Maybe it's that the minuscule plane I'm flying is almost entirely obscured by just two sets of legs (mine and my instructor's). Maybe it's that not a pane of glass or sheaf of steel separates us from the sky beyond. Or maybe it's simply the glaring lack of aeronautical controls in what passes for the cockpit. Whatever the reason, I can't believe this bare-bones contraption stays aloft, or that I'm the one flying it.
But that's the beauty of a trike. Minimalist in nature, and easy to fly, these go-cart-style aircraft are fast becoming the Everyman's avenue into motorized flight. All the more so now that the FAA is considering legislation that would regulate them and offer licenses to their operators for the first time. With just 20 hours of flight training, I might become an FAA certified pilot.
My instructor, Martin Beckenbach, doesn't waste any time. No sooner do I arrive at the Finger Lakes Aerosport Park in Macedon, New York, than he escorts me to my ride: A Gibbogear BB trike with a Rotax 503 engine. I strap into the backseat and secure my helmet; Beckenbach tucks his feet into the tiny nose cone and pulls the cord to the propeller. With the prop screaming behind us, he jams the accelerator pedal, and we roar down the grass runway: 20 mph, 30 mph, 40 mph--We're flying!
Lesson 1 is how to control the aircraft. Beckenbach says that his worst students are those with stick-and-rudder experience (in which left means left, and right actually means right). For them, the weight-shifting operation of trikes is entirely counterintuitive. Pushing the wing bar to the right and shifting our weight to the left, we execute a left turn. Opposite for the right. Pushing the bar forward tips the wing up, causing it to catch more air and slow us down. Pulling the bar back levels the wing and accelerates the trike to 55 mph. To gain altitude, Beckenbach hits the gas to accelerate the prop. "But you don't need it otherwise," he says, reminding me that trikes evolved from hang gliders. "It will glide safely to the ground even if the engine fails."
After three hours I'm hooked, and even more excited by the prospect of the FAA's Sport Pilot initiative. It will allow anyone with a driver's license and 20 hours of instruction in sport aircraft (powered airborne vehicles weighing less than 1,232 pounds) to obtain a federal airman's license. Two notable benefits: The ability to carry passengers (currently, only instructors can do so) and get insurance. "It'll bring a lot more people who never thought they could be pilots into the sport," says Joe Norris, senior aviation information specialist for the Experimental Aircraft Association, which supports the legislation.
Count me among them. Just 17 hours to go.
Fly a Trike
Difficulty: 1 2 3 4 5
Cost to Learn: $75 to $150 per hour.
Cost to Buy: $9,000 to $35,000.
Get a License: 20 hours of instruction (if the FAA passes the Sport Pilot initiative).
Web sites: The United States Ultralight Association features an instructor database; the Experimental Aircraft Association's Sport Pilot page provides the latest news on the FAA initiative.
Great article. First, I noticed John Carnett was the photographer. Nice shot John. John photographed me for the June 2008 Popsci Centerfold. Then I noticed that the flight instructor's name is Martin Beckenbach, located in upstate New York. I can only guess this is my old high-school friend Jeff Beckenbach's older brother Marty, to whom I sold my hang-glider in 1978 so I could use the cash to buy a motorcycle. Hey I was 16 and needed to get around! It was of course Marty's first kite too - they were brand new then. It was a muli-colored Eipper Rogallo with a 4:1 glide ratio (How primitive - but it was fun!). As I recall, Marty flew it into some power lines but luckily came out unhurt. Hey Marty I moved to Southern California and now live in the high desert. I am interested in getting a powered hang glider! :))) Yesterday I stumbled across the hang-glider launch site at Cedar Pines Park in Crestline near Big Bear Mountain. A 3000-foot drop into the westerly wind. What a view! We had some grizzled veterans dive-bombing us as we took pictures. I feel like I gotta get back into hang gliding! It looked so freaking fun and the launch site is only 10 miles away. We also have skiing here 30 minutes from my house and ironically Mountain High ski area here in the desert/mountains of SoCal is usually the first to open in the U.S. Some years they open before Halloween because at 10% humidity and 7000 feet elevation, they can make snow at 38 degrees Farenheit. Yup it is true! :)