Eagle Sarmont is
going on a trip. Everybody wave bye-bye to Eagle, it may be the last chance you
get. Next month Eagle is planning to fly an ultralight airplane from New York
to Paris, after first circling the Statue of Liberty a couple of times,
presumably to try to make himself even dizzier. Ultralight, which sounds like a
low-calorie beer but isn't, describes a fairly new kind of aircraft that is
really little more than a hang glider powered by an engine and driven through
the air by a small propeller. Eagle's ultralight is called a Pterodactyl
Fledgling by its manufacturer, and he has named it The Spirit of California
Eagle is from California. If he doesn't crash, Eagle expects his journey to
Paris—with numerous stops along the way—to take 22 days. If he does crash,
longer. If he crashes into the Atlantic, Eagle will have to inflate an air
mattress he says he'll carry along for just such an emergency. On his aircraft
Eagle has written DON'T PTREAD ON ME. Dinosaur humor. Eagle says he expects the
trip to entail "long dull hours with moments of terror." Eagle's girl
friend Claudine says, "Eagle is the kind of man who thinks of these things,
a visionary. And, besides, I told him I wanted to go to Paris." Tough luck,
Claudine, the Pterodactyl Fledgling doesn't have a passenger seat. Au revoir,
Eagle. How you say? Kiss it goodby.
Though the future
may have great things in store for Eagle Sarmont, for the time being he is
still a mere minion in the rapidly expanding ultralight airplane movement.
Thousands of the powered gliders have been designed and sold during the past
two years, many of them constructed from mail-order kits by enthusiastic
amateurs. Almost all of them are unlicensed, unregulated and unloved by the
FAA. Last weekend a dozen of the small planes descended upon Perris, Calif., 75
miles east of Los Angeles, for the Jack Fox Invitational Fly-In. It was what
you might call a gathering of Eagles, though Sarmont himself was home in Santa
Cruz studying up on how to say "The Eagle has landed" in French. At
dawn on Saturday the first two-stroke engine sputtered noisily to life, and as
morning gave way to afternoon, the sky hummed with activity, and Perris became
the City of Ultralights.
There was a
breezy informality about the event that's still fairly typical of the sport.
Walter Kole, who has a Quicksilver ultralight plane dealership and training
school in San Diego, spent the morning putting most of the six Quicksilvers on
hand through a series of looping turns, power dives and sudden climbs. During
the afternoon he swapped yarns with the other flyers. "I had a student just
yesterday who hit a 1,500-volt power line," said Kole in an offhand way,
"but he just bounced off and sheared a tree and ran into a house. There was
fire all around, and the guy just walked away. These things are really
Durability is a
virtue required not only of the machine, but often of the person in it as well.
John Moody of Milwaukee caught the imagination of glider enthusiasts back in
1977 when he hooked a 12-hp McCulloch go-kart engine to the back of his Icarus
II hang glider and demonstrated his new hybrid aircraft at the Experimental
Aircraft Association's annual fly-in in Oshkosh, Wis. Paul Yarnall, who runs
Finger Lakes Airsports at the Canandaigua Airport in upstate New York, had
already survived several hang-gliding crashes when he saw Moody put on his
demonstration at Oshkosh. "It blew my mind," Yarnall recalls. "I
ordered my kit that day."
by Moody's historic 1977 demonstration was a young engineer, Bill Adaska of
Dallas. "We looked into the sky and the first person we saw was John
Moody," Adaska says. "If the sport has a father, it's Moody. At least
he's a living father. Some of the other folks have passed away in their efforts
to promote the ultralight movement."
Many of the early
designs simply took a popular delta-shaped Rogallo hang-gliding wing and added
an engine at the back. The results weren't always salubrious. One designer died
in front of a large California air-show crowd when the tail of his ultralight
came loose, and another of the early models was configured in such a way that
it was forever doing Cuisinart jobs on the toes of pilots unwise enough to fly
it. "It's only been in the past two years that we've become credible,"
admits Adaska, who is now the president of Rotec Engineering Inc., which
produces the popular Rally.
The Rally is only
one of dozens of ultralight models that have recently been turned out by
designers with widely varying degrees of skill. Although they began as modified
hang gliders, the little craft have lately begun to look and behave more and
more like small planes. Some, in fact, bear a striking resemblance to the
machines guys like Orville Wright and Glenn L. Curtiss flew 75 or so years ago.
When flown in light (15 or less mph) wind conditions—much heavier winds than
that make these 150-to-200-pound vehicles almost unairworthy—a typical
ultralight can cruise along at 30 or 40 mph. They burn only a gallon of gas an
hour, carry about three gallons of fuel, cost only $3,000 to $4,000, require no
pilot's license or aircraft registration and can be put together using hand
tools in garage or basement. And after a hard day's flying, an ultralight's
wings can be folded, the engine unhitched and the whole thing strapped to the
top of a car. For those who dream of joining the birds, it's an inexpensive,
fun and relatively safe way to sprout wings.
ultralight was popularized by the manufacturers of the new craft, who wanted to
create a distinction between their sport and hang gliding, which had a fairly
dismal safety record. But the differences were more than just semantic. Five
years ago Ed Sweeney of Reno crashed his hang glider into a mountain. "If
you fly a hang glider, you have to take off from a ridge or a mountain,"
says Sweeney, who now manufactures the twin-engine Humbug, "and once you
step off into space you're committed—it's a one-way trip."
of the sport is that you've got an airplane that will fly to a desired
altitude, where you can shut the engine off, cruise around in the thermals like
a hang glider, then turn it back on and fly home," says Adaska. Almost all
of the ultralights are powered by pusher-mounted 15-to-25-hp engines, adapted
from chain saws, snowmobiles or go-karts. They are usually easy to restart with
a quick pull of a cord, even in mid-flight.
Californian Mark Hays, for one, almost never shuts his engine off once he gets
in the air. Hays puts on spectacular aerial displays over outdoor stadiums,
rigging his Eagle (no relation to Sarmont) ultralight with sequential strobe
lights on the wings, fireworks on the wing tips and a device that shoots
fireballs off the nose of the undercarriage. At a celebration marking the 25th
anniversary of Hawaiian statehood, Hays filled a Honolulu stadium with mirrors
and then set up lasers so that the light would crisscross the field while Hays
spiraled in, rockets ablaze, and simulated a crash landing. "Another time I
put on an impromptu show at a nudist colony in San Bernardino for the Miss Nude
America contest," he says. "They wanted me to fly in the nude, which I
refused to do, if for no other reason than it would have been too cold. It
turned out to be a good thing I kept my clothes on because I had an engine
failure and had to land in the middle of a cow pasture in front of a bunch of