By Timm Bogenhagen, Ultralight & Lightplane Community Manager and Member Programs Specialist
This year marks the 40th anniversary of FAR Part 103, the FAA regulation that formally established ultralight vehicles in the United States. Only two pages long, Part 103 enabled a new and exciting type of recreational flight. One of the most important parts of 103 is the wording. Rather than aircraft, the FAA calls an ultralight a vehicle. Doing this enabled the FAA to allow people to fly without having a pilot certificate, choosing instead to implement restrictions to protect other aircraft, persons, and property. Not only does this allow ultralighters the freedom to take personal responsibility for their flight, but also it limits any efforts to define what an ultralight has to be. It can be anything because it’s only constrained by the number of seats, its weight, its speed, and its fuel. How an ultralight gets off the ground doesn’t matter. It could have power, but it doesn’t have to. Therefore, an ultralight can be any configuration, such as a sailplane, hang glider, powered paraglider, weight-shift trike or fixed-wing, helicopter, or nice little fixed-wing airplane. What they all have in common is that they are simple, fun, and affordable vehicles flown for recreation. The history of modern ultralights starts in the ’70s with John Moody, as well as a heavy involvement with EAA. Many people wanted to fly simply, like the birds. While some people enjoyed hang gliding, many who wanted to fly didn’t have access to hills to launch their hang gliders. John, living in Milwaukee at that time, wanted to launch his hang glider from level ground. He put a low-horsepower engine on his Icarus hang glider and flew it off a frozen lake one Wisconsin winter day. With a couple of his friends running along with the wingtip to see if he’d get off the ground, he managed to gain a little altitude and fly around a bit over the frozen lake.
John was inspired by his creation, so in 1976, he brought it to the annual EAA convention in Oshkosh and asked convention officials if he could fly a demonstration. He got permission and found a piece of ground by what is now the Nature Center. John’s demonstration went very well, and the spectators were interested in and inspired by John’s flying machine, called a powered hang glider. John decided to make a business out of selling the powerplants that people could install onto Icarus hang gliders, and the sport of powered hang gliding literally took off. As popularity grew, the FAA started to take notice.
There had been a few reported incidents near airports between aircraft and powered hang gliders, and the staff at the FAA knew they had to do something. After several years of researching the market and interactions with the industry, Part 103 was officially published in 1982. The entire regulation was simple and could be printed on only two sheets of paper. It still stands today, almost the exact same regulation, only with a couple of airspace classification changes and NOTAM compliance issues. To the credit of the FAA personnel in charge of writing the rule, they focused on making the rule simple, uncomplicated, and easy to understand. Mike Sacrey, one of the lead FAA writers of the rule and an inductee in the EAA Ultralight Hall of Fame, once told me this rule is as simple as he could make it and the FAA would still accept it.
With Part 103 in place, the industry expanded quickly and new designs were brought to market at a fast pace. EAA founded the EAA Ultralight Association to support and promote this new type of flying that enabled tremendous freedom to build and design simple and affordable recreational flying vehicles. As a single-seat vehicle, how could pilots get proper flight instruction? Some manufacturers spent tremendous effort developing training programs to self-teach how to fly their vehicle. In the interest of safety, a two-seater was really needed so dual flight instruction could be administered. EAA under the leadership of Paul Poberezny petitioned the FAA for an exemption to allow two-seat ultralights in order to facilitate dual flight training. The FAA agreed with EAA’s request, and in July 1983, they issued EAA an exemption that allowed us to authorize individual flight instructors to use two-place ultralights for flight training. There were other organizations that obtained exemptions for powered ultralight training after EAA, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the United States Ultralight Association, and the Aero Sports Connection. The two-place exemptions really allowed Part 103 to flourish, grow, and survive over all these years, because now safe training, and therefore safe flying, was available.
Unfortunately, not all good things last forever. Technically, you couldn’t just fly around in two-seaters for the fun of it. When you had somebody with you, you always had to be giving them training. Many people started flying two-place ultralights illegally, simply because they wanted to share in the experience. The FAA started to take notice and moved to eliminate the training exemptions. This along with the ultralight industry’s request to expand Part 103 weight, speed, and fuel limits prompted the FAA to form an aviation rulemaking advisory committee (ARAC Part 103). After several years, the ARAC 103 working group made its recommendations to the FAA, one of which was to not change Part 103. The resulting regulations the FAA did publish in 2004 are referred to as the sport pilot and light-sport aircraft (SP/LSA) regulations. These new regulations were comprehensive and touched a lot of different areas of aviation. This defined a new category that, unlike ultralights, requires pilot certification, but the requirements are somewhat less stringent than those for private pilots, and it allows for the use of a driver’s license to prove medical eligibility instead of a full-blown medical certificate. All of this happened because of ultralights and Part 103.
Because of these SP/LSA regulations, two-place ultralight training exemptions were taken away in 2008. Now what? In order to train for an ultralight, your instructor must be a CFI-SP. This cut down on the amount of people willing to instruct significantly, a problem that persists today. For the last decade, EAA has been trying to fix this issue, advocating for the FAA to expand the letter of deviation authority training opportunities for high-drag and low-mass experimental LSA. It’s a challenge, but it’s something that EAA cares about and keeps encouraging action by the FAA to help fix and expand training opportunities. Those people looking for an instructor can find a list at EAA.org/Instructors.
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Part 103, I feel proud looking back at how the history of ultralights intertwines with EAA, and of the support EAA members have given to the ultralight community. Despite all the changes that have come to the aviation world, the ultralight world still represents the freedom to fly fun, affordable, and simple flying machines.
Timm Bogenhagen, EAA 379292, is EAA’s member programs specialist and ultralight and light plane community manager. He loves and appreciates the simple, fun, and affordable low and slow flying he does in his Quad City Challenger II. Having built a Team MiniMAX and currently building a HiMAX, he believes the fun is in the building. Email him at email@example.com