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Airport access for ultralights

by Had Robinson

Private and public airports may be an ultralight pilot's only location to safely and legally operate.  Because most ultralights, especially paragliders, are slow moving aircraft, they do not mix well with general aviation aircraft.  It is a safety issue.

Private airports that do not receive any sort of Federal funding may make any rules they like which can include excluding ultralights.  There is nothing we can do about this except lobby the owner(s) of the airport.  The burden lies with us to convince them we are responsible pilots.  Leasing a hangar may be the only way to gain access.

On the other hand, airports that receive Federal funds (which is virtually all public airports) cannot generally exclude ultralight operations.  Here is the official FAA ruling on ultralight activity at such airports.

The operation of ultralights and light sport aircraft are aeronautical activities and must, therefore, be generally accommodated at airports that have been developed with federal airport development assistance. -- FAA Airport Compliance Manual

The burden of proof that flying your PPG at the airport would be unsafe lies with the airport, not with the pilot.  The airport authority has to give a clear and reasonable explanation why you cannot use the airport.  If there is a disagreement, the local FSDO office makes the final decision.  If a towered airport, for example, is your only option, they would be required to help, under Federal regulations.  That could mean that you must have an aviation band transceiver (more on this below), adhere to a special traffic pattern, and meet other reasonable criteria.  The point is that the rules must be reasonable.  FAA regulations are clear on this point.

County and private airports are usually un-towered, fortunately, and do not have high traffic.  They are also a source of AVGAS (aviation gasoline) which is one of the best fuels to use in most ultralight engines (no ethanol and it stores forever).

Never show up at your local airport and setup and fly before meeting with the manager beforehand.  You might get away with it once or twice but you will upset him, including other pilots.  It is irresponsible and may be illegal.

If you can get to know someone who hangars his plane at the airport, you will have a great head start.  Ask him what the general attitude of the manager and local pilots is towards ultralights?  Some can be extremely (and illegally) hostile.  The majority just want to be sure everything is done in a safe manner.  The reason ultralights have trouble is because there are too many irresponsible pilots and their dangerous antics have made it difficult for the rest of us.  These types of pilots are not our friends and have done irreparable damage throughout the U.S. to those of us who are responsible aviators.

You can show your support for responsible and safe piloting of ultralights by joining the USPPA and the USUA.  The USPPA is the only organization in the United States that has a solid training program.  Certifications are issued which demonstrate that the pilot cares about safely flying a PPG.  The USUA has a special program for members that can make 3rd party liability insurance available for a very reasonable cost.  It is good enough to pass muster with the Department of Defense and their requirements at military airfields and for those who fly at air shows.

The EAA is a national organization that has significant clout in the flying community.  They have a free pilot registration program for all ultralight pilots, including powered paragliders.  You must be a member of the EAA to take advantage of this program.  If you are the only PPG ultralight in your area, you may want to consider joining the EAA (I am a member of EAA).

In all cases, schedule a meeting with your local airport manager.  Before the meeting, dress appropriately (many managers are ex-military and are pilots themselves).  Go with other pilots, if possible.  Show him your credentials and insurance certificate (recommended).  Tell him you fly an ultralight and would like to safely use the airport.  Familiarize yourself with the general traffic pattern rules at airports.  He will tell you what you need to do. The manager's primary concern is safety.  Showing credentials and an insurance certificate will go a long way toward making relations with the airport authority congenial.  It helps to rent a hangar.  Often half-hangars are available which are perfect for us.  Many or most ultralight pilots are ignorant and foolish with respect to aviation rules and safety -- something that we need to avoid.

Purchase an aviation band radio if you plan to fly near or at an airport.  You will need the correct adaptors and pigtails to connect these radios to a typical PPG helmet, like the ICARO.  (We sell a complete setup.  Contact us.)  It is only courteous to let general aviation pilots know what you are up to before you launch.  This type of radio can be had for under $300.

While it is easy to transmit with these AM band radios, it can be difficult to hear received signals because of ignition noise.  When I go cross country, I carry my aviation band radio and, if I hear other aircraft or a tower, I kill my engine and ask him to please repeat his transmission.  I can do a quick transmit while on glide.  This problem is permanently fixable by installing a resistor type spark plug e.g. BR9ES which is the resistor type of the B9ES.  If you have a resistive type secondary wire and add a resistor plug, you may have problems with misfire under full load.  You can test this easily and you may have to revert to the standard spark plug.

If you just need access to fuel, explain that the manufacturer of the engine in your aircraft requires AVGAS and that you keep the aircraft in the back of your vehicle and will need to drive to the pump.

Where I live, our airport manager is friendly and helpful to ultralight pilots.  I hope yours is the same.  In general, demonstrate to your local flying community at your local airport that you are a safe and responsible pilot.  Thinking of others goes a long way in helping our reputation among aviators.