Airplanes to Ultralights

By George Karamitis, EAA 144192

This piece originally ran in the October 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

I often find myself in a reflective mood. I turned 81 on August 3, 2022, and that generated a whole garden full of aviation thoughts such as where I have been, where I am presently, and where I hope to continue. I think age gives me the privilege to be free in my reflections. Honestly stated, I could not have lived an aviation life any better or, for that matter, a life any better. This is not a farewell but an open and honest thanksgiving.

My desire to fly began at the early age of 4 when the returning soldiers who used the G.I. Bill for flight training filled the sky near my home with Cubs and Champs. I knew then and there that I wanted to fly. I wanted to fly so badly, but I had to wait until I was 16 to officially begin instruction. So, I had to come up with some clever ways to satisfy my desires. For example, I solicited many 15-minute rides from many FBOs. I even enlisted for a three-year hitch in the U.S. Navy in a flight crew position as an airborne radar operator in an early warning squadron. During all these years, I read many how-to books from cover to cover, which I still have today. Additionally, while in the Navy, I began my official flight training, and I soloed on September 21, 1961, in a Navy flying club in Argentia, Newfoundland. I obtained my private pilot certificate in July 1962, just prior to my separation from the Navy. There was no stopping me after that.

I attained a college degree in 1966, completing one of the airlines large requirements. That was followed by further flight training at the Ohio State University where I earned my commercial and flight instructor certificates. I was subsequently employed by the university as a CFI and charter pilot. I was swept off the campus on January 5, 1968, by Trans World Airlines. My career with TWA spanned 32 years during which I attained ratings in the Boeing 727 and 747. I retired from active airline duty as a 727 captain, meeting the retirement age of 60, some 21 years ago. And for the last 27 years I’ve found myself totally dedicated to the ultralight movement.

I built up a fair amount of flight time in all sorts of general aviation aircraft. This is important because when it comes to the ultralight vehicle, I have a large background from which to compare. Just how did all this happen? Some close friends who were thoroughly involved at that time convinced me to just take a look.

It wasn’t long after that look that I found myself making trips to Wisconsin Rapids to chat with the renowned Ken Snyder with Quicksilver. After my first flight with Ken in his two-place Quicksilver Sport 2, I was silently converted. Additionally, around this time, several TWA pilots became involved in the ultralight movement, which gave me so much more respectability and credibility. Oh, I knew some pilot friends would still question my thinking. I can remember coming home from many a TWA trip assignment from either a 727 or even a 747 and hopping right into my Quicksilver ultralight. From hundreds of thousands of pounds of weight and from 0-600 knots in speed to my FAR Part 103 legal ultralight that could not weigh more than 254 pounds or fly faster than a top speed of 55 knots, with a power-off stall speed of 24 knots. From setting the parking brake to the secure cockpit checklist, the airplane stuff was done. My thoughts now turned to my Quicksilver. From a litany of numbers and procedures to a simple wind in your face flight.

For the last 20-plus years it’s been all ultralights and mostly the single-place 1983 Quicksilver MX. I purchased this vehicle in 2006 still in boxes. I assembled it the same year — and I am proud to state that I am still flying it. It is 38 years old, and its loyal pilot is 81. Having owned both Quicksilver Sprints and Sports, both single and two-place, this 1983 Quicksilver MX is my favorite. It is often described as a two-axis aircraft because it does not have ailerons, but rather spoilerons. A pilot controls the MX a little differently, too. The rudder and elevator are controlled by the side stick, and the spoilers are controlled through the pedals individually for turning or both pedals together to activate the spoilers. One can approach the intended landing area quite high and simply depress both pedals simultaneously. The resultant descent is quite breathtaking.

I love this setup. Yes, I may be limited on crosswind components and maybe wind conditions in general, but I limit my flying times to either sunrise or sunset. Dawn is the best time for me. There is nothing like going from a proficient instrument scan while flying the jet or any aircraft to a wind in the face flight with sight references outside the wide-open Quicksilver ultralight. The open air and clear open sights replace all instruments from a regular aircraft; the only instruments in my Quicksilver are a simple four-in-one yielding rpm, dual cylinder head temperature, and single exhaust gas temperature on one side and a ram air Hall airspeed indicator off to the other side. It’s hardly necessary to look at the airspeed because after a certain number of flight hours, airspeed can easily be determined by the feel of the wind on your face. For more excitement, a pilot can execute a 360-degree turn and determine the wind direction and speed by observing simple rates of movement over the ground, all backed up by a GPS watch.

