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Airport access for ultralights

by Had Robinson

Private or public airports may be an ultralight pilot's only available location to launch and land.  Because most ultralights, especially paragliders, are very slow moving aircraft, they do not mix well with general aviation aircraft.  It is similar to flying a balloon or engaging in skydiving.  In addition, ultralights are not required to have two-way communication gear.  Anyway, it is not practical from them to use portable aviation band radios while in the air because nearly all ultralight engines have unshielded ignition systems.  While it is easy to transmit with these AM band radios, it is very difficult to hear received signals because of ignition noise.  Few ultralight pilots are trained in airport operations.  These sorts of things create obstacles for ultralight use of airports, especially ones that have towers.

Generally, I would discourage pilots from attempting to use any towered airport.  Getting permission from the airport authority would be difficult or impossible and the lack of two-way radio communications would be a serious obstacle, to begin with.

County and private airports are usually un-towered, fortunately, and do not have high traffic.  They are also a source of AVGAS (aviation gasoline) which is the best fuel to use in an ultralight engine.  The FAA allows ultralight vehicles to operate at any public airport that can safely accommodate ultralight operations.

The operation of ultralights and light sport aircraft are aeronautical activities and must, therefore, be generally accommodated on airports that have been developed with federal airport development assistance. -- FAA Airport Compliance Manual

The managers of these airports are required to ensure the safe operation of all aircraft that come and go.  Private airports may have rules about ultralights and if they say "no", you are out of luck.

However, if a pilot believes that the airport manager of public airport is being capricious or unreasonable, the FAA can become involved and they will give the final decision as to whether the airport must accommodate ultralight operations.  Here is an excerpt of the FAA Regulations concerning ultralight use at public airports.  Most airports require those who have hangars or use the airport to have 3rd party liability insurance.  As noted later in this document, the USUA can provide such insurance.  Evidence of such insurance is a primary means of demonstrating that you are a responsible pilot.

Never show up at any airport and fly before meeting with the manager beforehand!  You might get away with it once or twice but you will upset him, including other pilots.  It is also irresponsible and may be illegal.

Some county airports give ultralight pilots a difficult time when they show up, including their requesting access to AVGAS.  It depends on where you live.  New England is particularly hostile to ultralight aircraft probably due to: 1.) Irresponsible operations by pilots of ultralights.  2.) High density of both aircraft and people in the region.  Private airports can be really snarky about anyone and anything to do with ultralights.  We have to be prepared for anything.

If you can get to know someone who hangars his plane at the airport, you will have a great head start.  Ask him what the general attitude of the manager is towards ultralights?  Some can be extremely (and illegally) hostile.  Others are reasonable.  The reason for this is because there are so many irresponsible ultralight pilots and their dangerous antics have made it difficult for the rest of us.  Your pilot buddy can introduce you to the manager.

You can show your support for responsible and safe piloting of ultralights by joining the USPPA and the USUA.  The USPPA has a solid training program and certifications are issued which demonstrate that you are care about safely flying your PPG.  The USUA has a special program for members that can make 3rd party liability insurance available for a very reasonable cost.  The EAA is a national organization that has significant clout in the flying community.  They have a free pilot registration program for all ultralight pilots, including powered paragliders.  You must be a member of the EAA to take advantage of this program.  If you are the only PPG ultralight in your area, you may want to consider joining the EAA.

Schedule a meeting with the manager.  Before your meeting, dress nicely (many managers are ex-military and are pilots themselves).  Tell him you fly an ultralight and would like to safely use the airport.  He will tell you what you need to do. The manager's primary concern is safety and he can refuse to give you access if he thinks you may be a hazard to others.  It can be an uphill battle to demonstrate that you are a responsible pilot.  Tell him that safety is your first priority.  Showing credentials and an insurance certificate will go a long way toward making relations with the airport authority congenial.  It helps to also rent a hangar.  Be sure to purchase an aviation band radio if you plan to fly from an airport.  It is only courtesy to let other pilots know what you are up to.  This type of radio can be had for under $300.  While you cannot use it in the air, you can announce your intentions while on the ground before you launch.

Do not be defensive – act like a man, be in control but DO NOT BE RUDE OR CONFRONTIVE.  Go with other pilots, if possible.  (You are at least a member of USUA and USPPA, right?).  If you just need access to fuel, explain that the manufacturer of the engine in your aircraft requires AVGAS and that you keep the aircraft in the back of your vehicle and will need to drive to the pump.  Offer him a copy of your driver license, if that will help.

For the really rude chumps out there, you may have to appear before your county commissioners and give them the facts.  Sometimes a single call from a lawyer will take care of problems.  Do not let boorish public officials ruin our sport – stand up for your rights and the rights of other ultralight pilots who come along.  However, never forget that it has been the rude and careless pilots who have poisoned the waters for the rest of us so it is hard to blame those whose job is to be sure all pilots fly safely.

Where I live, our county airport manager is friendly and helpful to ultralight owners.  I hope yours is the same.