There once was a time when ultralight aircraft were mostly unregulated. Relatively speaking, there weren’t very many of them, and as long as you didn’t do anything stupid, the FAA left them mostly alone.
Over the years however, the numbers grew and some builders began pushing the rules by making them faster and heavier until the FAA had to get involved. They did so by creating a set of rules designed specifically for recreational flying called the Light Sport Aircraft category.
Recreation means that you can’t use them for any commercial purpose. That includes giving rides, using them to crop dust, to inspect remote property, or anything related to making money or promoting a business. That’s where Operation Migration ran into trouble.
The only problem with making Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) strictly for recreation is that instructors who teach people how to fly them could not be paid for that service. Obviously problematic, so the FAA divided the category creating Experimental Light Sport Aircraft (E-LSA), for the hobby flyers, and Special Light Sport Aircraft for instructors who are paid.
Because of that “commercial” designation, Special LSA are held to a higher standard than the Experimental versions. Owners of E-LSA’s can do most of their own repairs and maintenance while operators of Special LSA must have their maintenance done professionally. The work must be done by a qualified, FAA approved mechanic who puts his/her licence on the line when signing off the log books. That signature means that the FAA issued Certificate of Airworthiness is still valid and the aircraft can be flown safely and legally.
The aircraft we currently fly are Experimental Light Sport Aircraft. They are Cosmos Phase II models made in France by a manufacturer that no longer exists. The FAA has required us to upgrade to Special LSA as part of our exemption but we have until next year to do it.
Our aircraft are designed to be light and fly slowly. Modern trikes are generally much faster and most Special LSA are built solid to withstand the rigors of training beginners. North Wing in Washington State is working with us to reduce the weight of one of their S-LSA designs.
We use a two cylinder, two stroke, 50 horsepower engine made by Rotax which is part of the Bombardier Group of Companies (Sea-Doo and Ski-Doo). It is the perfect power plant for us because it is light, reliable, and air-cooled. Unfortunately Rotax stopped making the 503. Eventually there will be no more two stroke engines because they are more polluting than four strokes, but in the interim we will have three of our existing 503 engines rebuilt to zero time and use them on the new trikes. We will also be able to use our existing wings, also made by North Wing.
Thereafter we will have to add all the instrumentation we need and a vocalizer system to broadcast the crane call. We will also have to modify the propeller guards that protect the birds. Richard van Heuvelen built these and has some plans to change the design once again to add more protection and reduce the drag.
This is an expensive process but the aircraft we currently fly are getting old. Although they are maintained diligently, it is hard to find new parts and likely time to upgrade anyway.
This means we will have a number of aircraft that we can no longer use for leading birds. So far we have one on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and another hanging in Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Maybe we can interest someone of means in adding a historical aircraft to their personal collection.