Lesson 75
27 June

I got in a few minutes of cool flying yesterday. Chris (my elder son) and I went to an EAA fly-in at Petersburg Airport, near here.  Some guys were selling fifteen minute rides in two-place ultralight trainers, and Chris decided to go for one.  It was $25 for a ride in the back seat of a tandem and $30 to ride in RANS S-12XL with side-by-side seating.  Chris was going to save the five bucks, but after watching them fly for a while, I talked him into going for the RANS.  That pilot seemed to be flying more sensibly, and besides I thought the view from it would be better.  Chris had such a good time that I plunked down my own thirty bucks, even though it worked out to $120 an hour--a bit much, I thought--but it did look like fun.  When it was my turn, the pilot asked if I'd flown before, so I let on that I'd just gotten my private on Tuesday, and he said, "Hey, that's great.  You can fly this for sure, then." (I figured he was probably thinking, here's a guy who's ripe to buy a RANS from me.)

Photo of S-12XLYou may know all about these planes, but I'd never seen one up close before, and was quite surprised.  This particular plane is a high-wing monoplane, with the engine, a liquid-cooled 80 hp Rotax 912, mounted at the rear of the wing, above the tube that extends back to the tail assembly.  Tricycle gear, with tires about the size of a C-152's nose wheel.  The entire cockpit is transparent, except for the floor, and you sit ahead of the wing, so the visibility is almost completely unobstructed. They're called "ultralight trainers," but they're definitely not ultralights.  They're about the same wingspan and length as a C-152.  I was told that this one weighs 525 pounds empty, has a useful load of 575 pounds, including 18 gallons of fuel.  They sure don't look like a Cessna, though, with the pusher prop and the clear plastic nose and canopy.  With no one aboard, the CG is aft of the main gear, so the tail rests on the ground and the nosewheel is a foot or two up in the air.

We eased the nose down, sat down and swung our legs in, fastened the belts, and closed the canopy.  Another guy pulled the starter cord, and we taxied over to the strip of grass they were using for a runway.  The ultralights had been stuck off in one corner of the airport, near some woods, and the takeoff run was directly toward the trees, into a 10 or 12 knot wind.  The pilot--Joe? (sorry!)--opened the throttle and we accelerated quickly, rolled about 150 feet upwind, rotated at about 45 mph, and climbed out at 500 fpm, clearing the trees easily.  He turned right at about 100 feet above the trees and circled around over the runway, still climbing, staying close, he said, just in case.  We crossed runway at about 300 feet AGL--you can see how tightly he was turning here.  He climbed another hundred feet, throttled back, and said, "It's your airplane."

Wowie!  With that throttle setting the S-12 seemed to like cruising along at 65 mph, and Joe? seemed to like cruising along at 500 feet AGL, but he didn't object when I went up to 1000, where things looked more normal to me.  Wimpy me!  The S-12 needed almost no control pressure, and I kept feeling that the stick was longer than necessary.  It was very stable, except that the elevator trim tab wasn't big enough to keep the nose level hands-off with the two of us seated that far ahead of the wing.  Stalls were very slow and gentle, with just enough buffeting to let you know.  It needed almost no rudder to keep turns coordinated (I think; there was no turn coordinator or turn-and-bank indicator).  Aside from the trim problem, the only odd thing was that applying power put the nose down, rather than up, because the center of thrust was high and behind the wing.  The roll rate was better than a C-152's, and in fact it was a whole lot easier to fly in every respect.  I can see why people who just want to get up in the air go for ultralights if they all fly like the S-12.

After about twenty minutes of my goofing around up there, he said we'd better head back, so I turned toward the airport.  The ultralights had been flying a right-hand pattern, and he pointed out where to get in on downwind, right over the woods, and at 800 feet MSL.  The field elevation is about 200 feet, so we were a lot lower than I was used to be on on downwind.  But everything in that airplane was about half.  He said to turn right base just past the trees, fly past on the left of a big hangar, as if it were a pylon, and then turn final.  Well, I turned base--but I'd seen earlier how he was landing that thing, so I thanked him for the opportunity and turned it back to him.

Here's how he landed: Flew right along the tree line, passing the big hangar on a level with its roof line.  He kept in quite a bit of power and was flying almost level at about 55 mph.  Just past the hangar he began turning final at about 50 feet--although it felt lower to me because I could see the grass so clearly through the transparent nose.  He was at about 25 feet coming out of the turn, lined up perfectly with the runway.  He reduced the power a little more and flew right to the ground at 45 mph without much flare, cut the remaining power, and we stopped in about 75 feet.

It was an exciting ride, but--sorry, Joe?--I probably won't be buying one.  On the one hand, you can apparently build a basic one in something like 150 hours, get an N-number, and then because you built it yourself you can do your own work and inspections.  On the other hand, cruise with one person is supposedly 80 mph, but it was only 65 with the two of us, and that's not quite fast enough to think of them as serious transportation. Joe? had flown in with a passenger that morning from Maryland--but some of his buddies had kept right up with him in a car.

But it's lots of fun to fly!

Monday, if the weather and a scheduling problem work out right, I'm going to get checked out in a C-172.  I mentioned that to Chris, who immediately said, "It holds four people, right?  That means you'll be able to kill the entire family at the same time."

Great thinking, Chris.

Fortunately, no one has volunteered to go up with me, so there doesn't seem to be much immanent danger.

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