Title: Dangerous Ultralight Airplane Ride

Date Occurred: August 31 through September of 1985

Date Written: Much was written September of 1985,

but significant changes made December 28-29, 2003

Written by: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) 2003 by Joel T. Kant


The scuba diving course and hang gliding lessons had been enjoyable successes that summer of 1985. I had felt burned out and mentally dull at the end of the spring semester of 1985, so my friend John Stilwell had suggested these adventurous activities as a break and change while I was taking some summer electrical engineering classes. I had aced both the engineering courses taken during the summer, but still found time and money for these two other activities. I felt better than I had in years. I felt energized and ready for the autumn semester when it came, but knew from the reputation of the courses I would be taking that this upcoming semester would be intense for me.

John hunted for one more new adventure to polish off that summer. He found what he sought in a poster advertising rides in an ultralight airplane. For a modest fee, one got a short ride. The same place offered lessons, although that price was not stated on the poster. John talked me into checking this out with him. On August 31, 1985, John drove the two of us to a farm outside Madison. He kept doing the driving, as I had no car.

The runway consisted of nothing more than a narrow field of grass between fields of corn. There was a large shed serving as a hanger, plus several ultralight airplanes. We found the person who ran the outfit, a man who I will call Bill. From him, we learned that two of the planes did not technically meet the definition of an ultralight according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Instead, they were classified as training planes. The true ultralights had only one seat, smaller engines, and carried less fuel. There were several true ultralights, but only two of these oversized two-seated training airplanes. One of the two two-seated training planes is what the rides would be given in that day. I will sometimes call the two-seater training planes by the name ultralight airplanes anyway, as other than being larger and two-seaters, they looked like the true, smaller ultralights. Bill seemed the only person giving flights or lessons.

Bill gave us a sales pitch about getting our picture taken while in flight. A camera was mounted on the wing. He had sample photographs taken of other people. The samples looked terrific, but the price was steep. I declined, and so did John.

John asked about real lessons rather than just one flight. Bill was happy to talk about that. John got him to mention something about the cost. I do not recall what it was anymore, but it was high enough that I knew I would not be taking them until perhaps after graduation when I likely would get a good salary. John still seemed interested in lessons, though. He had money coming in from computer articles he had sold. Understandably, John wanted to go on a trial flight to see what he thought of being in an ultralight before deciding on lessons.

John was bold and impulsive in adventures like this, while I was generally conservative, hesitant, and cautious. John's interest in ultralight airplanes was obviously greater than mine. Thus, I had taken for granted that John would go first.

Instead, he pulled out a quarter. Because of the coin flip, I went first.

The training plane was wide enough that the instructor and passenger sat side by side, not with one person in front and the other behind. I climbed in the flimsy looking plane. It mostly looked like metal tubes with a fabric wing above. On the bottom, there were large plastic wheels for landing gear that reminded me of something on a child's riding toy. The wing was plastic fabric, probably Dacron similar to that of a modern sailboat sail. Thin metal wires stretched here and there offering more support. The air-cooled engine looked tiny compared to a car engine in even the smallest car. The engine looked like it belonged in a large lawn mower. The seats were hard plastic, but did have seatbelts.

I sat down and strapped myself in. Bill then used a pull cord to start the engine. It started easily. It sounded like a snowmobile.

We bounced down the grass-covered field. In previous airplane flights I have been on, I have not felt the transition from rolling down the runway to actual flight, instead noticing it by sight before I feel it. Only after in the air in a regular airplane would I notice the gradually increasing tilt upward of the plane. This experience was different. The grassy field was far from smooth. The faster we went, the more we bounced and banged around. Bill then pulled the yoke back hard. We shot up at what felt to me like a steep angle. The plane lifted up over the side of the runway, which was merely a cornfield full of tall corn, instead of continuing over the grass section of the field.

Bill leveled off, then laughed and said, "A little rough, huh?"

I agreed, which seemed to please Bill.

We continued flying over the cornfield, not too high yet. I wore my glasses. A large bug splattered on one of the lens. It might have been a bee or a grasshopper. I looked over at Bill. For the first time, I noticed that he wasn't wearing glasses or goggles!

With concern, I asked, "How do you keep the bugs out of your eyes without wearing glasses or goggles?"

"I don't know. I don't like glasses. They are too cumbersome."

That was not an answer that pleased me. If a bug like that on the lens of my glasses hit his eye, I was not sure he would retain control. I felt scared, but was not going to admit it. I was twenty-one years old at the time, so was concerned about appearing fearful.