After a thorough preflight, I walk my craft out of the hangar. Three shots of prime, ignition to both, and pull the recoil starter. I sit myself comfortably in my seat, engage the lap and shoulder harness, plug my David Clark headset into my Icom radio, and get the automated weather observing system report. I pay close attention to the whole segment, with particular attention to the wind and barometer. Oftentimes I need to click the radio transmit button on my control stick to activate the runway lights. With the proper lighting setup on my craft and being located at a nontowered airport, I can fly a half-hour before sunrise and stay aloft a half-hour after sunset.

I announce my intention to taxi and begin the actual movement. My Quicksilver MX does not have nose-wheel steering so I have to keep up a fairly good air load on the rudder. And remember, on the MX the steering is done with the control stick. I have added individual hydraulic brakes to my Quicksilver that greatly aids in ground maneuvering. Arriving at the hold-short position I check the four-in-one gauge, transmit my intentions, and taxi into position.

After placing my feet lightly on the pedals and smoothly advancing the throttle, the acceleration is quite rapid. Plus sitting just inches off the ground, it is quite noticeable. The takeoff is and will always be my most treasured aviation moment. A slight back-pressure on the control stick and that initial movement upward. Seeing the ground slip away combined with that great feeling in my body are special moments in my physical and mental well-being that transmit a certain calmness. I am in a special place. As I gain more altitude and begin that crosswind turn followed shortly after by a 45-degree turn leaving the pattern, I always say, “WOW.” I am so grateful for what I am seeing and feeling as an aviator in such a simple craft. There is nothing to block my view — no side panels, no instrument panel, no windshield. Nothing but the wide openness of being airborne. Sometimes the sense of smell is also engaged as the earthiness of the ground comes wafting up. Or, how about turning to a heading more into the wind and being able to gauge by just looking around the slowing to a single-digit groundspeed or, in some cases, parking or backing up in flight without too much effort. Having my GPS watch displaying the actual groundspeed is quite sobering. Having all of this happen in a wide-open fixed-wing air vehicle is something that most pilots never experience. Oh, I could slow up rather dramatically by exercising this maneuver in one of my J-3 Cubs, but not to the extent as with my ultralight. It is these moments when thoughts come to me, and I wish I could share these thoughts and feelings with everyone.

I am able to enjoy all of these experiences with every flight. I am right where I want to be. Thousands and thousands of flight hours. From an 18-year-old aboard a U.S. Navy Constellation aircraft flying the DEW line over the Atlantic to forming and joining several flying clubs and building up flight time. And after college graduation to enrollment in the Ohio State University flight school. And then becoming a flight instructor and charter pilot for the university and finally reaching my goal on January 5, 1968, as a TWA pilot. It’s been the journey of a lifetime.

Oh, I have had my share of regular aircraft during the past 60 years. I have had a Cessna 180, Cessna 170, and several Cubs, but the most enduring have been a series of ultralights or ultralight-type craft. And, yes, most were Quicksilvers as the Quicksilver dealer network proved to be most helpful. This 38-year-old Quicksilver MX and this 81-year-old pilot have struck up a real relationship.

So, you might ask, “What does the future hold?” I’ll be straightforward: I am going to keep going until I can’t. I would like to have as many people experience this type of aviation as possible. Aviation is expensive, but there exist many avenues toward accomplishing that goal. I will continue to sell this form of aviation through my pictures and videos and through writing in EAA Sport Aviation as long as EAA allows me. I would urge folks to attend various air shows, observe, and ask questions. Before you know it, you will be speaking the ultralight language. I think it is a great way to fly. I’ve flown a wide range of aircraft. From the giant 747 to my 254-pound Quicksilver. I like them all, but for pure flight the ultralight can’t be beat.

George Karamitis, EAA 144192, is a retired TWA captain, holds an ATP with B-727 and B-747 type ratings, and has been a CFI for more than 50 years. In 2013, George received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for more than 50 years of accident-, incident-, and citation-free flight.

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