When it comes to sports aviation, ultralight aircraft, or ultralights as they are commonly known, are the ultimate fun machine.
Ultralights come in many forms and with the extensive range of types available, provided you don't mind being restricted to two seats, there is bound to be an ultralight to suit even the most obscure taste. And if there isn't, there is the opportunity to design, build and fly your very own dream machine. To get an idea of some of the types available, check out our members aircraft page.
Ultralights in Australia
Although not an Australian first, it is interesting to note that it was in fact an ultralight that heralded the dawn of powered flight as we know it. The year was 1903 and the ultralighters were non other than American Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright who designed, built and flew the first successful ultralight aircraft at a place called Kittyhawk. This sparked off an instant interest in aviation, with all manner of people rushing off to build bigger, heavier and faster flying machines. A trend that continued for some 60 years.
Interestingly the critical design work that would eventually lead to the development of the ultralight came from a very unlikely source that was more interested in putting a man on the moon, NASA. Francis Rogallo was an aeronautical research scientist working for the Langley Research Centre in the late 1950s. Rogallo's work involved research and develop around testing a self-inflating flexible wing kite that he had developed some ten years before. NASA's interest was in evaluating the potential of the "flexible wing" kite as an alternative recovery system for the Gemini space capsule. In the end NASA went with round recovery parachutes.
In 1963 John Dickenson, an electronics engineer and water skier living in Grafton NSW, was asked by the Grafton Water Ski Club to build and fly a water ski kite as part of the Club's contribution to the annual Jacaranda Festival. John tried several kite designs but all proved unstable when a weight was suspended beneath them. It was while he was working on these problems that John was shown a photo of the flexible gliding wing designed for NASA by Francis Rogallo. John built a kite based on the photo and developed the swing seat and triangular trapeze for weight shift control. The "Dickenson wing" was successfully towed aloft for the first time in September 1963.
The next major development came when barefoot water skier, Bill Moyes, was introduced the Dickenson kite in 1966. Bill was able to sort out the initial teething problems with the kite and in 1968 made the transition from towed flight to free flight and ridge soaring. The hang glider had arrived.
For the next few years it seemed that hang gliders were going to be the way to go, however the early Rogallo based wings had a few shortcomings which lead to a few Australian experiments with hang gliders having a more conventional layout. These typically had an aluminium tubular frame which was covered with dacron. It was this group of hang gliders that evolved into the early powered ultralight aircraft. Arguably the most significant of these was the Ron Wheeler's Tweetie rigid wing hang glider that, when fitted with an 8hp Victa lawnmower engine, evolved into the Wheeler Scout, Australia's first powered ultralight aircraft.
The first flight of the Wheeler's Scout took place in May 1974 and when it went into production in 1976 it became the world's first commercially produced fixed wing ultralight aircraft. The Scout was a very basic machine with its single surface wing, a yacht mast main spar and two axis control. Never the less it fired the peoples imagination and ultralight clubs began to be formed around Australia.
In 1976 the Australian Department of Transport (now the Civil Aviation Safety Authority - CASA) created the first ultralight legislation, CAO 95.10, thereby legalising the operation of the Scout and paving the way for other designs to follow.
Such was the interest in ultralight aviation by the early 1980s that the Australian Ultralight Federation (AUF) was formed in June 1983. Originally conceived as an honorary peak body for the ultralight clubs, the AUF was an immediate success with a membership of some 700 individual members by the end of the first twelve months. This had increased to around 2000 members by 1985.
By this time it was clear that the minimum aircraft fad was here to stay and that the Commonwealth Department of Transport would have to make a move toward formalising the movement. The end result was the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the AUF and the Civil Aviation Authority for the administration of ultralight aviation in Australia.
The immediate task of the AUF, given its new responsibilities, was the development of operation regulations for aircraft and to address the relatively high accident rate that existed in these formative years. It must be remembered that at this time ultralights were restricted to single seat aircraft, which meant that it were no two-seat training aircraft, and most enthusiasts had to teach themselves how to fly. This was exacerbated by the fact that ultralights of the day had extremely limited flight envelopes, occasional stability problems and somewhat less than reliable low powered engines and the maximum operational height was 300 feet above ground level.
As an emergency means of addressing the training issue, the Civil Aviation Authority introduced CAO 95.25 in 1985 that provided for factory built certified single and two seat ultralight aircraft and to allow the two seat aircraft to be used as training aircraft for the 95.10 pilots. This was a significant milestone in Australian ultralight aviation and enabled the AUF to set up an ultralight training scheme and encourage the establishment of ultralight training facilities.
Whilst may fine ultralight designs would follow, it is fair to say that the bulk of the training load in the early days was shouldered by the Australian designed and manufactured Thruster. The Thruster was originally conceived as a factory built single seat ultralight when manufacturing commenced in 1983 and 46 were built in that first year.
With the need for certified two seat ultralight training aircraft under the new CAO 95.25, the Thruster Aircraft Factory responded with the development of the Thruster Gemini. The Gemini became the first registered two seat trainer, 25-0001, and a large number of pilots would gain their wings whilst enduring a love-hate relationship with this rugged and reliable Australian machine.
With the introduction of formalised training and the availability of 95.25 training aircraft the safety record began to show significant improvement, a trend that has continued ever since. These days the ultralight safety record is at least as good as that of general aviation and ultralight pilots enjoy considerably more freedom in terms of the operation of their aircraft.