We gradually gained altitude. I liked comparing the hang gliding flights to riding a bicycle because of the openness to the environment, the gentle wind flowing by, and the constant quiet. The greater speed of this plane, the stronger apparent wind, and the noisy motor made it feel like the times I have been on a motorcycle.

After a while, Bill said, "I'll show you what a bombing run feels like."

He dropped the nose sharply. We descended towards the corn. As we dropped the plane gained speed. We were moving so fast that I did not think he would have time to pull out. Yet, I thought he must know what he is doing. He yanked back the yoke. He had leveled us off a few feet above the tall corn stalks.

While flying just above the corn, Bill looked at me, grinned, and asked, "Wasn't that exhilarating?"

I turned to him. I felt he had been trying to get me to react with fear. I did not want to let him succeed at that. I started to answer, then felt the plane drop. Yet, I knew we were only a few feet above the corn. I tensed up and winced because I thought we were going to crash. We did not. I was momentarily confused. I belatedly realized that there was a depression about fifteen or twenty feet deep in the ground. It might have been for drainage of the fields. I had not noticed it coming as I had turned to answer. Bill apparently knew these fields like the back of his hand. He had merely closely followed the contours of the ground.

I gulped, then finally got out, "I wasn't expecting that last dip!"

Bill grinned widely and said, "Let's go on another bombing run."

I felt like saying not to, but did not want to appear cowardly. The way he had gone into and out of the ditch or depression made me think he really could fly well. I concluded the danger must not be as great as it had seemed. I guessed he was merely having fun with me.

We gained altitude for a while. After the plane had sufficient altitude, he again dropped the nose. Once again, it seemed like we were going to hit the ground. I kept my mouth shut. Bill finally pulled on the control yoke. He had waited too long this time. We ripped through the tops of corn stalks! Bill pulled back some more. We rose above the corn. The large top of one stalk was wedged in the front of the plane near our feet.

"Whoops, that was a little too close," Bill said meekly.

We were now high enough above the corn to be out of danger. He looked toward the back of the plane and seemed disturbed. I turned to see why. There were pieces of cornstalks draped over the support wires that ran all over the ultralight airplane! The wind caused by our flight was causing them to fall away, leaving a floating trail of debris.

I had had enough. I was no longer worried about the embarrassment of appearing scared. I wanted to get back on the ground. I told him so.

We landed uneventfully.

John had been eagerly waiting for his turn. I undid the belts and clambered out. I warned John not to go up with that pilot. I told him about how we had hit the corn. Rather than making him not go, this seemed to make John more eager then ever to go up. Perhaps it came across as I had been bragging about the thrill, but I did not mean it that way at all! I had been truly scared. I was convinced Bill was not a man I felt it was safe to fly with. John waved away any further objections from me. He went over to the plane, where Bill was still strapped in. John climbed aboard. The plane then bounced down the grassy field, then lifted off.

I felt fear for John flying with that man, anger at Bill for putting me in real danger, anger at myself for allowing it to happen, and yet humiliated for displaying an obviously fearful reaction in front of John. Yet, Bill and I had really hit the corn! To me, that was not some fake danger.

I watched as John had his flight. It was late enough that the sun was setting, putting colors in the sky. The sky was not orange, but deep blue and purplish. Despite what I had felt about the danger, the ultralight airplane soaring above the yellow corn in the evening sky was beautiful. Unfortunately, I had no camera with me. In fact, I owned no camera when an undergraduate in college.

The plane was high when the snowmobile-like buzz of the engine stopped. Since the plane was flying levelly toward the runway, I did not feel fear about the engine stopping. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that Bill had cut the engine on purpose. He was deadsticking in. Nearly silent except for faint wind noises, the plane came down for a graceful landing.

John unstrapped and bounded out of the plane. He looked elated.

As John drove us back from the farm into the city, he talked with pride of his flight. He seemed to feel coming in with the engine off was an adequate thrill comparable to the bombing run where Bill and I had hit the corn, but miraculously not the ground itself.

I did not feel I had been bragging about a thrill or my supposed bravery. I was angry over what had happened. To me, it was not like bragging about riding a roller coaster where there is little genuine danger. I tried to explain this to my friend. That night, it was like we spoke different languages that the other did not understand.

