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Jeff Goin

 
 

Comparing Ultralight Aircraft: Choices, Choices

See also | Powered | UnPowered | PPG equipment reviews | PPG FAQ

Do I want convenience? Do I want to go places? How much will it cost? How hard is it to fly? These and many other questions usually come to those choosing an ultralight. It's not easy and the sales people for each one knows, for a fact, that their form of flight is the best there is. OK, so it's true, I'm sold on powered paragliding. But, as it happens, I've flown everything listed here except the cluster balloons. Not that wouldn't fly them but it's a lot of work with little control and I've got other ways to get airtime without resorting to such limits. 

Speed is the typical maximum speed of the average aircraft. Speed range is another important characteristic and is shown in percent. PPC's for example, have very little speed range since more power just makes them go up. PPG's are similar but have more range since they have speed systems. FAR 103 mandates a max speed of less than 55 kts (63 mph) and stall speed of no more than 24 kts (27 mph).

Cost is an average US$ for new equipment bought from a dealer or instructor. Training costs are not included although sometimes they are given with the purchase. I take that into account by reducing the value of hardware sold by the average training cost for that type of aircraft.

Runway requirement is the smallest space that an instructor would normally allow a recently trained pilot to fly out of.

Empty weight includes unusable fuel, oil (if required), wing, prop, harness and anything else required to fly. Be aware that some manufacturers claim light weights because they do not include a propeller or harness or some other requisite component. Be sure to ask. FAR 103 mandates a weight of less than 254 lbs for powered and 155 pounds for unpowered ultralights. 

Powered Ultralights - Single Place Only

Powered Paraglider (PPG or Paramotor)

Foot launched and Wheel launched powered paragliders

Speed: 22 to 30 mph. Some gliders go faster and heavier loadings can up the speed some. Power required goes up enormously on such wings at high speed. Speed range is about 20% either way. Some wings (called reflex gliders) are made to go fast and have a larger speed range.

Handling: Excellent. The most precise of any craft. Competition pilots, for example, can land on a Frisbee sized target 70% of time.

Cost: $5500 to $9500 for new wing and motor.

Runway Requirement: 300' x 600' field with no significant obstructions out another 600'.

Safety: Excellent due to the very slow speeds. Get good training using the USPPA/USUA syllabus, 30% of all fatalities occur during training or in the pilot's first 10 hours, don't skimp. Another 20% of all fatalities occur during extreme maneuvers and most serious injuries occur during starting or runup of the motor through body contact with spinning propeller.

Leg injuries are slightly more likely for foot launch  due to the possibility of tripping during launch or having a hard landing.

Transportability: Excellent. PPG are, by far, the word's most easily transportable aircraft. I fit one in a small helicopter and have squeezed two in a Beechcraft Bonanza.

Weight for an hour's flight: Lightest of them alló60 to 105 pounds depending on pilot weight. Heavy pilots need larger motors which are both heavier and must carry more gas to run for an hour. 

Training: This is probably the most demanding ultralight to learn. Coaxing that highly efficient wing overhead does require some technique. Expect 3 days to first flight and 8 days to be proficient enough to safely go out on your own. To be skilled enough to consistently get airborne, a student needs approximately 20 hours of practice handling the wing (kiting) on the ground.

Notes: This is the most fun type of flying I've ever engaged in and I've flown everything here except light-than-air (balloons). Besides the flying, the paraglider is a kite that can provide hours of fun on a windy day in the sand. Here.are reviews of Powered Paragliding equipment. We don't sell any of this gear on FootFlyer except for PPG plans.

Putting a wheeled cart on a PPG is frequently done with the more powerful units. That is helpful for no-wind or high altitude launches. It still requires skill to handle the wing but most instructors find that it's easier to teach wheel-only students.

 

1. Jeff Goin flying a Spice near the Salton Sea in Southern California.

2. Elisabeth Guerin about to launch an SD paramotor mounted to a trike. The wood strips help her get moving in soft sand.

 

Powered Parachute (PPC)

Wheel launched (not intended for foot launch)

Speed: 30 to 40 mph. A pilot can typically vary speed by about 5% from slowest to fastest.

