by David Bottomley

In 1998 I learned to fly. I started with ultralights, which are single seat light aircraft that do not require a license to fly. I went to Mark Smith of Tri-State Kite Sales, who, in addition to providing ultralight flight instruction, is also a parts manufacturer and retailer. Flying ultralights is a breathtaking experience. Flying low & slow, in an open-air cockpit is the way to go for pure fun and recreation, and the view from a Quicksilver is unmatched. Instruction can cost anywhere from $200-$500 and an ultralight can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $10k or so. To be an ultralight, the plane must carry only one person, and meet a few other technical limitations. Provided you are properly trained and your ultralight is properly maintained, it is one of the safest forms of flight you can enjoy.

Nothing quite compares to the pure joy and serenity of flying an ultralight- for recreational flying, it simply can't be beat. To soar over the countryside, dipping down feet above a cornfield to fly by a farmer in a combine and wave at him; to smell the sweet aroma of an outdoor barbecue below you; to race a skiier on the river -- it is the essence of freedom, to simply wander about in the sky, exploring what you want.

In June of '98 I purchased a 1995 Quicksilver Sprint ultralight (above) from a gentleman from Oklahoma City who was moving to New York State. He dropped it off in Mt. Vernon, Indiana on his way through. My parents and I reassembled it, and with a final check from Mark Smith, I was off. I had a blast flying it that summer and in many summers to come. It came complete with a tail autographed by Bob Hoover.

I decided to go on and get my pilot's license in the fall of '98 because I realized that while ultralights are great fun, you need a pilot's license to take other people up and fly fast planes for cross-country flights. I got my General Aviation (GA) flight training from CFII (Certified Flight Instructor /w Instrument Instructor Rating) Jeff Culligan at Tri-State Aero in Evansville, Indiana. I earned my pilot's license early March '99 with right at 42 hours of GA flight time. Unfortunately, getting your pilot's license is a rather costly procedure, and I decided to sell 2/3 of my ultralight to help pay for the lessons. I learned to fly in a 1978 Cessna 172 Aerobat (similar to the one pictured below).

I rented Cessna 172s from Tri-State Aero to take people flying from time to time...

...but I ultimately I spent more time flying ultralights because they were much more economical and fun to fly. Mark Smith consistently designed the most interesting aircraft such as the Quicksilver-style tapered wing design below. It flew like a dream with an extremely wide speed range and extremly responsive roll-control, with much less adverse yaw than was typical of an ultralight style aircraft.

I also flew a Quicksilver GT-400 like the one below, which is faster than a typical ultralight.

... and the two seat Quicksilver GT-500 below...

Finally, in 2005 I purchased a CGS Hawk Arrow II. I like the Hawk because it is an "experimental" aircraft that is in-between the larger faster GA planes such as Cessnas, and ultralights. It is slow enough that I can land at the smaller ultralight fields, but fast enough that I can fly on cross-countries and actually 'go somewhere' if I need to. Plus I can take a passenger. I also love the fact that it has zip-in doors, so I can remove the doors in the summer and fly more like an ultralight, but still add the doors for cross-countries and for cooler weather. Since purchasing it I have done many things to it... swapped the Hirth 2704 engine (53hp) for a Rotax 582 (65hp) - which made a WORLD of difference in performance. I have also added an intercom with aux. audio input for my mp3 player, added a system through which I can make phone calls from the plane and the intercom system; I added a heater system for winter flying, added a fuel level probe to one of the tanks, added a shelf for my electronics, and many other tweaks. The nice thing about an experimental is you can make these changes with little / no FAA oversight, whereas with a 'certified aircraft' every little thing requires paperwork, approval, and inspections. To se several photos of N177ES, my Hawk, click here.

Recently I went to Don Davis Aviation in Henderson, Kentucky for my flight review, and to fly one of their very nice Diamond DA-40s. I plan to rent a DA-40 anytime I need to fly a good distance, or go on a trip with the family. The DA-40 is an awesome aircraft- sleek, fast, forgiving, and loaded with goodies like autopilot and GPS. They are also extremely safe. Diamond's fatal average was a remarkable 0.16/100,000 flight hours, compared to 1.2/100,000 for the GA fleet. There has never been a post-crash fire in a Diamond (thanks to protected fuel systems and stainless steel braided fuel lines).

Occupants of Diamond-built aircraft have survived terribly violent crashes and mid-air collisions with remarkably light injuries. Either of the DA40's wing spars can carry the full load of the wings, thus leading to the FAA certifying the composite airframe with no life limit. Composite materials are not subject to metal fatigue and therefore a mid-air break-up seems virtually impossible.

Suppose that, like the unfortunate pilots of a DA20 involved in NTSB accident ATL98LA006, you find yourself misunderstanding ATC and wandering into the wake of a MD-80 jet, resulting in being flipped over then smashed down onto the pavement from 200' AGL? You too may walk out of the hospital a few days later thanks to the DA40's massively overbuilt cockpit.

The landing gear on the DA40 are fixed, simple, and strong. Prior to certification Diamond flew a DA40 prototype for more than 16,000 touch-and-goes without wearing out the gear.

If you have any questions about learning to fly ultralights or general aviation aircraft, feel free to ask me. If you'd like to learn to fly ultralights, look here and here for an instructor in your area. Give them a call to begin your adventure! If you'd like to learn to fly GA Aircraft, visit here.

Our family trip to Gatlinburg, TN in fall of 2010 is here on Youtube, in 3 parts...