WEIRWOOD, VA - Near a grassy airstrip on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Ray Gefken is checking the wings and wheels of his plane. The ultralight - a single seat airplane with a tiny cockpit and small engine - shares many similarities with the plane aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright flew over the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.
Nothing like the massive jumbo jets that criss-cross the skies today, their lightweight, hand-built flyer was more like a powered glider and, more than a century later, the simple design is still airworthy and airborne.
“This particular engine - I call it the 'Armstrong' method," Gefken says. "It’s a pull starter just like an old outboard motor type thing or a lawn mower.”
Ray Gefken takes flight in his ultralight, single-seat airplane. (Mary Saner/VOA)
The 74-year-old businessman has been a licensed pilot for 35 years, but you don't need a license to fly ultralights. They weigh less than 115 kilos. Their top speed is just over 100 kilometers per hour, though many fly slower.
People who fly these bare-bones planes often build them from kits. Jeanette Smolinski, a computer systems engineer, got interested in building an ultralight the first time she saw one.
“My neighbor moved here more than 40 years ago and he flew a Cessna at the time and it became too expensive," she says. "So he investigated and found this ultralight called a CGS Hawk. So, if you can imagine, he would take off and fly and I could hear him, I could hear the sound as he came above the tree line and then he would just circle around before he’d go wherever, and I would stand out there and look at it and say, ‘You know what, I can do that, too.’"
So Smolinski bought an ultralight kit. Then, in her garage, she built the plane with her father.
“How many daughters get that kind of fun with their father? It was an amazing event," she says. "In winter we would be out here working, in summer we would be out here working.”
It took Smolinski two years to build the plane in her spare time. Then her neighbor took her up in his small plane and taught her how to fly it. She also practiced using the controls on the ground and learned more by feel.
“You take little hops on the runway and from the hops then you might get just a wee bit airborne," Smolinski says, "but then you have to learn how to put it back down before you get to the end of the runway and practice that way.”
After about 30 hours of training, Smolinski says she felt ready for her first real flight.
“In the plane, I go full throttle, takeoff, the engine is at its full capacity until I reached an altitude of 1200 (feet) [365 meters]. Then I pulled the throttle back and leveled her off and looked down, and my heart just leapt through my throat, and I had to do some self-talking at this point and say ‘You’re fine, you’re not just going to fall out of the sky, you’re fine.' I flew around. About a half hour later I came in for my first landing by myself.”
Jeanette Smolinski in front of the ultralight she built, with her father, in her spare time. (Courtesy J. Smolinski)
“There’s an old saying, takeoffs are optional but landings are mandatory. It’s easy to get a plane into the air, but it’s more difficult to land it because you have to coordinate everything at the right time," Gefken says. "The plane has to stop flying right at the spot where you want to land. Taking off, you just floor the throttle and off it goes. But coming back, you have to make the spot where you want to land and that takes practice, that’s all.”
Unlike other private planes, ultralights do not have to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration so there’s no official record of how many there are. However, the Experimental Aircraft Association estimates that there are hundreds of ultralight pilots across the country. Federal regulations restrict their flights to daylight hours and clear weather. And they may only fly in unpopulated areas. The most gasoline they’re allowed to carry is 19 liters. But the limitations don’t seem to bother ultralight fans.
On this warm and sunny spring day, Ray Gefken swings his plane around and accelerates down the runway, lifting off into a blue sky.
A gust of wind tips his wings as he banks to the west towards the Chesapeake Bay. A sensation he says is, "...like floating on air.”