WITH my heart in my mouth and white knuckles wrapped around a wing strut, I watch the ground fall away beneath my seat. The only thing between me and the earth several hundred feet below is a simple seat and two foot pedals. I feel like I'm flying in a go-cart with wings. Kelly Kikkert, president of the California Ultralight Flyers Association and my pilot for the afternoon, grins and gives me a ``thumbs up,'' then banks tightly and points to the waterskiers far below who are waving up at us.
Gradually, I trade my apprehension for the thrill of riding the air currents in an ultralight plane, designed to fulfill one of man's fondest dreams - the freedom of flight. I'm hooked, but still find myself wondering how safe this sport really is.
Ultralight planes have had a bad reputation for safety: According to ultralight pilots, from 1980 to '84 several hundred ultralight accidents were reported, a high proportion of them fatal.
But today, according to the United States Ultralight Association (USUA), with standardization and an emphasis on safety, accident rates have dropped dramatically. Ultralight accidents are about as frequent as they are with more conventional light planes.
Participation in this sport, meanwhile, continues to increase at a steady rate, with a 30 percent increase in 1990 alone, says Tom Gunnarson, director of the Airman Registration Program for the USUA.
``Flying an ultralight is safer and more fun than ever before,'' says Mr. Kikkert. ``Professional instruction, detailed and quality manufacturing, reputable parts suppliers, and organization by the USUA have legitimized the sport.''
Upon casual inspection, ultralight planes are as unique as their owner's imagination. Some are replicas of World War I biplanes, others consist of colorful wings atop simple metal tubing and a seat. A few cross the line between conventional planes and experimental creations.
However, they all conform to basic guidelines. In order to be recognized as an ultralight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the empty plane must weigh less than 254 lbs. and carry only one passenger (training craft are the only two-seaters). The planes cannot exceed speeds of 55 knots, and are allowed only a five-gallon fuel capacity, enough for about two hours of flight time.
All this attention given to ultralights is not without reason. In the early days of these ``flying lawn chairs,'' manufacturers with little knowledge of aircraft design and construction began to make and sell ultralights. Reportedly, many companies used deceptive advertising that implied that ultralights could be flown from one's backyard, and that operating them required little or no aviation knowledge and minimal skill. Rookie pilots took to the air in home-built kits.
Sketchy records indicate that up to half of the early ultralight accidents occurred during the first flight attempt. According to Ed Moody, a certified ultralight flight instructor in San Francisco, controls too simple for strong winds, as well as structural and engine failures, contributed to a high accident rate. Production of these tiny crafts tumbled from an estimated high of 10,000 in 1984 to almost zero within that same year, primarily because of their widely publicized risk.
MUCH of the appeal of ultralights still lies in their relative ease and freedom of operation. But serious pilots like Moody maintain that ``if it looks, sounds, smells, and flies like an airplane, it is one. It doesn't pay to be too casual in this sport.''
With the formation of the United States Ultralight Association in 1984, the sport developed guidelines for pilot and instructor certification, ultralight operation, and more. The FAA endorses minimum established construction guidelines for ultralights and USUA training standards for pilots.
``We just want to give the FAA some minimum guidelines so that safety is ensured but excessive regulation doesn't occur,'' says USUA's Gunnarson. ``What always has been, and always will be attractive about ultralights is the freedom, the lack of regulation or controls on the flying.''
According to Kikkert, incompetent companies, so evident in the early '80s, have disappeared. A small nucleus of reputable manufacturers have taken their place. The Rotax engine, designed by an Austrian manufacturer known for snowmobile engines, has become the engine of choice because of its reputation for reliability.
``Over the last several years, ultralight design and manufacture has come into its own,'' says Gunnarson.
The development of the ballistic parachute and rocket-deployed parachute have added another margin of safety. The parachutes float both plane and operator to the ground in the event of a structural failure that might otherwise result in a crash. Chutes are optional, but most responsible pilots consider them required equipment, says Kikkert.
Despite the increase in safety guidelines and professional organizations, ultralight flying still carries certain risks. In the August 1990 issue of Ultralight Flying, the USUA member's publication, a listing of incidents reported within the last year included four crashes: three serious, and one fatal. All four pilots had had little or no instruction.
Minimizing risks is ultimately up to each pilot, say experts. The pilot must be proficient with his craft, follow careful and proper preflight procedures, and always fly within the safe-flight ``envelope'' established by the manufacturer.
Lessons and pilot certification are relatively inexpensive - around $600 for 10 hours of instruction. Flight time, proof of good health, and a passing score on the written examination are also required.
United States Ultralight Association, P.O. Box 557, Mt. Airy, MD 21771