Building 'wings for the common man' is a turbulent business

For Bernt Petterssen, soaring over an oxbow in the Connecticut River at 200 feet is a dream come true. It's the kind of open-cockpit dream he'd like to share - for a moderate price. But his fledgling ultralight-aircraft company is tossing in turbulent economic winds.

Ultralight aircraft have been disparagingly described as rickety lawn chairs with wings. They've also been heralded as the common man's wings: Anyone with $5 ,000 (no license required) can join the ranks of those with ''the right stuff.''

''There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have dreamed of being able to fly, and suddenly there is a machine that doesn't cost more than a motorcycle that will allow you to do it,'' the president of Aerodyne Systems Inc. says at his rented airport hangar here. ''The potential size of the market is so enormous.''

But for the industry and Mr. Petterssen, that optimism is being sapped by some dream-tempering business realities. Sales are even with last year, competition is heating up, and the industry is still long on wide-eyed enthusiasts and short on experienced manufacturers.

''An ultralight looks very simple, Petterssen says. ''It looks like just some tubes. You bolt it together and you take off.'' But, he says with a sigh, ''the reality of it that there are 500 to 600 parts in a Vector (his product). And every one of those parts has to be made to very exacting standards.''

Ultralights were ''discovered'' in 1975 when hang gliders were outfitted with propellers driven by chain-saw engines. Today, an ultralight is defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as a single-seat, 254-pound aircraft. Speed and fuel are limited. And The FAA restricts flights to daylight hours.

Petterssen's company is one of some 60 ultralight kit makers in the United States, many of which have sprung up in the last 18 months. But the numbers are beginning to drop.

''Companies I had on my membership list a year ago aren't answering their phones now,'' says Roy Muth, president of the Powered Ultralights Manufacturers Association. ''I think, overall, there are about a dozen companies that have the demonstrated staying ability.''

A shakeout is occurring as sales industrywide have leveled off. The fledgling industry has sold about 25,000 aircraft, most in the last three years. An estimated 8,500 ultralights were sold last year. The same number are expected to be sold this year.

Peter Strombom, executive vice-president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, sees ultralight manufacturers segmented into three levels:

The top five to 10 companies have a ''a high level of financing and marketing ,'' and that will carry them through the sales pause. The bottom level consists of a large number of backyard birdmen who have taken existing designs and modified them. ''They turn out maybe two or three aircraft a month in a regional market,'' Mr. Strombom says. Sandwiched between these two relatively secure groups are those companies with ''a good product they've taken just so far but need more money for research and development and marketing'' if they're going to survive. ''Those that need venture capital are the ones struggling,'' he notes.

The three-year-old Aerodyne (formerly Vector Aircraft Corporation) falls into the middle tier of strugglers. Although its products, the Vector 610 and 627SR, are considered very competitive, the company lost $242,000 last year on sales of Aerodyne is trying to stay aloft with a $5-a-share, $1.2 million stock offering.

Part of the blame for the current sales plateau is placed on too many manufacturers chasing fewer-than-expected customers and on a dealership shuffle.

''The dealer networks are turning over from enthusiasts to business people,'' says Lyle Byrum, president of the industry leader, Eipper Aircraft Inc. of Temecula, Calif.

It is also suggested that perhaps the sport is ''not as widely popular as it was first predicted,'' notes Michael Bradford, assistant editor of Glider Rider, an industry trade magazine. And, says Mr. Bradford, ''The safety issue has not lessened. It's still a definite damper on sales.''

In 1983 there have been an estimated 45 fatalities among some 40,000 pilots (many aircraft are jointly owned). This compares with approximately 40 deaths among 35,000 pilots in 1982, according to Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

Safety isn't a particular concern of Robert Warneck, a weekend ultralight aviator who flies out of Stow, Mass. ''Those accidents usually occur either because the pilot doesn't check the plane sufficiently before taking off or was flying maneuvers that were unsafe,'' he says. The other deaths tend to happen when pilots testing unproved prototypes, he says. He points out that ''it is very much a fair-weather aircraft.''

Proper flight training and stricter manufacturing standards are being weighed. So far, the FAA has given the industry room to police itself. To that end, the various ultralight trade organizations are close to agreeing on aircraft certification standards. And the AOPA has set up an examination and registration program for ultralight pilots. In some states, would-be pilots must pass this exam before taking their machines skyward.

Even if the safety cloud can't be dispersed, the industry is wagging its wings over the prospect of a new market in a couple of years. The FAA is laying the groundwork for a new recreational pilot's license and a new category of aircraft.

The new aircraft category would fill the market gap between the $5,000 ultralights and the $20,000 general-aviation airplane. An FAA announcement of the proposal is expected in November or December.

Ultralight manufacturers are plottng a beeline course for this new market. Eipper, in a joint venture with Group Lotus (the British race-car maker), already has a $15,000, enclosed, two-seater plane. It plans to sell it in Europe next year and in the US as soon as the new category is opened.

The demand for a recreational pilot's license is already growing. ''I can see it coming,'' says Robert Albright, who has an ultralight dealership and gives flight lessons in Stow, Mass. ''The guy with an ultralight would already love to take his wife or his 14-year-old kid up for a ride.'' But without a private pilot's license, he is limited to the one-seater ultralights. A two-seater is not an ultralight, by FAA definition. Two-seaters are now used for training only. But the new license will change that.

The proposed recreational pilot's license will require less experience and knowledge than the current private pilot's license.

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