Many general aviation pilots would not take too long to plan a 900-mile trip. After all, in your Cirrus SR22, this would take perhaps five hours and maybe involve one fuel and stretch break. It might only take seven hours of flying in an older Cessna 172 Skyhawk. In both it could be quicker as you might plan a more direct flight.
But when Mike Jefferson flew 900 miles to the Copperstate Fly-In in early February in Buckeye, Arizona, it took three days and 17 hours of airtime to complete the flight. Of course, he flew much more slowly — averaging a bit over 50 miles an hour — but he had quite a different experience.
Would you attempt his flight?
Before you answer, consider the flight was in an airplane you get “on” more than one you get “in” — an AirBike, better known as a motorcycle of the air.
When you are flying an AirBike, you are partially sheltered by a wind screen, but even your pant legs are going to be out in the windstream.
To some pilots, this may sound delightful. To others, it would be closer to punishment. Fortunately, we can all have it our way in this great country of flying freedom.
Motorcycle of the Air
For Jefferson, close contact with the air comes pretty easily.
When he’s not making epic aerial journeys Jefferson runs Big Air Hang Gliding in San Francisco, giving flight instruction and helping people realize a two-person flight. Hang gliding flight instructors call that tandem. It doesn’t mean the same thing as tandem in a powered aircraft (one behind another). In hang gliding, two people must hang from a common point so they are side-by-side or one atop the other or some variation. The method was called “tandem” and the term stuck.
Taking someone with you in a hang glider demands some level of cooperation from the student. For a first timer, going tandem in a hang glider is practically the definition of an eye-opening experience.
The FAA permits two-place hang gliders for instructional purposes, and believe me, every one going for a flight is going to learn plenty. Still, an instructor needs to know his or her student and preflight coaching is essential. To achieve a perfect safety record, Mike has clearly employed some proper techniques to work for him.
Check this figure: Over his years in business, Mike reports taking more than 5,000 tandem flights from hills around San Francisco. For comparison, GA pilots might imagine giving 5,000 Young Eagle flights. In that context, 5,000 becomes a very big number. You can do your own math on how long it has taken Jefferson to log that many tandem hang glider flights.
Each of Jefferson’s tandem flights isn’t walking out on the airport ramp and hopping in a plane for an hour. Coaching, driving up to the launch site, setting up the glider, launching into flight, and retrieving from landing consumes much more than an hour, even if the flight itself may be short. Doing this thousands of times with excellent success speaks to using superior training practices.
A Different Way Aloft
Mike Jefferson comes to flying the AirBike via a different path than most (though, ironically, I also flew hang gliders extensively some years before flying the AirBike).
Mike got his powered aircraft training from Bobby Bailey, the iconic designer of the Dragonfly tug that was specially created to tow hang gliders. An American named Ed Pittman produces the Dragonfly for American sales and has won FAA acceptance as a Light-Sport Aircraft. Many are in regular airborne tractor duty around the USA and the world.
In the last year, Mike discovered his AirBike in the Tucson, Arizona area. Needing some care, he hauled the project home and thoroughly went over the whole aircraft.
I know he did a good job of this as I enlisted Scott Severen to come look over this AirBike while we were at Copperstate. Severen was instrumental in developing AirBike back in the early 1990s while he was president of TEAM Aircraft. The designer was the legendary Wayne Ison of TEAM and he gets the credit, but it was Severen who supplied the motivation for the project, a significant departure from TEAM’s all-wood designs.
Scott examined Mike’s AirBike as well as possible in the field and gave it a thumbs up.
Mike keeps his AirBike on the same airport where Ed Pittman of Pittman Air assembles the SLSA Dragonfly. Well north of San Francisco, Pittman calls Red Bluff, California, home.
For Jefferson to make his epic voyage to Copperstate, he flew to Buckeye, Arizona, by routes dictated by the small amount of fuel on board. Part 103 ultralight vehicles may carry only five gallons of fuel. The FAA declined to call these light-of-all flying machines “aircraft” because this word choice allowed the super-simple regulation. The entire rule can be printed on the front and back of a single sheet of paper — imagine that!
