Residents seeking limits on flights of ultralights But pilots say vehicles are safe and well-regulated

July 16, 1998|By Jamie Smith | Jamie Smith,SUN STAFF

Peter G. Mattes, his wife and their three young daughters were enjoying an evening on their lawn when they heard a spluttering engine.

A terrifying moment later, an ultralight aircraft almost crashed into their house, they said.

"We panicked," said Mattes, 41, who lives in the Batter Brook Farms community in Kingsville. "This plane came out of the sky, nearly hit our trees and just missed our home. I thought we were going to get killed."

The unidentified pilot recovered and flew on, but the incident on Saturday exemplifies a conflict between residents -- who want more restrictions on ultralights -- and participants in the growing sport, who say they are safe and already more regulated than other aircraft.

Ultralights -- considered not planes but "vehicles" by the Federal Aviation Administration -- are one-person, inexpensive craft that fly no faster than 55 knots, or about 62 mph.

An estimated 18,000 are in use nationwide, according to the Frederick-based United States Ultralight Association. Most ultralights are bought as kits, come with or without engines and are assembled by their owners, who do not need a pilot's license.

While there appear to be no statistics on the number of such aircraft involved in residential-area incidents, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated five ultralight accidents worldwide last year. Three were fatal.

Under FAA regulations, ultralights cannot be flown over "congested areas" of a city, town or settlement or over restricted air space, such as airports. Ultralight pilots are not allowed to use their planes during the night or fly in a manner that creates a "hazard" to people or property.

Participants in the sport say most "ultralighters" fly in remote, rural areas, do so responsibly and deal with enough regulations already. "Ultralights are the most regulated type of air vehicle," said instructor Larry Johnson who has been flying that type of craft for a decade.

"No other airplane or aircraft are prohibited from flying over congested areas," he said. "We can't fly beyond sunset and before dawn. You're prohibited from going many places that is controlled airspace, which is not true of other aircraft."

'Falsely accused'

And Tom Gunnarson, director of safety and training for the ultralight association, said ultralighters sometimes get blamed for the misdeeds of people piloting small planes. "We get falsely accused as a community of doing things we're not doing," he said.

Johnson declined to comment on the Kingsville incident because he didn't see it. Jim Peters, a spokesman with the FAA's Eastern region office in Jamaica, N.Y., said that as far as he can tell without witnessing it, the incident "certainly would be a violation" of FAA regulations.

Residents of Kingsville in east Baltimore County, however, don't think the rules are explicit enough. They want it clearly stated that ultralights cannot be flown in any residential area, congested or not. "How do you define a 'congested area'? You still kill people if you have a mishap," said Jeannette Falbo-Thurlow, who lives off Woodmar Court in Kingsville.

Since last year, and several times in the past month, the Thurlow family and others in the Batter Brook Farms community near Gunpowder Falls State Park have noticed low-flying ultralights over their houses. "We could just be sitting there, enjoying the weather, and who knows what could happen," Falbo-Thurlow said.

Mattes, who is president of the Marvon at Batter Brook Farms Community Association, plans to ask the Baltimore County Council for local regulations to keep ultralights out of the area.

"This is a dangerous, dangerous thing to be flying overhead in a residential neighborhood," he said. " There are a lot of children playing in the yards. We don't need flying contraptions flying around."

But both FAA officials and ultralighters insist the sport, as a whole, is safe.

Bill Cook, an aviation safety inspector and project manager of ultralight vehicles for the FAA, said that he knows of only one mishap where someone other than an ultralighter was hurt in an ultralight accident. In 1993, a pilot in an ultralight-type craft touched down in the middle of a Las Vegas heavyweight boxing match and hurt one person, Cook said.

There are the occasional "idiots," he said, but he believes more regulation would not stop them. "You have people on the highway going 130 miles an hour," he said.

Inexpensive

What attracts people to ultralighting is the chance to fly inexpensively, said Johnson, the pilot and instructor. Ultralights, which have been around since the 1970s, range in price from $8,000 to $15,000, he said.

As long as the ground is relatively flat, pilots can take off almost anywhere -- from the Essex Skypark to a private field, he said. They can land in a space as small as a tennis court.

And although they don't need a license, most ultralighters have been trained, according to Johnson. At the Shoestring Airport near Shrewsbury, Pa., where he teaches, an average of 15 students come for lessons each weekend, getting instruction in the air and on the ground.

"I think it's a terrific sport," he said. "It's fun and it's safe."

Kingsville residents, who aren't so sure, are now keeping an eye out for ultralights. "We're going to change our 'Neighborhood Block Watch' signs to 'Neighborhood Sky Watch,' " Mattes said, jokingly.

Ultralights

The inexpensive crafts can fly no faster than 55 knots or about 62 miles per hour. Most are bought as kits and assembled by their owners, who do not need a pilot's license.

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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