The World of Ultralights, Homebuilts, Experimentals and Light Sport Aircraft

I haven't spent much time around ultralight aircraft, and to be honest, until my recent visit to the ultralight runway at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, I didn't actually know what some of the terms surround the ultralight community meant: Ultralight, microlight, experimental, trike, chute, weight-shift control, hang glider, gyrocopter...the terms are endless!

It only took one trip to Oshkosh, though, to realize why many aviation enthusiasts consider the ultralight category more fun than heavier single-engine general aviation aircraft. And the benefits of an ultralight hobby are numerous - it's simple and affordable, with less regulations.

Ultralight aircraft are actually referred to by the FAA as "vehicles" and they are regulated by FAR Part 103. You don't need a pilot certificate. You don't need a medical certificate. There is no age limitation and no training requirements (although training is highly recommended). Ultralight flying is mostly restriction-free, but pilots are limited to flying in good weather, during the day and over unpopulated areas.

In short, there's nothing to it! Ultralights are simple and easy to fly.

The ultralight category of vehicles is divided into powered vehicles (powered parachutes, rotorcraft, fixed wing) and unpowered vehicles (hang gliders, paragliders, balloons, etc.) Most are single-seat vehicles, but there are some dual -seat ultralights made for training purposes.

Ultralights are also known as microlights in some other countries, hence the confusion between the two terms. An ultralight aircraft can be one of a few different types of vehicles, including:

  • Weight-shift control (also known as a trikes).
  • Powered parachutes
  • Powered paragliding
  • Powered hang gliding
  • Autogyros or gyrocopters
  • Helicopters
  • Hot air balloons

What about Light Sport Aircraft and E-LSA?

Light Sport Aircraft can include airplanes, powered parachute, weight-shift control, gyroplane, balloons and gliders, but these aircraft aren't always considered LSAs. According to EAA, "These aircraft can be certificated in any category, such as standard, experimental amateur-built, experimental exhibition, experimental light sport aircraft (E-LSA), or special light sport aircraft (S-LSA)."

An E-LSA, or experimental LSA, according to the FAA, includes any aircraft that "was built and tested to the applicable consensus standards by the aircraft’s manufacturer, and possesses the manufacturer’s statement of compliance."

Wait, there's more! Amateur and Experimental Aircraft
Ultralight aircraft are often amateur built, which, Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR), part 21, section 21.191(g), notes that, "...a major portion of which has been fabricated and assembled by person(s) who undertook the construction project solely for their own education or recreation."

Finally, the term experimental aircraft is an FAA term that describes an aircraft that is not type-certified under any other category (such as standard, aerobatic, etc).

But then there's this term: Experimental-amateur built (E-AB). What's this mean? E-AB aircraft are also referred to as just "experimental" or "homebuilt" and is described in this GAO excerpt:
"E-AB aircraft can contain previously untested systems, including engines not designed for aircraft use, and modifications of airframes, controls, and instrumentation. The E-AB fleet is diverse, ranging from open-framework designs with no cabin structure to small, pressurized airplanes able to fly long distances...Following a successful inspection of the aircraft and documentation review, FAA issues a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category to the aircraft’s builder and assigns operating limitations in two phases specifying how and where the aircraft can be flown."

A bit confusing, isn't it? Hopefully the explanations above clear up some of the confusion, but an experienced instructor can provide a thorough and proper understanding of all the terms and vehicles, making the idea of ultralights less foreign. I, for one, am encouraged to learn more!