LSAs bring back memories of 1980s ultralight craze

Reading issues of The Pulse of General Aviation and Dan Johnson’s SPLOG column on Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) in the latest issue of General Aviation News put my memory on overload the other day. It also sent me digging into my files of far too many unfiled and poorly organized slides.

Do you remember slides? That’s what folks used before the digital camera came along. Back in the film days, a person would shoot a few pictures of various planes and hope they had the correct exposure and angle, etc. Today, you know immediately what you’ve got, the time and date is automatic, and you even get to designate where the picture was taken. Wait a minute — pictures on slides vs. digital is beside the point.

But while I was looking through the slides, it got me started thinking about the many ultralight aircraft from the early 1980s. That’s when the ultralight craze was sweeping the aviation world. One of the designs was built by a couple of guys working at Robertson Aircraft on the Renton Municipal Airport (RNT) in Washington State. Called a B1-RD, it was a high-wing, fabric-covered ultralight. It came in kit form and I decided to build one.

The kit arrived in several boxes with a manual that I felt left a lot to be desired. Unpacking the boxes I found a couple hundred small brown paper bags with only a part number written on the outside. There was no indication of what the part looked like. I remember spreading out the bags on the hangar floor in numerical order to make it somewhat easier to find the needed items. Helping me was son Ben, then 12 years old (and now the publisher)!

Finally we got the thing put together and the designers, the Bashforth brothers, came down and checked it out for me, made the initial flight and pronounced it ready for general flight. I proceeded to fly it and recall it was comfortable, stable in takeoff, cruise and landing. Of course, the cruise was about 25-30 mph, so a cross-country flight took plenty of time but didn’t get you very far from home.

I flew it some, my daughter Robyn flew it and Ben learned to fly by taxiing it up and down the runway at Shady Acres, the airpark where we lived at the time. Finally, when he was 13 years old, we decided he was ready and he made his first solo flight.

From that point on we spent a lot more time looking at ultralights and attending events for these flying machines than almost anything else. I recall the ultralight competitions we attended, with time to climb contests, short field takeoff and landing tests, speed runs and so on and so forth. The number of models continued to expand and the number of planes showing up at each event grew dramatically. Most arrived in a trailer, but more and more of them were flown to the event from areas 50 to 200 miles away — often a day-long trip.

At the height of the movement, there must have been hundreds of ultralight-focused events around the country. There were ultralight flying activities around the world, as a matter of fact.

We all know that the ultralight movement kind of withered in the ensuing years, but a small — but dedicated — base kept it alive and operating.

Today the LSA movement is a repeat of the ultralight era. Of course, the new LSAs are much more capable and well-built aircraft (and cost considerably more, too).

However, LSAs are doing exactly what the ultralight movement did: Introducing a whole new group of people to general aviation. Many of those who started out in ultralights eventually moved into general aviation airplanes. The ultralight pilots who got tired of sitting out in the open catching bugs in their teeth went for machines with enclosed seating areas. They wanted to have ready communications so they installed handhelds. They also got tired of hearing their spouses chew on them for going flying and leaving them home alone, so they started going for two-seat machines. Then they wanted to go faster so they could get somewhere and back in a day.

Today, beginning pilots are going for the LSAs and experienced pilots who are worried about renewing their medical certificates are seriously trying out LSAs, which don’t require a valid medical. As long as a pilot has not been rejected for a medical, he or she can continue to fly as pilot of an LSA.

I see these machines getting more complex in the coming days. They will ultimately have more carrying capacity, higher speed, increased equipment and even more reliability than they already have achieved.

In other words, we’re seeing history repeat itself. Let’s face it, weren’t the early ultralights similar to the original airplanes, such as the Wright Flyer? And isn’t the current LSA movement similar to the ultralight movement? And, didn’t general aviation show great growth with each improved segment of planes?

I, for one, am looking forward to climbing into an LSA — you know, low and slow and simple!

Dave Sclair was co-publisher from 1970-2000.


  1. says

    Where are the pic’s? I was a major player in the ultralight movement in the early 80.s to early 90’s. Southern California. Would love to see many memories back in color jim

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