Handling: Simple but sluggish. Most are controlled with the pilot's feet since pressures are so high. Paraglider-type wings, called ellipticals, make the handling much more nimble at the expense of requiring a more skill to launch.

Cost: $9000 to $24,000 new.

Runway Requirement: 300 x 800' field with no significant obstructions out another 600'.

Safety: Excellent. Slow speed and easy handling give them the opportunity to be very safe. The most likely cause of mishap is pilots expecting too much performance from the machine, flying it into obstructions or running afoul of the weather. Rollovers occur periodically but are not usually injurious.

Transportability: Good. You'll need a trailer for the larger models and a strong back for putting the smaller ones in a truck. Not having a rigid wing, though, makes the smaller ones almost as portable as PPG's.

Empty Weight: 254 Lbs. A few of these struggle to be FAR 103 legal when they come with bigger motors. Like all 2-place models, these now all fall under sport pilot. The smallest ones, those that use essentially paraglider wings, can weigh as little as 100 pounds.

Training: These are the easiest aircraft to learn and fly but training is no less important.

Notes: There is some cross-over as powered paraglider trikes come with basic PPG wings and larger motors (like the Paratour PPCg). A wheeled PPG differs from a PPC mostly in the wing. Square, easy-to-inflate wings require more power thus the extra heft. A wheeled PPG uses a foot-launchable motor mounted, usually temporarily, to the cart.

A powered parachute trades ease of launch with the need for a large motor and trailer to launh. It has foot controls because forces are higher than a powered paraglider or powered paraglider trike.

 

Powered Hang Glider Harness (PHG)

Foot launched powered hang gliders

Speed: 24-55 mph. Pilots can vary the speed a lot, way more than soft wings. It's generally 100% from the slowest speed, holding the bar forward to having nearly full power and pulling the bar in. 

Handling: Excellent depending on wing chosen. You buy the harness separate from the hang glider wing just  like a powered paraglider.  Since you must physically move the weight around under the wing, increasing weight directly affects control feel even more than other types.

There is usually no way to trim for a particular speed meaning the pilot must hold pressure on the bar if he strays from trim speed. More advanced wings do have a tensioner that can remove bar pressure through a small range of speeds.

Cost: $7000 - $11,000. Single surface gliders cost the least, have the most docile handling, are the slowest and burn the most fuel for a given speed.

Runway Requirement: 300' - 600' with another 600' feet of basically landable clearway.

Safety: Good. You takeoff and land on your legs so that increases risk slightly for leg injuries but this has proven rare. Since there are no aerodynamic controls, certain types of upsets can take longer to recover from. Reliability is excellent since there are no control cables besides the throttle however it is obviously critical for all the support cables to be properly fastened. A number of single cable failures render the craft uncontrollable. 

Leg injuries are slightly more likely due to the possibility of tripping during launch or having a hard landing.

Transportability: Good. The wing requires a long tube or bag for transport but the powered harness portion can travel in a truck bed or regular sized van. Assembly time depends mostly on the wing since the harness is transported fully assembled or sometimes with the prop removed. Count on about 45 minutes from parking to flying.  

Empty Weight (including wing): 90 to 120 pounds. 

Training: 25 flights in a regular hang glider including at least one tandem flight. Most pilots of these strongly suggest getting at least a USHPA Hang 3 rating before trying the power. HG trike pilots who  have not foot launched should learn that before trying to fly a powered harness.

Notes: I watched Alan Chuculate fly these a lot. He made it look easy but then he was an expert hang glider pilot. Launching one in no wind is a lot bigger deal than launching one with a steady breeze. Nearly everybody I've talked with felt the same way.

A Mosquito powered harness flying the cliff in Salinas, Baja California (mexico). Photo by Jeff Goin.

Hang Glider Trike (including Nanolights)

Wheel launched

Speed: 24-63 mph. Pilots can vary the speed a lot, way more than soft wings. It's generally 100% from the slowest speed, holding the bar forward to having nearly full power and pulling the bar in. 

Handling: Excellent depending on weight. Heavier models have dramatically heavier handling. Since you must physically move the weight around under the wing, increasing weight directly affects control feel even more than other types. Nanolight trikes, generally weighing less than about 160 pounds, are the most nimble. If equipped with high performance soaring wings, the nanolights are more demanding of the pilot.