From somewhat humble beginnings, the ultralight movement in Australia has grown to a membership of over 9,500 and around 170 flight training facilities. Recognising this growth, and the diversity of ultralight aircraft, the AUF in February 2004 change its name to Recreational Aviation Australia (RA-Aus).
So what is an Ultralight?
In Australia it is a powered aircraft intended to be operated for experimental, educational or recreational purposes and is registered with RA-Aus. An ultralight aircraft is generally restricted to a single engine and may have one or two seats. It must have a maximum takeoff weight of less than 300 kilograms, in the case of a non-certified single seat aircraft that has been designed and built by the owner, less than 544 kilograms, in the case of amateur built and certified two seat aircraft and less than 600 kilograms in the case of light sports aircraft.
Ultralights may be conventional three-axis aircraft, weight shift aircraft (trikes and powered hang gliders) or powered parachutes. In Australia ultralights are categorised into groups that are usually labelled with the title of the CAO under which they operate. The various groupings are:
95.10 - This category is for the true enthusiast and the experimenter. This class is for single seat home built non-certified aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) not exceeding 300kg and a wing loading of less than 30kg per square metre. This category allow more freedom for the home builder than any other experimental category anywhere in the world and enjoys an excellent safety record. There is no restriction on the number and type of engines, the flight control systems and the type of undercarriage. 95.10 category ultralight aircraft carry the registration 10-xxxx.
95.25 - This category has been superseded by 101.55, however ultralight aircraft built to this specification can still be obtained. It is, or was, essentially a category for two seat factory built training aircraft with similar flight characteristics to 95.10 aircraft although the category also permitted factory built single seat aircraft. 95.25 category aircraft carry the registration 25-xxxx.
95.32 - This category covers single and two seat weight shift controlled aircraft such as trikes, powered parachutes and powered hang gliders.95.32 category aircraft carry the registration 32-xxxx.
101.28 - This category covers single and two seat amateur built aircraft constructed under the supervision of the Sports Aircraft Association of Australia (SAAA). Aircraft in this category have a MTOW of 450kg (480kg under certain circumstances) and the builder must have constructed at least 51% of the aircraft. 101.28 aircraft carry the registration 28-xxxx.
101.55 - This category covers two seat aircraft that have been built in a factory, in Australia or overseas, where the manufacturer holds a certificate of approval to manufacture the aircraft issued by CASA. Aircraft in this category have a MTOW of 450kg and approved maintenance and flight manuals must be provided. Aircraft in this category can be used for training and 101.55 aircraft carry the registration 55-xxxx.
Factory built aircraft - CAO 95.55 also provides for the manufacture of factory built two seat aircraft with a MTOW of 544kg (614kg for a seaplane). The manufacturer of aircraft in this category must hold a type certificate, a certificate of type approval and a production certificate for the aircraft. Aircraft in this category can be used for training and carry the registration 24-xxxx.
Amateur built aircraft - This category provides for single and two seat amateur built aircraft that are intended for educational or recreational purposes. Aircraft can either be built from scratch (i.e. owner designed or built from plans) or from a kit, where the kit is deemed eligible. The major portion of the total construction of an aircraft in this category (i.e. at least 51%) must be by the owner. Aircraft in this category have a MTOW of 544kg (614kg for seaplanes) and carry the registration 19-xxxx.
Light sports aircraft - LSA is a new category of two seat sport and recreational aircraft that is available to both the general aviation and ultralight industry. LSA does not replace any existing categories and it is not intended to apply to aircraft already operating in an existing category. Aircraft in this category can be either conventional three-axis aircraft, weight shift aircraft (trikes) or powered parachutes and have a MTOW not exceeding 600kg (650kg for seaplanes).Aircraft can either be factory built with a special certificate of airworthiness (S-LSA) or kit built aircraft of the same make and model as a production aircraft with an experimental certificate of airworthiness (E-LSA). The 51% 'major portion rule' does not apply to E-LSA aircraft, so the manufacturer can supply a much more advanced E-LSA kit than could be provided under the amateur built category. However kit built E-LSA aircraft must be inspected and issued with an experimental certificate of airworthiness by a CASA authorised person before it can be registered. S-LSA category aircraft carry the registration 24-xxxx and E-LSA carry the registration 19-xxxx.
What is required to fly an Ultralight?
You must have attained the age of 15 years, be medically fit (equivalent to that required to hold a motor vehicle drivers license in Australia) and be the holder of an RA-Aus issued Pilot Certificate. A Pilot Certificate can be obtained with as little as 20 hours of flying, which includes both ground and flight training, from an approved flight training facility - see the Flight Training page for further information. If you already have some flight experience, portion of this can be counted toward obtaining your Ultralight Pilot Certificate.
Where can an Ultralight be flown?
In Australia, ultralight aircraft are generally able to be flown anywhere outside controlled airspace at altitudes between 500 feet and 10,000 feet depending on local terrain. Under certain conditions ultralights may be able to enter controlled airspace and use controlled aerodromes. The operation of ultralight aircraft is, however, dependent on observing the applicable rules and regulations. More detailed information regarding the operation of ultralight aircraft in Australia can be obtained from Recreational Aviation Australia - see the Links page.