The autumn semester courses started a day or two after that. John loved hang gliding so much that he joined others on campus in creating a brand new university-sanctioned hang gliding club. While I had enjoyed the hang gliding far more than the ultralight airplane flight, I had neither funds nor time to be in that club as the EE courses started in an intense fashion just as I had expected.

In the summer, Brad, who had taught the hang gliding lessons and was part of the club, had come across as responsible and appropriately cautious to me. The lessons had been on a modestly sloped hill, minimizing how high the gliders had gone. That had been quite a contrast to the daredevil who had flown me on the oversized ultralight plane.

Since I was back to going full bore with a heavy load of engineering courses, outside activities that I had enjoyed during the summer had to come to a stop. I needed all my time and energy in the hyper-competitive fight for keeping a high grade-point-average in courses graded on the curve. In hindsight, I am a little saddened that grades had become so important to me. However, money was also a factor. The cost for my new textbooks that autumn had been considerably higher than usual with some books about a hundred dollars each. My co-op money from a year before was beginning to dry up after getting that semester's textbooks.

That semester, John also got involved in the university scuba club, which was not new but already well established. Although the university rented air tanks and regulators cheaply, I had discovered the high cost of renting wet suits for the Devilís Lake dive, and the cold water enough feet down in Wisconsin lakes meant a wet suit was necessary. I decided I would wait until after I had graduated and gotten a good job before doing any more scuba diving.

Throughout that autumn semester, John has some entertaining stories of his dives with the scuba club and his hang gliding flights, but those are his stories to tell, not mine.

Although the semester was underway, John tried to talk me into going on another ultralight flight during one weekend. I certainly was never going up in the air with that instructor, but my warnings to John about hitting the corn showing this man was irresponsible and dangerous seemed unheeded. It became clear that nothing I could say would dissuade him from going, with or without me. Vice versa, nothing he could say would persuade me to go again. This refusal was not so much about money as only one flight was not too expensive. It was lessons or photographs from the wing camera where the money seemed to be made. For me, it was also not about ultralight airplanes themselves, but rather about my personal evaluation of Bill himself as a pilot. I simply did not trust him to fly safely. Hitting the corn still had me shaken a couple weeks later.

John eventually succeeded in talking me into coming with him to take photographs with his camera when he flew. It would only take a few hours. He had felt sad that he had gotten no photographs of his first flight. If I had had a camera that day, I think the images would indeed have been terrific.

John drove us out to the farm again. At the farm, John and I saw that one of the two two-seater trainer planes was partially crushed. Tubes were badly bent. The landing gear wheels had been forced up close toward the seats. The main wings had bent downward like an upside down letter V.

The second two-seater plane was intact. It sat out on the field being readied for a lesson.

I think it was one of the students who told us about the crash. He claimed to have been a witness on the ground. Another student had been piloting, coming in to land. That student thought he was much closer to the ground then he had actually been. He had stalled the plane about twenty or so feet up. The stall had caused a quick drop as the wings lost lift. Despite the obvious damage to the plane, there had been no injuries according to the person telling the story.

I think Bill himself then walked from the intact two-seater over to us. He explained that these types of planes are designed to fold up like that to act as shock absorbers. Looking at the landing wheels, seats, and bent tubes, I felt he was telling the truth. The tubes themselves were tubes inside tubes, so able to bend, but unlikely to snap. Bill also claimed that the engine was fine, as was the fabric of the wings. Basically, he claimed a new set of metal tubes was about all that would be necessary. I was not so sure I would trust that plane with only replaced tubes, but I do not really know. The plane certainly looked dismal all bent up.

I thought the sight of it would finally convince John not to fly with Bill again. Yet, John still said that he wanted to go.

However, Bill explained that he was booked for lessons for the rest of the day. Despite John's willingness, he could not go up that day. Bill said that he would be happy to take John up again on another day.

John and I watched as Bill went back and climbed into the intact two-seater trainer plane. A student was also on board. They taxied down the grassy field, then lifted off. I was unable to see if it was Bill or the student operating the controls.

John and I returned to his car, then headed back to the city. Despite how willing he had been to fly that day, John never brought up the subject of another flight in the ultralights to me. He did talk enthusiastically about the hang gliding club and scuba club many times, though. Unlike the ultralight airplanes where I did not trust Bill, if my finances had been stronger and my course load less demanding, I would have been glad to join in scuba diving or hang gliding. Since I had neither the time nor money anymore, all I got to do was hear John's stories of his further exciting adventures doing them, but I noticed he had no more stories about the ultralight airplanes.


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