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.

Always remember that ultralights must yield right of way to all other aircraft.  We are at the "bottom of the heap" and must fly accordingly.

Public or private airports, airstrips, or aviation operation area that do not receive any Federal funding may make any rules they like which can also include excluding ultralights.  There is nothing we can do about this except lobby the owner(s) of the land.  The burden lies with us to convince them we are responsible pilots.  Leasing a hangar, for example, 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.  I am sorry to say that many airport managers do not know the law or have it backwards.  The airport authority must 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.

City, county, and private airports are usually un-towered, fortunately, and usually do not have high traffic.  They can also be 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 likely 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 of managers just want to be sure everything is done in a safe and responsible manner.  The reason ultralights have trouble is because there are pilots who do not know the rules and are danger to others, including themselves.  In this regard, education is the answer.

Unfortunately, there are also some who do know the rules but choose to ignore them.  These types of pilots are not our friends and have done irreparable damage throughout the U.S.  Often, they will show up in your area unannounced for a few days, engage in illegal or annoying activities, and then leave.  They know that by the time other pilots or the authorities are about to get after them, they can be safely somewhere else, doing the same thing.  Local pilots and airport managers need to be on the lookout for these rogue types.  I am sorry to say that they can include military, commercial, and private pilots who know how to evade the authorities and like the thrill of it all.

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.

All pilots can get an important and valuable head start by studying the relevant (and short) chapters in The Powered Paragliding Bible written by our USPPA president, Jeff Goin, an experienced Southwest Airlines pilot, among other things.  Jeff gives detailed instructions if you want to fly at an airport, even ones with a tower.  He discusses the details of communication with an airband radio or over the telephone with the airport authority and other pilots, what to pay attention to, and everything else that might be required if you wish to touch down or take off.

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.

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 (also see The Powered Paragliding Bible for help).  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 and that you are a serious pilot.  It helps to rent a hangar.  Often half-hangars are available which are perfect for us.  Many ultralight pilots are simply ignorant and foolish with respect to aviation rules and safety – a fixable problem.

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.  It is only courteous to let general aviation pilots know what you are up.  This type of radio can be had for under $300.  Note: The typical 2m FM radio cannot be modified to transmit on the airbands but it can receive the AM modulated signals.  The difference between AM and FM transmission is so great that completely separate transmit sections of the radio are required.

While it is easy to transmit with these AM radios, it can be difficult to hear received signals because of ignition noise from your engine, a particular problem with AM signals (but not FM).  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 for a repeat of the transmission.  I can always do a quick transmit while on glide.  This problem is mostly fixable by installing a resistor type spark plug (e.g. BR9ES which is the resistor type of the B9ES).  Note: 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 the 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.

Turkey Vulture