Being shown around a
microlight for the first time can be a bit daunting. This section
will help familiarise you with the key elements in advance.
Below is a drawing of a typical weightshift (flexwing/trike) microlight.
Most trikes have a nacelle in which you sit. This has been presented as a
cutaway for the
sake of clarity. Just mouse over the grey spots to find the names
of all the parts
First of all, with more
than 3,000 of them in the United Kingdom alone, microlights are the
largest single group of light aviation aircraft in the World. And second,
believe it or not, flexwing (weight-shift) microlights like the one you
could fly originated from NASA's manned space flight programme! In the
1960s, when the USA was looking at ways of returning the first space
shuttles safely to earth, a NASA research scientist, Francis Rogallo,
designed a collapsible delta wing which would deploy from within the hull
of the shuttle after re-entry. Although NASA did not pursue his proposal,
aviation enthusiasts in the USA saw the Rogallo wing's potential for
leisure flying. They developed his design into the first delta wing glider
and the sport of hang gliding was born, quickly spreading worldwide.
Almost immediately, some of the early hang gliding pioneers tried various
ways of attaching power units to their wings so they could take off
without first having to climb to the top of a hill. After all kinds of
experimentation, the forerunners of the modern flexwing microlight took to
the skies in the early 1970s. Since that time, wing and airframe/engine
technology has moved on rapidly. Today's factory-manufactured microlights,
powered by a choice of reliable two-stroke and four-stroke engines, are
the result of years of design improvements within a framework of strict
safety regulations. In the last few years microlights have circumnavigated
the globe and set new world records.
Despite their fragile
appearance, modern microlight aircraft are incredibly strong and have one
of the best safety records in leisure aviation. With their large,
high-lift wings, microlights simply glide safely to earth in the event of
engine malfunction - these days, with high performance aircraft engines, a
very rare occurrence!
Imagine you're riding
pillion on a motor scooter – you know, one of those Vespas or Lambrettas
that we kids of the sixties used to ride around on. The engine starts.
You're holding on to the metal tubes just behind your seat. You start
moving along the tarmac and feel the wind underneath the visor of your
helmet. And then, after just a few metres, the whole thing suddenly rises
up into the air – and you're flying!
That's the nearest you can get to describing the takeoff run of a
weight-shift microlight. Most people have never seen one close up, let
alone flown in one. We just occasionally see these rather odd moth or
bat-shaped wings in the sky and wonder what they are. Well, be assured
that the sensation of flight in a microlight is quite unlike anything else
you will ever experience. Conventional light aircraft or helicopters are
fast and exciting, but you're enclosed in a cockpit. Balloon flights are
fantastic and tranquil, but more often than not you're jammed in a basket
with stacks of other people. In contrast, being airborne in a two-seat
microlight is probably the nearest thing to what the earliest days of
flying must have been like; slow flight at relatively low altitudes in an
open cockpit where you're almost completely exposed to the elements (yes,
you can safely fly in rain, but it's a bit miserable) and where the view
from the cockpit is unbelievable.
In the early days, microlight flying was unregulated and most machines
were, in any case, single-seaters. To learn to fly people just jumped in
and "had a go". Then they started towing them, without the engine running,
behind a vehicle while the instructor in the tow vehicle shouted
instructions through a megaphone. Clearly this appealed to those with an
adventurous disposition, but this kind of flying remained very much the
preserve of the daredevil. "Ordinary" people have only become involved in
microlight flying in any significant numbers since the aviation
authorities stepped in with safety and licensing regulations. Aha, you're
going to ask - do you need a licence? Yes, you do. Nowadays the microlight
pilot training course is pretty much the same as that for light aircraft
pilots, and you get a Private Pilot's Licence (PPL) at the end of it. The
course is a bit shorter: you need at least 25 hours of instruction for a
microlight PPL as opposed to a minimum of 44 for a light aircraft PPL.
That, coupled with the lower cost of tuition, brings a microlight pilot's
licence within reach of people on modest incomes. Whilst in the UK you
might expect to pay around £120 an hour for light aircraft lessons – much
more for helicopters – microlight lessons are typically around £60-£80 an
hour. Less if you train on your own machine.
And that, of course, is the other attraction of microlight flying. You can
buy a brand-new microlight in the UK for around £15,000 - £20,000 (or a
bit more if you want one with the 100hp four-stroke engine) but you can
also buy a safe, flyable second hand microlight for as little as £3,000,
including a full Permit to Fly. It will give you years of service, and the
annual costs of servicing, parts and insurance are pretty much the same as
running a second car. And those costs can be reduced if you service the
engine yourself (yes, you to do this).
So why on earth would someone want to spend time and effort learning to
dangle in the air underneath a kite with an engine on the back? Surely you
have to be slightly deranged? Well, looked at dispassionately, it must
seem a rather odd thing to do. The appeal is very hard to put into words.
It's not about white-knuckle rides or adrenalin rushes or things like
that. It's about a profound sense of being in another dimension. The
sense of freedom, of being afloat in three dimensions is quite simply,
life-changing. There are those who become microlight pilots because they
love engines and gadgetry. There are lots of others who never lose that
sense of awe and wonder which flying brings.
Flying in the open does
mean you have to buy some special clothes. Some of these can even be
plugged into the electrical supply of the aircraft and warm you up to a
comfortable temperature. It does mean that you will arrive at every flying
club looking more like a motor cyclist but hey, who cares?