|Quicksilvers can be found in abundance down on The Farm. (photo by James Lawrence)
|When the winds are calm in the early morning, powered parachute pilots take to the skies over Oshkosh. (photo by Mariano Rosales)
By Randy Dufault
For many it seems like only yesterday that Part 103 entered the FARs. But it has been three decades since creation of the rules governing powered and unpowered ultralights.
Adopted July 30, 1982, effective on October 4 that same year, Part 103 formally established what truly is recreational flight.
Part 103 established limits on size, performance, and configuration and also established that people flying them needed no certificate or medical qualification.
Hang gliding was already a popular pastime before 103 and generally did not interfere with other regulated flying. But as is true of many new industries, things developed and changed - quickly.
"I was actively involved with hang gliding," said Dan Johnson, current president and chairman of the board of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. "We started to add power and that is why [the FAA] started looking at this thing. Hang glider guys generally operated in sort of remote places, and just never really showed up on anybody's radar. They probably would have been left alone doing their thing, but they started adding engines.
"Some of them started to actually enter into airspace and that's when FAA said we are going to have to do something about this."
In 1976 one of what Johnson called "creative applications" of a powered hang glider flew at Oshkosh: an Icarus II with a tiny McCullough 101 two-cycle engine flown by EAA member John Moody.
By 1980 the spread of powered hang glider changed FAA views of "powered hang gliders."
FAA's interest piqued
Ken Peppard, of the FAA's air traffic organization in 1981, was tasked with leading the effort that wrote the rule.
Peppard, now retired, said at an interview here at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2012, "What was happening around the country is that people would show up with these things and where would you fly them? You would fly them at your local airport."
Airport operators were confused over what rights the new planes and pilots had, and whether they should even be allowed to operate.
They looked to the FAA for answers.
"Within FAA there were three entities interested in this," Peppard said. "The one that was most interested was the air traffic control organization because [ultralights] were operating in the airspace. The second group was the Flight Standards group that certified pilots and the third was the Flight Standards group managing required equipment and airworthiness.
"[One question was] how do we minimize risk and ensure safety? The other was who should be operating or flying these and to what standard should they be built?"
Education before regulation
Peppard, with FAA colleagues Art Jones and Mike Sacrey, took a unique approach to understanding the challenge.
"We decided to immerse ourselves in the ultralight community," Peppard said. "At an elementary level I flew hang gliders. I tore the knees out of my jeans on the sides of hills learning, but I felt that I had to be out there.
"To the extent that there were two-place ones I went flying in them, and so did Mike, and so did Art.
"We went to visit the manufacturers. There were two that were very vocal, but we visited others.
"We went to ultralight flying sites all over the country. Whenever there was any concentration of ultralights-a meet of some kind affiliated with any kind of airport activity, a county fair or whatever - we got involved with it to see what they were doing, talk to them, and find out what worked."
Ultimately Peppard and the FAA came up with a regulation allowing single-seat powered airplanes that could weigh up to 254 pounds, carry 5 gallons of fuel, fly no faster than 55 knots, and stall at no faster than 24 knots. Hang gliders could weigh up to 155 pounds.
Neither a pilot certificate nor medical certificate is required to fly an ultralight.
No pilot training is required either, though it is recommended, and shortly after the rule went into effect, the FAA issued an exemption from the single seat requirement allowing two-seat versions of some models for dual instruction. The exemption for two-place powered ultralights was supplanted by the light-sport aircraft rules, but remains for unpowered hang gliders.
Got it right the first time
The rule has changed very little since it went into effect.
"It's been there for 30 years," Johnson said. "There haven't been a lot of problems with it. Sure there have been some accidents, all tragic and unfortunate, but the reality is they have been operating pretty safely for a long time."
Peppard believes the FAA efforts creating the rule helped recreational aviation thrive.
"There are several ways to approach regulation," he said. "Part 103 was written with an overriding desire to facilitate the activity-not constrain it, not limit it, or restrict it. We wanted it to be an enabling regulation, not a restricting one.
"It became the recreational component of the broader general aviation umbrella."
Johnson reminisced about how Part 103 came to be and how it was a different era.
"[Twenty years after the rule] Mike Sacrey told me that it is amazing we ever got this rule," Johnson said, "because the government doesn't give up power very readily and they did in this case. We would never get that through in today's world."
And, after 30 years, Part 103 airplanes still are the most affordable powered airplanes in the world.