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the magic of flight

The magic of flight

Microlight history

Sam’s history - Flying to Arnhem Land


Based on the article by James McCafferty first published in 'Rise' magazine in 2002.

 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 I 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, let me tell you 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 – my Alpha cruises at just under 50mph – 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.

Dangerous?  Actually, no.  When you look at the statistics you discover that, proportionate to the number of hours they fly each year, microlights are one of the safest

forms of aviation.  Although they look fragile, these little machines are incredibly tough.

To receive a manufacturer's production licence, a 747 has to demonstrate that it can withstand a positive load force of 2g (twice the force of gravity – ie the airframe of the aircraft can support twice its fully-loaded weight).  But a microlight can withstand three times that – a load force of 6g.

Nowadays they are all factory-produced and have to meet the Civil Aviation Authority (CASA)'s stringent design and safety regulations.  A far cry from the beginnings of microlight flying in the 1960s and 70s when the early pioneers of microlighting made the first hang-glider wings from all kinds of odds and ends of materials and "flight testing" consisted of jumping off the nearest cliff to see if it worked.  Sadly, sometimes it didn't and there were casualties.

Since then, technical advances in wing fabrics and engine design have made microlights safe and reliable.  And no, they don't use lawnmower engines.  The new generation of microlights are powered by two and four-stroke engines (mostly Austrian Rotax engines like those used in performance motorcycles and racing hovercraft) ranging in size from 500cc – 1200cc.  And because microlight engines are mounted at the back – using "pusher" propellers like the old FE2B in the First World War – you don't get battered to death by the slipstream.

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". (Presumably those who survived became the instructors).  Then they started towing them, without the engine running, behind a Land Rover 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 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 Pilot's Licence at the end of it.  The course is a bit shorter: you need at least 20 hours of instruction for a Microlight Pilot Licence as opposed to a minimum of 40 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.  Microlight lessons are typically around half price of PPL training.  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 for around $40,000 (or a bit more if you want one with the 80hp four-stroke engine.  But you can also buy a safe, flyable second hand microlight for as little as $20,000.  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, the CASA allows 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? The appeal is very hard to put into words. It's not about white-knuckle rides or adrenalin rushes or things like that.  For me, it's about a profound sense of being in another dimension.  I vividly recall my first flight in the back seat of a microlight.  As we took off, once the first few seconds of sheer terror had passed, I could not believe what I was experiencing.  Although I'd had a few lessons in a light aircraft some years before, this was something quite different. 
The sense of freedom, of being afloat in three dimensions, was, 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. A few weeks ago I flew with a trial flight passenger into a rainbow.  Yes, into a rainbow. No, it doesn't vanish when you reach it in the air. Instead, it turns into a perfect circle of colours around you.  Ahead of the rain shower, we flew back to the airfield within that ring of vibrant colours. And for those few minutes of the flight, both my passenger and I were completely lost for words.  That's why I do this.

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