There is usually no way to trim for a particular speed meaning the pilot must hold pressure on the bar if he strays from trim speed. More advanced wings do have a tensioner that can remove bar pressure through a small range of speeds.

Cost: $9000 - $18,000. Single surface gliders cost the least, have the most docile handling, are the slowest and burn the most fuel for a given speed.

Runway Requirement: 400' - 700' with another 800' feet of basically landable clearway.

Safety: Good. Increased speed means that mishaps are less forgiving. Plus, since there are no aerodynamic controls, certain types of upsets can take longer to recover from. Reliability is excellent since there are no control cables besides the throttle however it is obviously critical for all the support cables to be properly fastened. A number of single cable failures render the craft uncontrollable. Aerobatics seem to be particularly risky in these craft.

Transportability: Average. Most pilots leave these assembled at airports but most can be readied for transport in less than an hour. The fuselage is usually quite compact since the main support folds down. The wing is what takes longer to prepare but those who transport them regularly get them from trailer to flyable in about 30 minutes (not what's possible, but what I've observed in the field)..  

Empty Weight (including wing): 160 to 254 pounds. 

Training: 15 flights in a 2-place sport pilot machine. This is definitely not the craft to try self-training on. Airplane and/or helicopter pilots are at very, very high risk for crashing since nearly all the control movements are opposite to what they're used to. My trike instructor had just recovered from a crash caused by his airline-pilot student (not me, thankfully) who pulled on the bar when he needed to push while landing. Every control on the the trike that I own (LaMouette Samba/Topless) is backwards including the throttle. Be careful!

Notes: These feel like go carts of the skies because they are compact and can be very clean and maneuverable. Don't be fooled by the weight-shift control, it is highly effective. Fixed wing pilots should train and fly intensively at first to ingrain the control inputs.

Jeff Goin flying a Cosmos Samba with Lamouette "Topless" wing. This is considered a Nanolight because of it's low weight. It is intended to be soarable and indeed I've stayed up for well over an hour with the motor shut off. Photo by Jeff Nielson.

 

There are variation that bridge the gap 

3-Axis Control (Fixed Wing)

Speed: 24-63 mph. Speed range is usually 100% from the slowest speed, holding the stick back to having nearly full power and holding forward pressure (or trimming).

Handling: Excellent. Even heavier craft can have well balanced controls using various aerodynamic principles. These frequently have trim so that the pilot does not have to hold control pressure as speed or power changes.

Cost: $12000 - $29,000

Runway Requirement: 400 - 700' with another 800' of basically landable clearway.

Safety: Good. These can handle the widest variety of weather conditions and turbulence but relatively high speed mean that mishaps are less forgiving. Although there are more control cables to keep maintained, there is also frequently more redundancy especially for craft with aerodynamic elevator trims (not many). Increased complexity requires more maintenance vigilance.

Transportability: Poor. The simplest, lightest of these can be transported pretty quickly. The quicksilver, for example (pictured right) can go into a trailer in about an hour if the wing can be stacked. The vast majority of these types live at airports in hangars.

Empty Weight (including wing): 220 to 254 pounds and most struggle to remain under the 254 pound limit.

Training: 25 flights minimum in a sport pilot 2-place. These require the most extensive training because they have the most capability. You control all three axis (weight shift only controls pitch and roll) and can handle crosswinds better with "slips" but that requires extra time.

Notes: Some of the older versions had unusual control inputs like spoilers on rudder pedals. Most are now conventional just like airplanes. These will be, by far, the easiest transition for existing fixed wing pilots. The most forgiving models are usually the slowest.

Photo by Jeff Goin

Helicopter

Speed: 18 to 63 mph. Speed control is from 0 to max although they cruise at least 18 mph to be efficient. 

Cost: $9000 - $18,000.

Handling: Excellent (est). Being able to control flight in 3D like this is quite an experience. Just don't bump into anything.

Runway Requirement: 100' x 200'. Although they can take off vertically, it is much safer to get forward motion while initiating a climb. The rotor system is dramatically more efficient past about 15 mph (effective translational lift) and an engine-out landing without damage is possible using the gradual climb method.

