Microlight myths and realities

Microlight myths and realities

The panel on today’s typical Tecnam P2008 microlight. But this cannot be true. It looks just like the inside of a real aeroplane!

You don’t have to be a crazy, eccentric, outrageous adventurer to fly a microlight aircraft – but being slightly adventurous will help. Although often portrayed as lunacy by the media, modern-day microlighting makes sense. People who fly microlight aircraft are normal folk who love flying and have discovered that microlights are affordable to own and fly.

Today’s advanced microlights come with the comfort, safety, performance and endurance of slightly larger aircraft, at a fraction of the price other pilots pay to fly inefficient, last-century aeroplanes. These days, people who want a Private Pilot’s Licence are looking for a career in commercial aviation. Microlight pilots either don’t aspire to fly in that environment or they’ve already retired from it.

Microlight aircraft range from the most basic bugs-in-your-teeth flying machines to high-tech, high-performance aircraft that make the average GA aeroplane look like an old-fashioned, underpowered piece of scrap metal with the aerodynamics of a brick. Advanced microlights are made of metal or composite materials. They have strong wings, electric trim, powered flaps and fuel-efficient engines – a little bit like the airliner that takes you on holiday.

Some microlight aircraft have EFIS (an Electronic Flight Information System). A few have autopilots – and some have rocket-powered parachutes that can return the aircraft and its contents to the surface, if absolutely everything turns to custard.

Jenny Dillner, staff reporter on the Hastings Leader, took her very first flight in a small aeroplane with Brian Mackie in Tecnam Sierra KFA – and discovered that microlights aren’t always made from rags and tubes. Picture courtesy of Hawkes Bay Today

Such “advanced” equipment is more often found in commercial aircraft because of a risk-averse regulatory regime that manages to inflate the cost of a $10 spark plug into a $100 CAA-certified-and-approved but otherwise identical spark plug. Microlighters’ hi-tech gizmos may lie far beyond the wallets of those with Private Pilot’s Licences, who fly GA (General Aviation) aeroplanes. Modern microlight aircraft can cruise at up to 150 knots (280 kph) and fly non-stop for more than 1250 km, or around five hours.

Microlighting is all about simpler, cheaper and more personal recreational flying. The aircraft cost much less than traditional light aeroplanes – if you can spare two or three years, you could build one from plans or a kit. If you are in a hurry to fly and don’t know one end of a spanner from a molegrip, you can buy an advanced microlight from a factory. The cost? Anything from $5000 for a used Bantam to more than $250,000 for a brand new, factory-assembled pocket rocket.

As microlights become the entry-level training aircraft for the next generation of commercial pilots, they will become the new fleets of aero clubs. This will offer increasingly attractive opportunities for hire – which will suit microlight pilots who’d prefer not to own an aeroplane and bear the costs of a hangar (along with threats of separation from a long-suffering partner).

Microlight pilot licensing is simpler, easier and cheaper – most people can expect to qualify. Training is less intensive than that for the Private Pilot’s Licence (although the conditions in which we fly are identical, and there’s nothing to stop you becoming as competent as any PPL – or better). Microlight owners can maintain their own aircraft and its engine (within commonsense limits), further lowering the operating costs.

Running a microlight can cost around 60 percent less than operating a General Aviation light aircraft. You can fly an advanced microlight, in a closed and heated cockpit, at 200 kph, burning less fuel per kilometre than a medium-sized car for the distance covered (around 12 to 18 litres an hour). And microlights don’t use aviation fuel. Today’s microlight engines use the same stuff you buy at the petrol station.

Microlights include weight-shift-controlled “trikes”, conventional “three-axis, stick and rudder” aeroplanes, gyrocopters, helicopters, powered parachutes and powered paragliders. Within each of these categories, there is a variety of types, shapes and sizes. There are single-seat and two-seat machines. Single-seater requirements for pilots are minimal – if you hold a certificate and the thing will fly, off you go. Two-seat machines, sensibly, have more stringent requirements for construction, maintenance and pilot experience.

A microlight aeroplane, under current NZ rules, carries not more than two persons and has a maximum take-off weight not exceeding 600 kg.

Hybrid microlight

Plug and play: the world’s first hybrid microlight, developed by Diamond Aircraft, Siemens, Austro Engine and EADS. This prototype two-seater is partly powered by an electric motor

In the microlight fraternity, you’ll find doctors, accountants, builders, driving instructors, IT developers, mechanical engineers, carpet layers, stone masons, local authority officers, farmers, photographers, business consultants, priests, members of the armed forces, comedians, schoolchildren, students, funeral directors – and a host of others (including airline pilots).

All of them deeply value their lives and have the good sense to fly well-constructed, proven and well-maintained aircraft. They know that gravity never lets up.

So, you don’t have to be a nutcase to fly a microlight (and we only use lawn mower engines to cut the airfield grass).

There are few greater pleasures in life than pottering off to a little grass strip, chatting to other pilots over tea and bikkies in the clubhouse for an hour or two, then climbing into your aeroplane, rising once more into the blue – and flying home in time for dinner…


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