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    Ultralight planes soar in popularity

    At 2,000 feet, an ultralight instructor says flying in the $19,500 planes is his "therapy.''


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000

    ZEPHYRHILLS -- A modest thermal lifts the Skyboy 2 ultralight trainer airplane piloted by instructor Tim Williamson, causing several seconds of wing-tilting turbulence.

    What's gut-wrenching for an inexperienced passenger is commonplace for Williamson. "Just like hitting a pothole in the road," he says.

    For 14 days each month, Williamson works as an equipment operator at the IMC-Agrico phosphate plant in Brandon. He spends the rest of his time as a flight instructor for Interplane Aircraft at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.

    The anticipation of flying, he says, gets him through his days at IMC.

    Cruising 2,000 feet above the earth, with the Orlando skyline barely visble to the east and the pastoral serenity of Pasco County receding behind him, Williamson clearly feels at home.

    "It's my therapy," he says through his headset, over the steady hum of the propeller. "When I'm up here, I'm not thinking about anything but flying. It's very addictive, very habit-forming."

    Williamson is the epitome of the recreational flyer, the thrill-seeker who wants to soar but doesn't have the soaring income for general aviation planes, which easily can exceed $200,000.

    It's one reason why ultralights like the Skyboy 2 are gaining popularity, explains Interplane operations manager Ben Dawson, who sells the planes from the company's hangar at the airport.

    Dawson, who has flown everything from a lawn chair with wings to a twin-engine Apache, began selling the Skyboys in 1998. Sales have taken off since then, so to speak, from less than one a month to about 30 a year. And they show no signs of slowing.

    "We've sold so many we can't make them fast enough," said Dawson, adding that most customers come from the Southeast.

    The planes, which have an enclosed cockpit and two small seats, are manufactured in the Czech Republic. They sell for about $19,500, plus options. They weigh about 1,000 pounds with two people aboard and a full tank of gas, and they can cruise anywhere from 65 to 100 mph, depending on the engine.

    And, unlike with general aviation planes, you don't need a pilot's license or medical clearance to man the controls.

    All it takes is 20 hours of training for pilot certification and 40 hours to be certified as an instructor.

    Dawson says the draw to lightweights is threefold. The affordable price attracts wanna-be flyers who otherwise would be grounded. The minimal certification requirements mean almost anyone can learn to fly without having to invest the time or money required for a pilot's license.

    And, finally, older pilots who would have trouble passing the stringent pilot's medical exam don't need one to fly an ultralight.

    "In Florida, that's one reason our planes are so popular, because of our average population age," Dawson said.

    But are they safe?

    Dawson says yes.

    "One of the things that ensures survivability is to crash slow," he says with a smirk. "When these planes crash, they crash slow. And they're built so if the engine quits at 1,000 feet, you simply glide down. You could almost land this in a guy's back yard if you had to."

    Even without an emergency landing, the Skyboy provides its share of thrills.

    Williamson shows off by allowing the plane to free fall for a few seconds, simulating zero gravity. He then demonstrates a short but dizzying downward spiral pattern. Both maneuvers rival rides at Walt Disney World, 30 miles east.

    Williamson levels the plane, turns upwind and descends slowly toward the runway. He has had his fix, at least for another day.

    "Being up here, that's what keeps me going," he says. "You get to see things nobody else does."

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