Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ultralight Trike (Single Seat) vs. Two Seat Trike

Choosing between a single-seat and a two-seat trike:  If it only has one seat, it MAY be an ultralight. 

What an ultralight actually is:   

FAA ultralight criteria (FAR Part 103)
One seat only!
5 gallons max fuel capacity
254 pounds max empty weight, excluding floats and safety devices
max top speed 55 knots (63 mph)
max stall speed 24 knots (28 mph)

If it meets these criteria, it is an ultralight, and the FAA is not involved. There is no federal requirement to get training, to have a pilot license, FAA inspection or registration. But the laws of physics still apply here, so you still need training so you don't crash and die. Federal law stays out of the way to let you use your own sense about how much or little training to get. 

There are no 'two-seat ultralights' and there never really were. The confusion comes from years ago when the FAA gave an exemption that allowed two-seat aircraft to be used as ultralights to train ultralight pilots. These two seat aircraft were very popular, even more popular than actual ultralights. The general public still commonly refers to any small open cockpit aircraft as an ultralight even though that is not (an never was) correct. 

So two seaters require FAA registration, annual inspections, pilot license, etc. No big deal but not as simple as Part 103 ultralight. From an aircraft ownership aspect, keeping the FAA out saves you some time, effort and money. But from a flight training perspective, it doesn't change much. Your flight training is almost identical whether you plan to fly a single seat ultralight trike or a two seat trike. Here's why:

Flight Training
Whether you need a license or not, you still need to learn to fly.  To teach you, we'll take you up in a two seat trike.  You will start out riding in the back, observing and taking the controls as the instructor eases you into flying.  Soon you will be up front 'in the drivers seat' with you doing most of the flying, and your instructor just saving your life every once in a while.  After you are really doing all the flying without your instructor's help, one day when conditions are perfect, your instructor can step out of the aircraft and let you solo it.  The instructor endorses your student pilot certificate (the FAA calls a license a certificate), scribbles some endorsements in your log book, and you are legal to fly solo in that two-seat FAA registered aircraft.


Here's why:  When you solo the two seater, it is the same aircraft you have been training in. Same seat, same view, same controls, same engine sounds, same wing feel, same foot pedals and steering. Everything is the same except the aircraft gets 20% lighter when the instructor gets out. If the trike weighed 1000 pounds with you, your instructor, and fuel, it will weigh 800 pounds when your 200 pound instructor gets out.  Your instructor will have a chat with you about how the aircraft will feel when it is 200 pounds lighter so you will be prepared for quicker takeoff, better climb rate, slower landing speed, etc.

BUT, what if instead of soloing the two-seater, you want to solo in the ultralight?  Now you would be hopping into an entirely unfamiliar machine with a different seat height, different view, different feel, different wing, different controls, different engine, etc.  Instead of going from 1000 pounds to 800 pounds, you drop directly to a total weight less than 600 pounds.  This aircraft will feel radically different. You have never been in the air with this machine before. Good luck on your solo!

We can talk about how the ultralight will take off different, fly different, and land different. But since it is a single seater, you will have to be a good enough pilot to be able to quickly adapt and adjust to the new aircraft characteristics. It is a great experiment to see how well you adapt to unfamiliar equipment while under the nervous excitement of your first solo flight. With so many aircraft variables changing, we really need perfect weather conditions to give you a fighting chance in this experiment.

I hope you now understand that you really need more training and experience to solo an unfamiliar light weight single seater than to solo the two-seater you have been training in. So from a flight training standpoint, it is better to get your student pilot certificate (typical cost $50) and get some solo experience in the two-seater.  Your solo endorsement is good for 90 days. Your instructor can renew it over and over again for additional 90 day periods.

Sometimes people have the notion that you start with a single seater and 'work your way up' to carrying a passenger. The opposite is true.  You start in the two-seater, and your first 'passenger' is your instructor. You work toward flying solo.


Part 103 Ultralight Trike                                                         Two-seat trike flown solo

No FAA registration                                                              FAA registration fee ($5)

No annual condition inspection                                               Need annual condition inspection ($500)

No license required                                                                Need minimum of Student Pilot license ($50)

How to learn to fly it?                                                             Save money by training in your own aircraft.

5-gallon fuel capacity limits endurance and range                    17 gallon fuel capacity gives expands range
 (2 hours, 80 miles)                                                                (5+ hours, 300 mile range)

Speed limited to 63 mph                                                        Speeds over 100 mph possible

Limited weight allowance restricts engine choices                    Multiple engine choices to over 100 hp

No room for luggage                                                              Duffle bag in back seat holds a lot of gear

Flight time does not count toward license                                Time counts toward Sport Pilot, Private Pilot
                                                                                              and Instructor ratings

There are pros and cons to both approaches.  For local flights both work well.  But for cross country flights, a two-seat trike has a huge advantage. For those who really want to trike cross country, a two-seater works better because there is no fuel quantity limit imposed by the FAA.  Some trikes hold 17 gallons or more, so you can fly 4 hours or more on one tank, while going faster than most single seat trikes. Second, the two-seaters are usually much faster than the singles. And when flying solo, the rear seat gives you a place to stuff a big duffle bag with luggage and supplies.

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