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Airport access for ultralights

by Had Robinson

Private and public airports may be an ultralight pilot's only location to safely and legally operate.  Because most ultralights, especially paragliders, are slow moving aircraft, they do not mix well with general aviation aircraft.  It is similar to flying a balloon or skydiving near an airport.  Generally, I would discourage pilots from attempting to use any towered airport.  Getting permission from the airport authority would be difficult or impossible and you must have an aviation band transceiver (more on this below).

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 (no ethanol and it stores forever, unlike MOGAS).  The FAA allows ultralight vehicles to operate at any public airport that can safely accommodate ultralight operations i.e. you MUST convince the airport authority that you will not create a hazard!

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 a 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 the primary means of demonstrating that you are a responsible pilot.

Never show up at your local airport and setup 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 irresponsible and may be illegal.

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 and local pilots is towards ultralights?  Some can be extremely (and illegally) hostile.  The majority just want to be sure everything is done in a safe manner.  The reason ultralights have trouble is because there are many irresponsible pilots and their dangerous antics have made it difficult for the rest of us.

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.  Certifications are issued which demonstrate that you 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.  It is good enough to pass muster with the Department of Defense and their requirements for those who fly at air shows.  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 (I am a member of EAA).

Schedule a meeting with the manager.  Before your meeting, dress nicely (many managers are ex-military and are pilots themselves).  Go with other pilots, if possible.  (You are at least a member of USUA and USPPA, right?)  Show him your credentials and insurance certificate.  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.  Showing credentials and an insurance certificate will go a long way toward making relations with the airport authority congenial.  It helps to rent a hangar.  (Often half-hangars are available which are perfect for us.)

Be sure to purchase an aviation band radio if you plan to fly from an airport.  It is only courteous to let other pilots know what you are up to before you launch.  This type of radio can be had for under $300.  However, it is difficult if not impossible to use them 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.  (When I go cross country, I carry my aviation band radio and, if I hear another pilot or tower, I kill my engine and ask him to please repeat his transmission.  I can do a quick transmit while on glide etc.)

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.

Where I live, our manager is friendly and helpful to ultralight owners.  I hope yours is the same.  In general, demonstrate to the flying community at your local airport that you want to add to the general safety and enjoyment of the community.