Flying Cross-Country
One intent of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in approving ultralight flying was to allow pilots to enjoy flying at low speeds, and to limit the range to a distance that is long enough to make the flight interesting but not so far as to cause a pilot to get lost and in real trouble. As a result the fuel load on an ultralight was limited to 5 gallons of gasoline.

Recalling my first long-distance flight through country that was unfamiliar to me, I prepared early for the flight by using the principles of pilotage that I had learned so many years ago in ground school. Because my Kasperwing ultralight is open to the elements I could not carry a marked chart in my lap; I had to do the next best thing. On a 3- by 5-inch card I noted my compass headings and described each checkpoint with the time I would arrive.

Because of a restricted TCA that extended to ground level, I indicated my turning point and new compass heading, then continued on with more landmarks. I carried the card in a handy pocket that I could reach while scrunched in my seat. Just before taking off, I started my flight timer (the stopwatch feature on my wristwatch). Then, immediately after exiting the pattern took my first compass heading.

All of this preparation paid off because later in the flight, smoke restricted my visibility to about 2 or 3 miles. But I still hit my checkpoints spot on, made my way to my destination and returned without anxiety. By the way, I made a separate card for the return flight.

Pilots who fly certified aircraft that travel at higher speeds and carry an abundance of fuel may be cavalier about pilotage and depend on their GPS. In spite of their ground school training some pilots make no preparation and elect instead to follow highways and go IFR, which is defined as "I follow roads." That is okay but I just feel better knowing where I am all of the time and be prepared to cope with any problem that may be encountered along the way.

Many times I have flown my Kaserpwing 50 miles on 5 gallons, which is not an outstanding achievement, except when there is a headwind. Still, it is a long way from home. A change in the weather always prays in the back of my mind even though I try to limit myself to reasonably stable weather conditions.

So what do you do when the weather throws you a curve such as what happened to a buddy of mine? On his way home he flew through a front that had no visual indication of its existence. My friend suddenly found himself dropping about 1,000 feet followed by severe turbulence. He was about 10 miles from home and pressed on to land at his private strip, which had a cliff on the approach and sloped uphill thereafter. At about 500 feet from touchdown he suddenly dropped and faced immediate disaster with the cliff facing him. With power and hard up elevator, he got down without damage but was shaken by the experience and his near crash. What should he have done? Was there alternative action that he could have taken?

In questioning older, more experienced pilots, their response was the same: Yes there were alternatives. The first was to turn around and go back through the front into stable air and return to his starting point. If that was judged as being too far, he could have flown to an alternate field that had a longer and wider flat runway. Here he would have more forgiving conditions. It is true that unexpected sink can be experienced at any airport but with the aid of a radio, one can get valuable information concerning conditions at a given field.

There seems to be a universal tendency among some pilots and especially relatively inexperienced pilots, to press on in order to get home. Why risk injury or damage to your machine? Either of these takes a long time to fix, not to mention expense. Don't be too proud to turn back. Wait it out and try again later.

Arnold C. Anderson has been flying ultralights since 1982, logging more than 300 hours in his Kasperwing. After 37 years in the engine and aerospace industry as a mechanical engineer, designing electro-mechanical equipment and solving reliability problems in equipment for unmanned deep space missions, Arnold is now retired. He lives in Bellevue, Washington, where he pursues his hobbies, including aerial photography and flying RC airplanes and gliders.