Safety: Poor (estimated). There are too few to establish statistics for ultralight helicopters but, given the extreme difficulty of learning to fly a regular helicopter, this will be fraught with risk. They are not very forgiving of mechanical failures and autorations (engine-out landing procedure) are tricky with the light rotor systems employed. At least one model being developed has no autorotation capability. If the motor quits, you fall. I'll welcome input from knowledgeable non-sellers on this claim.

I actively fly a certified helicopter (Enstrom F28A) and learned in a lightweight Robinson R22. The autorotation in that machine was eminently possible but required the pilot to be "on his game." According to a bulletin issued Robinson, if the pilot did not get the collective down to the floor in 1.7 seconds, rotor rpm dropped irretrievable low (the unmentioned result is a plummet to earth). Rotor systems on ultralight helicopters will probably be even less forgiving.

Transportability: Good. A trailer is required and two-blade rotor systems can be rolled onto it with no disassembly. The blades have to be secured and are frequently removed.

Empty Weight (including wing): 254 pounds. One model that I've seen gets away with going over the FAR 103 weight by having floats. One kit-built machine claims a weight as low as 160 pounds but I'd be very, very skeptical.

Training: 30 flights minimum in a certified helicopter. With instructor, that training will cost about $250 per hour give or take $100. You can learn to hover and fly forward in far less than that but won't be able to handle a motor out or any number of other unusual situations. 

Notes: At present these only come in kit form. There are no manufacturers making complete ultralight helicopters.

Courtesy www.Mosquito.net.nz

Gyrocopter

Speed: 18-63 mph.

Cost: $9000 - $15,000.

Handling: Good. They are very responsive. The only thing you can't do is hover although that is a pretty big thing to give up.

Runway Requirement: 100' x 400'. Those equipped with a pre-rotator can take off in just a few feet but, on average, need this much room for a normal, safe departure.

Safety: Poor. There are some dynamics of pushovers, where the pilot pushes forward on the control stick (cyclic), that can cause loss of control. I've been told that modern designs have corrected this problem but check around. The old Bensen Gyrocopters were susceptible due to where the thrust line was. 

Gyrocopters can handle an engine failure easily. They are, after all, basically a helicopter in autorotation. Even if the pilot doesn't do it just right, it seems they come away from the wreckage whole.

Transportability: Good. Small, lightweight and shaped to shove. They lend themselves to trailering. 

Empty Weight (including wing): 160 - 254 lbs.

Training: 15 flights. They are relatively easy to fly. Throttle up to go up, cyclic control stick for left/right/fore/aft and a rudder to aerodymically slip left or right. They have no tail rotor since there is no direct drive to the main rotor. Some have a pre-rotator to decrease the takeoff roll.

Notes: Gyrocopters get their rotors spinning by moving forward through the air but once the rotor gets past 50% rpm or so it accelerates quickly. A good pilot can land them with no forward speed even in no wind. 


Courtesy www.sagpa.co.za

Lighter Than Air (including Cluster Balloons)

The pilot uses a paraglider type harness and attaches between 100 larger latex balloons or up to 600 smaller rubber balloons for a single flight. The pilot carries ballast that can be released to ascend. He either pops or releases balloons to go down.

Speed: 0 mph. Drifts with the wind.

Handling: There's not that much to handle. Drop ballast, release (or burst) balloons and pick the best altitude for your flight path. Climb rates can exceed 500 feet per minute but there are only a limited number of climb/descent cycles based on how much ballast you carry.

Cost: $4000-$15,000 plus $200 worth of helium per flight (in helium versions).

Runway Requirement: 50' x 50'. Have enough room so that if some wind comes up, you won't get blown into obstructions. In reality, you'd want a pretty large area unless it's dead calm.

Safety: Good (est.) I suppose if you stay out of power lines and other obstructions there's not that much to go wrong beyond changes in the weather. Of course flying mid-day or in turbulence could quickly ruin a flight.

