Ultralight vehicles are a type of regulated aircraft covered by Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations in the United States. They include all single-person aircraft used for recreational purposes that weigh less than 155 pounds (70 kg) if unpowered, or less than 254 pounds (115 kg) if powered. Additionally, they may not exceed 55 knots (102 kph or 63 mph) in level flight and cannot hold more than 5 gallons (19 liters) of fuel. In other countries, regulations differ, but the general idea is the same.
There are also regulations controlling the use of ultralight vehicles, which prohibit flight over towns, in regulated airspace without permission, at night, or in clouds. One of the main advantages of ultralight vehicles, however, is that one need not have a pilot’s license in order to legally fly one – as long as one complies with the other restrictions. This makes ultralight vehicles the ideal recreational aircraft for those who don’t wish to invest the time and money in flight certification.
While many people think of ultralight vehicles as more dangerous than traditional aircraft, in some ways they are safer. Because of the relatively low speeds and extremely low weight of ultralight vehicles, related accidents are very rarely fatal and often cause little more than minor physical damage. As with all flight, of course, common sense and some training play a large role in the safety of operating the vehicle, but learning to pilot ultralight vehicles can be accomplished rather easily.
Many people choose to build their own ultralight vehicles, either by using a kit or by assembling commonly-found parts, such as lawnmower engines and self-constructed frames. A good, reliable ultralight vehicle can be built for well under 6,000 US dollars (USD) and will usually take at least a few months for someone with basic mechanical knowledge to build, and up to a year or two for those who are learning as they go. High-end ultralight vehicles can cost as much as 15,000 USD, still substantially cheaper than a good traditional aircraft.
Ultralight vehicle training can be undertaken in a number of ways, and many people opt to take at least some traditional aircraft training as well. Two-seated ultralights are available for the express purpose of training new pilots, and a full course usually costs about 1,000 USD. Once an ultralight vehicle has been constructed and training is complete, flying the aircraft is very cheap. Since they are so light, ultralight vehicles consume only a couple of gallons of fuel for every hour aloft, and maintenance is equally affordable.
Most localities have ultralight clubs, and a number of publications available for enthusiasts of ultralight vehicles provide further information. Ultralight flying can be a fun, affordable, and relatively simple hobby compared to traditional piloting, as its worldwide popularity can attest.