as a tested, ready-to-fly helicopter. It has lots of custom built hardware and is powered with a Rotax 503. The price was estimated at $30,000. Contact: American Sportcopter Inc., 812 Middle Ground Blvd., Newport News, Virginia, 23606. Phone: (804) 873-4914 /Fax: (804) 873-3711.

Please note: The author has no direct experience with rotory wing aircraft. None of the above should be construed as as endorsement for any rotorcraft mentioned. An old saying goes; "Rotorcraft don't fly, they beat the air into submission."

Powered paragliders and other types

Q211: I need information about powered paragliders (or other non-fixed wing air vehicles).

Ultralight powered parachutes (parafoils, paragliders) occur in two types. The original "Paraplane (TM)" and it's clones have a tricycle landing gear, with seat and pusher prop suspended below a high performance gliding parachute. Controls are very simple with foot controls for turning and a throttle to go up or down. You can learn to fly in one day! And, your hands are free for taking pictures and waving to the amazed spectators.

The second type is a foot launched version of the above. The pilot has a small backpack engine with prop mounted in a wire cage. The legs are acting as landing gear so the control lines for turning are activated with the arms just like skydivers. A mouth throttle (or at least a kill switch) is essential in case you stumble on takeoff. Once in the air it can be locked in position and clipped onto the harness.

Foot-launched paragliders can be launched from mountain sites like a hang glider. Or you can use the motor to gain altitude, shut it off, and make use of natural lift to stay aloft. High performance paragliders are elliptical in shape and require more training than the simple square type powered parachute. A certified training program has been approved through the U.S Hang Gliding Assn. P.O. Box 8300 Colorado Springs, Co. 80933, (719) 632-8300, (719) 632-6417.

For more information on Paragliding contact: Paragliding - The Magazine, 8901 Rogue River Hwy. Grants Pass, Or. 97527, (503) 582-1467.

Special thanks to Rick Davids ParaPowr@ix.netcom.com for his help in formulating the paraglider section of this FAQ.

Both types of powered parawings are slow flying (20-30 mph), and are limited to light wind and minimal turbulence. Takeoff is very short but must be DIRECTLY into the wind. The takeoff roll (or run) is begun with the chute spread out on the ground though it's possible to start with the chute in a bag for some models. The cost of these craft is not much less than other ultralights due in part to the cost of the chutes. Wear and tear can be a factor if you drag your chute through the brambles and bounce your landings a lot. No other flying machine ever invented can pack down as small as the foot launched powered paraglider.

For information on foot-launched powered paragliders contact:

  1. (The Pagojet) The British School of Paragliding, P.O. Box 50382, Henderson, NV 89016. Phone: (702) 436-0633 / Fax: (702) 436-0634.

  2. ParaPower International, 21051 Oxnard St. #32, Woodland Hills, Ca. 91367 (805)264-3249 or send email to Rick Davids at ParaPowr@ix.netcom.com for information on the French made Defi-210 powered paraglider and USHGA approved training program.

For information on powered parachutes with landing gear:

  1. Paraplane Corp. 5801 Magnolia Ave., Pennsauken, NJ 08109
    Phone: (609) 663-2234 / Fax: (609) 663-5830.

  2. Parascender Technologies Inc. 26300 SW 227 Ave., Dept. UF, Homestead, FL 33031.
    Phone (305) 242-1340 / Fax (305) 1345.

  3. Buckeye Powered Parachutes, 16111 Linden Rd., Argos, IN 46501
    Phone: (219) 892-5566 / Fax: (219) 892-5624.

  4. Six Chuter Inc., 2925 South Wiley Rd. Yakima, WA 98903
    Phone: (509) 966-8211 / Fax: (509) 966-4284.

What about those other non fixed-wing types I promised?

You may build and fly ANY powered aircraft which meets the (USA) ultralight vehicle definition. ANYTHING. One-man free balloons are considered unpowered ultralights (like hang gliders and other one-seat gliders) and must weigh 155 lbs. or less to qualify. An Easy Riser ultralight has flown with solar/electric power. A legal ultralight powered blimp has been built and flown. A full size rubber-band powered ultralight was demonstrated at Oshkosh '92, but did not achieve flight. It HAS lifted off, for a time, on smooth pavement,...going downhill.

Ultralight mailing list

Q212: How do I contact the ultralight mailing list?

An ultralight mailing list is maintained by David Hempy; to find out more send mail to ultralight-flight-request@ms.uky.edu. Include the word "subscribe," "unsubscribe," "info," or "faq" in the body of the message. "Subscribe" will also send "info," and "faq" is the same as this one. Mail sent to ultralight-flight@ms.uky.edu goes to all the subscribers. PLEASE SEND THE ABOVE ADMINISTRATIVE MESSAGES TO THE REQUEST ADDRESS AND NOT TO THE ENTIRE GROUP. To contact David Hempy directly write to hempy@ms.uky.edu

Hang-gliding mailing list

Q213: How do I contact the hang-gliding mailing list?

There is a hang-gliding mailing list which is also available in digest form. You can subscribe to the list by sending a request to hang-gliding-request@lists.utah.edu. The SUBJECT line should be:

subscribe hang-gliding list
subscribe hang-gliding digest

For further information, send mail to hang-gliding@lists.utah.edu. Additional hang-gliding information is available on WWW as http://cougar.stanford.edu:7878/HGMPSHomePage.html.

The FAA Safety BBS

Q214: How do I contact the FAA Safety BBS?

The FAA operates an "Experimental Safety BBS" which has searchable databases of accidents, incidents, and service difficulties, sorted according to aircraft type, engine type etc., and discussions related to homebuilt and ultralight aircraft. Usage is free and can be anonymous if desired. With your modem dial 1-800-426-3814 (9600,N,8,1). The password is "SAFETY."

Oshkosh convention dates

Q215: When is Oshkosh?

The annual Experimental Aircraft Assn. Convention and airshow at Oshkosh, Wisconsin usually begins on the last Thursday in July, and runs for seven days ending the following Wednesday in August. For more information phone (414) 426-4800.

Ultralight regulations in Canada

Q216: What are the ultralight regulations in Canada

The vehicle definitions are as follows:

U.S. Regulations FAR Part 103

Q217: Where can I get a copy of the regulations for the USA?

An unofficial electronic copy of Federal Aviation Regulations Part 103 pertaining to ultralights is available via anonymous FTP from ftp://ftp.ms.uky.edu ( in the directory /pub/mailing.lists/ultralight-flight as the file FAR.part103.

Send all comments or corrections for this article to Daniel Grunloh grunloh@uicu.edu.