The stories I usually follow tend to have a laser-beam focus on airplanes and the hardware of flight. Of course, people are behind every product, but pilots seem to like the nuts and bolts of a story.
Yet every now again, when the story is good, it’s fun to talk about somebody doing something interesting in aviation. Mike Jefferson did that with his AirBike journey to Copperstate.
Call it crazy if you will. I consider this “real” flying, just man, machine, and the ocean of air.
Thanks to a YouTube channel commenter labeled as “Concerned Citizen” we have an update on Mike Jefferson’s long, slow flight back home.
“Mike left Copperstate Sunday morning and made three legs, stopping in Blythe, Bermuda Dunes, then Banning, due to severe winds and rain.
“After a two-day layover with strong wind gusts, Mike made a hop to Rosamond, then the next day, an incredible dawn-to-dusk day, flying from Rosamond, near Edwards Air Force Base, to Corning, California! Nearly 500 miles and 11 hours in a single day!
“The little Rotax 447 was flawless the whole trip,” Concerned Citizen reported. “Mike. Is. Da. MAN!”
The Copperstate Fly-In completed its 47th year last month. This is an impressive achievement, but the story is not just another aviation event successfully concluded.
Copperstate has rotated through several other locations in the last 10-20 years. For its organizers — themselves also changing, as such volunteer organizations tend to do — Copperstate has been an event without a home field (compared to SUN ‘N FUN Aerospace Expo at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (KLAL) in Florida or EAA AirVenture Oshkosh at Wittman Regional Airport (KOSH) in Wisconsin).
Not having a home field means those wanting to host an aviation trade show with aircraft, plus all the related flying gear for pilots to review, must also cope with airport negotiations, leases, port-a-potties, volunteers, vendor solicitation, signage, communication, and much more,
Honestly, it’s a lot of work and the wide-ranging effort is probably why we don’t have more of these events. Add in funding challenges and maybe you understand why Copperstate organizers chose a different approach…one I think may be working well.
Hosted by a fresh combination of Copperstate leadership working in cooperation with officials in the town of Buckeye, Arizona, the new event was held in conjunction with the town’s Buckeye Air Fair in early February.
For most of its 47-year history Copperstate was held in October. Showing the city’s support, both Buckeye’s mayor and vice mayor were present at the fly-in’s opening evening ceremonies.
I have to admit my pleasant surprise. This tie-up of Copperstate and the Buckeye Air Fair might be exactly what is needed to generate a major show in the Southwestern USA.
Let me be fair. Other West Coast aviation events have interesting qualities, but none has ever risen to the level of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh or SUN ‘n FUN. Those two dominate general aviation trade show events. Both are “back East.”
With big pilot and aircraft populations in California, Arizona, Washington, and other Western states, why have we no enduring major shows in the West?
No one I’ve asked can solve the riddle, but could the Copperstate/Buckeye Air Fair be the right combination?
Only time will tell, yet on the weekend of the show, crowds were as thick as Oshkosh, albeit in a much smaller area. City planners offered an airshow with lots for attendees to look at and do. The Copperstate trade show, alongside the Buckeye Air Fair, gave the public close access to pilots operating all manner of light aircraft.
On Friday, the city brought more than 1,000 school kids to have a look at what the aircraft vendors had on display. Of course, most may not pursue flying, but at least they got a chance to see light aircraft up close. Many vendors made short presentation to groups of students that teachers brought. Everybody wins.
A good gaggle of serious airplane buyers encouraged vendors on Thursday and Friday before the public attended. Several aircraft representatives told me they were pleased with the leads they generated at the four-day event.
Buckeye residents came out in thick droves on Saturday and Sunday. Vice Mayor Eric Orsborn estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people attended on Saturday. Eric is more than a city leader; he’s also a pilot and his wife is pursuing flying lessons.
With Sunday equally strong, most will consider this pairing of city air fair with industry trade show to be a resounding success. Orsborn echoed that the city was very pleased about the link-up and sees good things in the future.
While the general public may not be airplane buyers today, at least the Copperstate/Buckeye link-up exposed many to light aviation. That by itself seems to recommend the combination of these two events. Not only do I expect this could endure, it might even encourage other trade show organizers to consider joining forces with local civic leaders.