Transportability: Excellent. If you've got room for a few tanks of helium and bag full of weather balloons (or other latex rubber balloons), than this should be Good. There may also be an ultralight hot air balloon but I'm not familiar with it. That would require a bit more room for the basket. Cluster balloonists use a paraglider style harness.

Empty Weight (including wing): 160 - 254 lbs.

Training: I would recommend getting training with a certified commercial balloon pilot (they are authorized to teach). This is, after all, ballooning and there is specific knowledge that will be critical. Given the few pilots (no more than a few dozen) who have done this, exact training will be hard to come by.

Notes: Anywhere from 100 4-foot latex balloons to 600 smaller rubber balloons have been used for cluster ballooning. Small, one-man envelopes have also been used. To my knowledge, the helium is not recycled so each flight is pretty pricey.

Courtesy www.ClusterBalloon.org. See also www.Cloudhopper.org

Unpowered Ultralights - Single Place Only

Paraglider

Speed: 15 to 30 mph.

Cost: $2500 - $3500  including harness.

Handling: Excellent except that you have limited control over forward speed. You must avoid strong turbulence although a skilled pilot can safely handle far more active air than a beginner pilot.

Glide ratio is about 7 to 1 although high performance models claim up to 9:1. 

Runway Requirement: 100' x 50'. Most launch sites are on ridges and mountains and have plenty more room. Some are cut in woods are have other restrictions and require significant skill.

Safety: Average, about the same as motorcycling. The fatality rate appears to average 1 in 2000 participants per year.

Transportability: Excellent. The entire kit goes into a bag you can hike up a mountain with. There is no more transportable aircraft.

Empty Weight (including wing): 20 - 35 lbs.

Training: Get training from a USHPA instructor through at least the P2 rating.

Notes: Paragliding has been the most incredible experience of my flying life. As with all unpowered flight, you must have the right terrain or another way aloft. Once there, the experience is exhilarating. 

"Turbo" Bob Ryan soaring Baja California, Mexico.

Hang Glider

Foot launched weight shift

Speed: 18 to 45 mph.

Cost: $3000 - $6500  including harness.

Handling: Excellent. Unlike the powered trikes, there is very little weight and so the pilot's is not pushing around the weight of an engine and cart. Unlike a paraglider, these can quickly be sped up to penetrate into the wind.  

Glide ratio averages about 12 to 1 although some fixed wing, enclosed versions get nearly 20:1.

Runway Requirement: 100' x 50'. Most launch sites are on ridges and mountains and have plenty more room. Some are cut in woods are have other restrictions and require significant skill. Some hang glider sites present a 20 foot long or so ramp that the pilot runs off of. 

Safety: Average, about the same as motorcycling. The fatality rate appears to average 1 in 2000 participants per year. It appears that the safety of hang gliding and paragliding are about the same.

Transportability: Good. The wing must be carried on a rack, usually above the car. Most pilots spend about 30 to 40 minutes assembling or disassembling their gliders.

Empty Weight (including wing): 60 - 85 lbs.

Training: Get training from a USHPA instructor through at least the H3 rating.

Notes: Flying hang gliders, now done almost exclusively in the prone (laying face down) position is as close to flying like superman as I've ever done. I've only got two towed flights, one high hill tandem flight and 10 small "bunny hill" flights.

Alan Chuculate soaring San Antonio Del Mar on the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Ultralight Sailplane

Speed: 24 - 63 mph.

Cost: $5000 - $9500.

Handling: Good. With ailerons (roll control) farther out on the wings these probably don't have the sportiest response. I have just over 300 hours in regular (heavier) gliders and they tended to be very responsive in pitch (nose up/down) and a bit sluggish in roll. 

Runway Requirement: 900 x 1800'. Most get towed up in the air with a powered ultralight which requires a fairly long runway. Same thing with auto or winch tow. I've seen one self-launching ultralight sailplane where the engine retracts.

Safety: Good (est).

Transportability: Average. Requires a relatively long trailer for the wings and fuselage.

Empty Weight (including wing): 120 - 153 lbs.

Training: Get training from a FAA certified glider instructor.

Notes: I've never flown an ultralight sailplane but there are probably a lot of similarities to certified versions in which I have a fair amount of experience. 


Aeros AL-12

 

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