Anyone watching an ultra-light aircraft pass by can’t help but wonder what it’s like to soar in so open a fashion.
“It’s exhilarating. That’s the feeling you get,” offers ultra-light pilot Pete Harrison. “You have total freedom like a bird has. You can go wherever you want. You’re not hampered by any roads.
Like many future pilots, Harrison’s interest in reaching for the clouds began as a young boy. It was just after the Second World War, when the sight of a neighbour’s Tiger Moth taking off from a field near his Harriston-area home captured his imagination.
“That makes a big impression on a boy of eight, especially since there was no TV or anything like that to distract your attention,” he recalls, adding that he spent time just watching the Tiger Moth, and a plane owned by another neighbour, whenever he got the chance, but was “never brave enough to ask for a ride.”
That first airplane ride didn’t come until he was 16 and it wasn’t until the mid-‘60s that Harrison decided it was time to get a pilot’s license.
With license in hand, he bought a share of a Cessna with four other area fliers and began to realize his dreams of flight.
After a while, says Harrison, “I wanted to have a plane of my own, on my own farm,” and so he bought an Aeronca Chief and began to fly from his own runway. Eventually, Harrison found the plane expensive and time-consuming to maintain and “got away from flying for about 25 years.”
Then, about three years ago, Harrison became interested in the idea of ultra-light flying, based on the uniqueness of the experience and the lower cost compared to general aviation aircraft.
For a beginner, it is also easier to obtain a permit to fly an ultra-light, than it is to acquire a full pilot’s license. In Canada, former requires only about 20 hours in the air (including about a dozen in two-seat craft with an instructor), compared to 35 hours for general aviation. Ground school is, of course, required in both cases. In the USA, ultra-lights under 250 pounds can be flown without any sort of permit.
“The important thing is the ground school. It gives you an understanding of all areas of aviation,” including the all-important element of meteorology, explains Harrison.
As a qualified pilot, Harrison was not required to take any further training to fly his Lazair, an ultra-light designed in the late ‘70s by Canadian Dale Kraemer and manufactured in the Port Colborne area.
The early series Lazair came with 5.5 hp McCullough chainsaw engines, these were soon upgraded to the Rotax 185cc 9.5 hp to accommodate better performance on floats. The Rotax engines were adopted from a portable high pressure water pump used in firefighting.
Harrison is currently experimenting with replacing the Rotax with a pair of 6.5 hp Honda clone engines, adapted from their traditional uses in log splitters and other devices. Harrison feels the lower RPM engines will prove more durable and less expensive in the long run.
With a five-gallon tank and the Rotax engines, the Lazair has a range of about an hour and forty-five minutes flying time (leaving 15 minutes of reserve time), which has allowed him to travel as far north as Owen Sound and as far south as Plattsville.
With top speeds of between 35 and 45 miles per hour (assuming no headwind) and the advantage travelling as the crow flies, Harrison says “It takes about as long to get somewhere as it does to drive.”
It’s just more fun.
Although the Lazair will handle adequately through headwinds and thermal updrafts, Harrison prefers to fly on days when the air is perfectly still.
“Then, it’s just like sitting in your armchair,” he said, adding that windy weather means constant adjustments to the controls to maintain course.
Most of Harrison’s flying is done at between 350 and 500 feet. While his aircraft is capable of flying at altitudes of 3,000 and 4,000 feet, “There’s nothing to see up there and it’s a lot colder,”
To the casual observer, ultra-light flying may appear a risky sport, but Harrison points out serious accidents and severe injuries are rare.
Because takeoff and landing speeds are so low (less than 20 miles per hour), a crash during those maneuvers, “wouldn’t be much worse than falling off your bike.” Harrison stresses that because pilots tend to do their own maintenance on an ultra-light, they are in control of the condition of their machine and their own ultimate safety. Because of that, Harrison doesn’t spend much time worrying about potential dangers, for him, its all about getting airborne and “watching the panorama unfold.
“It’s scarier standing on the top of a ladder than it is flying.”