Learning To Fly
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Learning To Fly An Ultralight In The Last Frontier By Ben Deptula
I began flying Ultralights in the mid 1980's. I bought my first Ultralight from my friend and "Hang Gliding legend,"
Thom Veer. It was a beautiful single seat Kasperwing motor glider. Designed as a "flying wing," the Kasperwing
lacks the traditional tail structure that has become a standard feature among the majority of aircraft that are being
flown today. A single cylinder 22 horsepower snow machine engine mounted at the rear of the aircraft provides
After the purchase, Thom agreed to teach me how to fly it. Back then most Ultralights were manufactured as
single seaters. This meant that all of my flight training would have to be done solo. A scary thought to say the
least! However, I did have quite a bit Hang Gliding experience under my belt. Thom assured me that he would
have no problem teaching me how to fly the Kasperwing safely without him ever having to leave the ground. I said,
"sign me up and let's do this thing!"
On a beautiful Alaska Spring day in April of 1984, I met Thom at Sherman Field. Sherman is a secluded airstrip
in the heart of Fairbanks, Alaska. Huge hay fields on all sides surround it. If you ever have an engine out, Sherman
field is the place to have it. As the Aussies say, "no worries mate!" That day the sky was a bright blue mixed with
whisps of white clouds. The wind was calm and the crusty snow pack on the runway sparkled like diamonds in the
late afternoon sunlight. I couldn't have asked for a more picturesque day!
Thom decided to run me through the gauntlet with a complete and comprehensive lesson plan. I gotta say, I was
pretty impressed at his level of knowledge. He thoroughly briefed me on the Kasperwings control system, helped me
put on my flying harness and demonstrated how to hook into the aircraft. You "hook" into a hang loop that is mounted
to the wings keel, or center tube using a steel caribeaner. This connects the pilot to the aircrafts center of gravity point
and allows the pilot to hang freely under the wing.
Since the Kasperwing is a tailless aircraft and has no elevator surface, pitch control is achieved by simply shifting
your weight beneath the wing. This changes the center of gravity and enables the aircraft to climb or descend. Swing
your weight to the rear of the aircraft to go up and swing your weight forward to go down.
Roll control is accomplished through the use of separate rudders at each wing tip that act like air brakes. A pulley
and cable system that is connected to a "dragster" type steering wheel activates them. Turn the wheel to the left for a
left turn and turn the wheel to the right for a right turn. Thom said, "it's just like riding a bike!" He then looked at his
watch and added, "get in the airplane, we're burning daylight!"
Next, Thom explained that I would be performing slow taxing techniques. This meant that I would taxi up and down
the entire length of the runway at speeds of no greater than 15 mph. The principal behind this drill is to get a feel for the
aircraft without becoming airborne. After an hour of practice I felt confident enough to progress to the next level, the
crow hopping, or fast taxi stage.
During the crow hopping stage I remember Thom saying, "if you get airborne and run out of runway, don't panic." He
added, "just take it to 500 feet and don't come down until you get comfortable with it." And, that's exactly what happened.
I was taxiing at high speed and hit a bump hidden beneath the snow covered runway. I became airborne and was launched
50 feet into the air! With less than a third of the runway remaining, I throttled back and attempted to get back down on the
ground. The black spruce trees at the end of the runway we're getting bigger and bigger by the second. Landing was
definitely out of the picture. I pushed the throttle wide open and climbed out at a "mind boggling" 200 feet per minute.
Back then most Ultralights had nothing more than a twenty horsepower engine strapped to them. So, 200 feet per minute
was a pretty good climb rate in those days!
After orbiting the area for an an hour I decided that it was time to land. With the runway in sight, I reduced power, aimed
for its mid section and began my descent. Suddenly, I saw Thom standing in the center of the runway with his arms above
his head. At the time I couldn't figure out what he was doing or what message he may have been trying to convey. Thom
saw something terribly wrong with my approach and was desperately trying to get my attention. Moments later, I figured it
out. It became apparent that I was way too high on final. If I continued on my current trajectory there was a very good
chance that I would over shoot and end up in the trees that line the end of the runway. My survival instincts took over and I
applied full power. I cleared the trees with room to spare and climbed to an altitude of 500 feet. My fuel was getting low and
the daylight was fading fast. I took a deep breath, cleared the cobwebs from my head and prepared for another attempt at
landing. I remember saying to myself, "I can do this, I can do this, I can do this!"
With civil twilight rapidly approaching, I once again reduced power and began my decent. I maintained my airspeed at
25 mph and managed to keep the aircraft aligned with the runway. Everything was looking good. As I glided past the runway
threshold, I shifted my weight toward the rear of the aircraft and leveled out. I floated down the runway and waited patiently
for my skis to touch the snow. Then, it happened. I made contact with the runway and performed my first landing. I was
ecstatic! It may not have been a great landing, but it was good enough for me. I taxied to the parking area, hit the kill switch
and was greeted by Thom. He smiled and said, "way to go pard, let's go get a beer!"