Airport access for ultralights

by Had Robinson

updated July 15, 2020

Airports may be an ultralight pilot's only location to safely and legally operate.  Because light sport aircraft (LSA) and ultralights are relatively slow aeronautical vehicles, they do not mix well with general aviation aircraft.  Typically, ultralights and LSA's will operate like helicopters i.e. stay out of the airport traffic pattern.

Always remember that powered ultralights must yield right of way to all other aircraft.

Public or private airports, airstrips, or aviation operation areas that do not receive any Federal funding may make any rules they like which can include excluding ultralights.  There is nothing we can do about this except lobby the owner(s).  The burden lies with us to convince them we are responsible pilots.  Having liability insurance and leasing a hangar, for example, may be the only way to gain access.

On the other hand, airports that receive Federal funds (which is virtually all public airports) must generally allow ultralight operations.

The operation of ultralights and light sport aircraft are aeronautical activities and must, therefore, be generally accommodated at airports that have been developed with federal airport development assistance. FAA Advisory Circular
Restricting Aeronautical Activities. While the airport sponsor must allow use of its airport by all types, kinds, and classes of aeronautical activity, as well as by the general public, Grant Assurance 22, Economic Nondiscrimination, also provides for a limited exception: “the airport sponsor may prohibit or limit any given type, kind, or class of aeronautical use of the airport if such action is reasonable and necessary for the safe operation of the airport or necessary to serve the civil aviation needs of the public.” A prohibition or limit may be based on safety or on a conflict between classes or types of operations. This generally occurs as a conflict between fixed-wing operations and another class of operator that results in a loss of airport capacity for fixed-wing aircraft. Any restriction proposed by an airport sponsor based upon safety and efficiency, including those proposed under Grant Assurance 22(i), must be adequately justified and supported. Prohibitions and limits are within the sponsor’s proprietary power only to the extent that they are consistent with the sponsor’s obligations to provide access to the airport on reasonable and not unjustly discriminatory terms and other applicable federal law. The Associate Administrator for Airports, working in conjunction with Flight Standards and/or the Air Traffic Organization, will carefully analyze supporting data and documentation and make the final call on whether a particular activity can be conducted safely and efficiently at an airport. In all cases, the FAA is the final arbiter regarding aviation safety and will make the determination regarding the reasonableness of the sponsor’s proposed measures that restrict, limit, or deny access to the airport. The FAA, not the sponsor, is the authority to approve or disapprove aeronautical restrictions based on safety and/or efficiency at federally obligated airports.5190.6B Page 14-2 14.3

Summing up the FAA's position, the burden of proof that flying your PPG at the airport would be unsafe lies with the airport.  I am sorry to say that a few airport managers do not know the regulations or have it backwards.  In one case an obstinate local airport was ordered by the FAA to allow ultralight operations.  The airport authority must give a clear and reasonable explanation why you cannot use the airport.  If there is a disagreement, the local FSDO office makes the final decision.  If a towered airport, for example, is your only option, they would still be required to help.  That could mean that you must have an aviation band transceiver (more on this below), adhere to certain areas of the airfield, observe a special traffic pattern, have liability insurance (page 14-2), and meet other reasonable criteria.  The point is that the rules must be reasonable.  FAA regulations are clear on this point.  Here are some examples (see page 14-3) of Grant Assurance 22(i) restrictions.  Here is more information about this issue from the USPPA.

City, county, and private airports are usually un-towered, and do not have high traffic.

Never show up at your local airport, setup, and fly before meeting with the manager.

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 vast majority of managers just want to be sure everything is done in a safe and responsible manner.  The reason ultralights may have trouble is because there are pilots who do not know the rules and can be a danger to others, including themselves.  In this regard, education is the answer.  Of course, there are GA pilots who also do not know the rules and are dangerous to others, including themselves.  (Here is the official FAA accident report.)

Unfortunately, there are also some pilots who do know the rules but choose to ignore them.  These types of pilots are not our friends.  Often, they will show up in your area unannounced for a few days, engage in illegal or annoying activities, and then leave.  They know that by the time other pilots or the authorities are about to get after them, they can be safely somewhere else, doing the same thing.  Local pilots and airport managers need to be on the lookout for these rogue types.  I am sorry to say that these pilots can include active duty military, commercial, and private pilots who know how to evade the authorities and like the thrill of it all.

You can show your support for responsible and safe piloting of ultralights by joining the USPPA and the USUA.  The USPPA is the only organization in the United States that has a solid training program.  Certifications are issued which demonstrate that the pilot has demonstrated competency in safely flying his PPG ultralight.  The USUA has a special program for members that makes 3rd party liability insurance available for a very reasonable cost for USPPA members.  It is good enough to pass muster with the Department of Defense and their requirements at military airfields and for those who fly at air shows.  You must be a rated USPPA pilot in order to take advantage of the USUA insurance program.

All pilots can get an important and valuable head start by studying the relevant (and short) chapters in The Powered Paragliding Bible.  There are detailed instructions for those who wish to fly at an airport, even ones with a tower.  Details of communication are discussed with an air-band radio or over the telephone with the airport authority and other pilots, what to pay attention to, and everything else that might be required if you wish to touch down or take off.

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 as well as USPPA.

In all cases, schedule a meeting with your local airport manager before you fly at the airport.  Before the meeting, dress appropriately (many managers are ex-military and are pilots themselves).  Go with other pilots, if possible.  Show him your credentials and insurance certificate (recommended).  Tell him you fly an ultralight and would like to safely use the airport.  Familiarize yourself with the general traffic pattern rules at airports (see The Powered Paragliding Bible for help).  The manager's primary concern is safety.  Showing credentials and an insurance certificate will go a long way toward making relations with the airport authority congenial and that you are a serious pilot.  It helps to rent a hangar.  Often half-hangars are available which are perfect for us.

Purchase an aviation band radio if you plan to fly near or at an airport.  You will need the correct adaptors and pigtails to connect these radios to a typical PPG helmet, like the ICARO.  It is only courteous to let general aviation pilots know what you are up to.  This type of radio can be had for under $300.  Note: The typical 2m FM radio cannot be modified to transmit on the airbands but it can receive the air-band AM modulated signals.  The difference between AM and FM transmission is so great that separate radio transceivers are required.

While it is easy to transmit with these AM radios, it can be difficult to hear received signals because of ignition noise from your engine, a particular problem with AM signals (but not FM).  When I go cross-country, I carry my aviation band radio and, if I hear other aircraft or a tower, I kill my engine and may ask for a repeat of the transmission.  I can always do a quick transmit while on glide.  This problem is mostly fixable by installing a resistor type spark plug (e.g. the NGK BR9ES which is the resistor type of the B9ES).  Note: If you have a resistive type secondary wire and add a resistor plug, you may have problems with misfire under full load.  You can test this easily and you may have to revert to the standard spark plug.

In general, demonstrate to the flying community that you are a safe and responsible pilot.  Thinking of others goes a long way in helping our reputation among aviators.