Ultralights and less lights


* Ultraligeros y menos ligeros

After my article " 'Easy'-to-pilot turbine aircraft: Fly-it-yourself", a gentle reader wrote me suggesting that I should have addressed the matter of the so-called "ultralights" or "microlights", since these would be more in line with the economic reality of ordinary people. Unfortunately, with regard to this category, which I did not even dare to mention, I have to disagree with him.

My article was about air transportation machines that can be piloted by their owners. Specifically, I focused on a category of aircraft that is having a major expansion at this time: turbine airplanes of a maximum takeoff weight of 12 500 lb. (about 5,7 ton).

A type that I did mentioned was piston-engine airplanes, but I summarily eliminated them from the category of aircraft suitable for professional activities and left them in the category of sport aviation. Piston-engine aircraft can not be considered good air transports because statistics show that they are even more dangerous than cars. On the one hand their mechanical reliability is about ten times lower than turbine aircraft, but the main criticism about why these aircraft are not considered suitable for business or other similar commitments is because they normally fail to fly above storms.

The best-know recipe for disaster often includes an owner-pilot who is concerned about the time she or he has to arrive to her or his next appointment and precisely there is bad weather. For example, the Beechcraft Bonanza is an excellent aircraft but it is known as the "Doctor Killer" because their buyers do not foresee the alarming frequency at which these two ingredients mix. Result: the plane is forced to fly in weather conditions for which it was not designed. Even if it is attempted to alleviate this with a lot of sophisticated accessories in the instrument panel, and no matter what salespeople say, aerodynamically they are not all-weather planes, and that relegates them (or should relegate them) to leisure hours.

If you are one of those people who are driven by inflexible schedules and intend to buy a piston plane to help you "save time", it is good that you recall the singer of "La Bamba" Ritchie Valens, John Kennedy Jr. and the former owner of San Loren Dairy (bought "post mortem" by Parmalat), among many others, people who should have waited one more night and did not.

As for ultralights and less lights, they are toys for those who like risk and adventure. How a vehicle to which law requires it to carry a prominent warning that says "EXPERIMENTAL", to warn passengers that each one who boards it is doing so at her or his own risk can be considered transportation? I know the story of a professor of aeronautical engineering that begged his students to please, after graduation, never even think about getting to work with ultralights. Building a machine that can fly is very easy to do, but making it safe is extraordinarily complicated, hard and expensive.

The problem is not that the engine will quit or that the wing is going to break up. The problem is that it is very hard to built a plane that is stable and that behaves as the pilot orders it at any given time. It is very easy to perform a maneuver, whether intentionally or unintentionally, which can end up in loss of control. And as an instructor in a flying school used to say, errors in Aviation end covered with earth.

In that sense, the image of ultralights and less lights as little airplanes made almost of paper that any breeze can send them right into the ground is not so wrong. A real plane is designed by a team of hundreds of professional engineers in an airplane factory, over several years. And when materialized, it is tested extensively, under the watchful gaze of the aviation authorities, in all imaginable operating conditions in order to prove that it will always do what the pilot commands it to do, no matter if it is traveling slow or fast, empty or loaded, the wind is coming from one side or the other, or the weather is hot or cold.

It is impossible to achieve the same level of safety on a device that was created by "two guys" working in the garage of some house during their weekends.

The ultralights and less lights will always have their followers, but it is good practice that everyone be aware of their risks.

Thus, true personal air transportation is as defined by Bill Lear, Olive Ann Beech and others: with turbines and up to about 12 500 pounds. With the millions of dollars they cost they are far from the reach of ordinary people, yes, but as I said several times in the cited article, business aviation is, unfortunately, for the very few.

P. S.: another gentle reader asked me to reconsider my thinking a second time, claiming that they do exist demonstrably, formidable piston aircraft for business, as the turbo-pressurized Cessna 210 Centurion.

The Cessna P210 Centurion ("P" for pressurized) was produced until 1986 when the new owners of Cessna, the people of General Dynamics, decided that with what insurance companies were charging for liability policies it was unfeasible for them to continue in the market of piston aircraft. With another change of hands to Textron and especially thanks to a new law by the Clinton administration, which limits the number of years that a manufacturer must take responsibility for what they sell, Cessna resumed in 1996 the production of their models 172 and 182, later followed by the 206, but did not restarted the production of the model 210, which by that time was apparently with an obsolete wing structural design and was finally canceled.

The only piston aircraft with a pressurized cabin for flights at high altitudes that is currently in production is the Piper M350, which I even praised in my article "The difficult task of supplanting small airplanes and helicopters: the 21st Century is already here. Where are the flying cars?". Priced at US$ 1,296,274 with the all-weather package, we are in the understanding that this is a serious machine. However, the temptation to include it in the category of business airplanes vanishes when one remembers that an earlier example of this model has the dubious honor of having been involved in the largest compensation for damages paid to an owner-pilot in the history of Aviation, 31 million dollars, after an accident when one cylinder of its only piston engine exploded due to excessive vibration.

Everyone chooses their priorities in life, of course. But, personally, paying more to get into a vehicle that is less safe than a car does not look to me like a great transaction.

Aldo Loup.

If you want to share this article with others, you may establish an Internet link, but you cannot copy any part of this page. Copyright © 2008-2016. Reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.

Originally published in ABC Color on 20 October 2008.