To the untrained eye, ultralight aircraft, with their small body and minimal construction can seem like a dangerous option for pilots. There are plenty of scary stories about how these seemingly flimsy planes are deathtraps that all respectable pilots should avoid.
However, many experienced fliers insist that these machines don’t deserve their bad reputation as a dangerous craft. Many are eager to highlight that any blame for accidents lies with the pilot, not the plane.
Further research shows that it’s hard to argue with this assessment. For a start, it is hard to label these ultralight aircraft as death traps when they aren’t responsible for that many fatal accidents.
There are accidents with these planes, but there are accidents with cars, motorcycles and commercial planes too.
First of all, in Europe, the speed of the ultralight is limited to a max. of 65 km/h (40 mph) and the maximum take-off weight is 450 kg (992 lb without a parachute) that any impact is unlikely to be fatal but it may happen. So that is not the speed at which you will be flying most of the time it is the max speed allowed. The ultralight has a short landing roll and a slow landing speed in case of engine failure.
Second, they can be easily kept under control with an experienced pilot that keeps his ultralight well-maintained. The bad reputation of these ultralight aircraft has more to do with regulations, rather than any accidents or poor construction.
The rules on these small, light aircraft are not as strong as they would be with other FAA-regulated craft. Therefore, there is the sense that anyone can take one out to an airfield, attempt to get it up and then crash it.
There are some laws in place to strengthen responsibilities around ultralight flying, but they could be a little stronger in some areas. In Canada, for example, accidents decreased after the regulations of 1983, and there were fewer fatalities than with general aircraft.
It is all about perspective here. Yes, there is minimal regulation and licensing, which can mean some poorly equipped pilots in the skies. There is no license required to fly a “Part 103 legal ultralight. However, there is nothing to stop fliers from taking on training.
Any pilot that wants to understand their machine and get the best experience knows that training and practice are essential. Those that don’t put the time and effort in really aren’t fit to fly these ultralight aircraft.
The question of safety with ultralight aircraft is less about the plane themselves and more about external factors.
It is important to highlight this issue of pilot training because two crucial factors play a part in many accidents with ultralight aircraft. They are pilot error and poor weather.
A pilot who doesn’t fully understand takeoff and landing procedures is more likely to crash, regardless of the type of plane. The lightweight and construction of the ultralight aircraft also mean that weather conditions come into play far more than with other planes.
A bad storm or a strong wind can send them off course, with devastating consequences. Again, these accidents are down to the pilot more than the aircraft. A well-made plane can survive light weather conditions. A pilot should know better than to go up in a storm.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t dangerous models out there, but it is once again up to the pilot to avoid the dangers.
It is important to note that the standards of design and manufacture of ultralight aircraft have improved over the years.
There are some dodgy, beaten-up second-hand models out there that are for sale. However, there is no reason why real enthusiasts can’t find a reliable, well-made new model for a decent price.
All pilots are also responsible for the maintenance and checks of all aircraft before taking off. It is no wonder that some people are fearful of these “flimsy” ultralight aircraft if they are in bad condition with dents and rust.
With the right approach to maintenance, training and flying conditions, ultralight aircraft can be safe to fly.
In the end, the safety of the planes comes down to the preparation of the pilot as much as the condition of the craft. A skilled pilot in a beaten-up plane is probably at an advantage to an unskilled in a pristine one.
A well-prepared pilot is a pilot that has a great chance of successful flight, regardless of the type of plane. Those that don’t train properly and ignore weather warnings and necessary procedures are the ones most likely to crash and receive injuries. This is true for pilots of all aircraft including ultralight aircraft.