Posts Tagged ‘CHP’

Ultralight Flying

July 18th, 2013 No comments

I enjoy just about anything that gets my feet off the ground. I learned basic flight control when I was a child sitting on my dad’s knee.  Then, a few years later I was washing airplanes at a small airport in Manassas Virginia in exchange for rides and some continuing informal instruction.

My family moved from Washington DC in 1959 and relocated in Northern California.  I tried Hang gliding but crashed promptly (and hard) and decided I really liked “3 axis controls”. That was before the days of two person hang gliding (with an instructor), before trying it alone. I think I should have waited for those days to arrive before trying it. Plus, I did not enjoy having to climb or drive to the top of something before I could get airborne.   I should add that nowadays, many hang glider enthusiasts use Ultralights to tow them to altitude making the sport much more fun and a whole lot less work.

Years later I began flying Sailplanes with Bret Willat at Skysailing airport in Fremont, CA, which has since moved down south. See: Then, my wife and I bought our first airplane, a Cessna 140 “Taildragger” and we both took lessons in it until she was comfortable that she could land in an emergency and I earned my PVT SEL in it (Private, Single Engine Land, with tailwheel endorsement). I went on to get my high performance, complex, aerobatic and low altitude waivers for performing aerobatics in airshows and in the meantime flew everything anyone would let me fly including many antique aircraft and owned a piper Cherokee, a Cessna 150 and two Citabrias. The name “Citabria” was a little marketing gimmick by Champion Aircraft Company . . .  Citabria is Airbatic spelled backwards.

It was many years later, after moving up to the Gold Country and away from the crowded airspace of the Bay area in San Jose, that I really began enjoying flying like never before.   Flying in what is now known as “Class G“ airspace with no towers to talk to and freedom to land at little hidden airstrips all over the Gold Country proved to be the best flying ever, for me anyway.  I have always flown for pure fun, not to get anywhere fast.

Before I left the Bay Area, I had met Craig Catto, now known for his incredible propeller designs. (see:  At that time Craig was designing, I believe in 1979, along with his partner the first “Ultralight” I had seen.  He called it the “Gold Wing” See:

The first versions were a little too heavy to meet the strict design limits of the Federal Aviation Regulations, (FAR Part 103) so Craig lightened it until it eventually complied.  It was an incredibly innovative design at the time and began to pique my interest in extremely light aircraft.

I began to trade aerobatic rides in my Citabria for rides in Ultralights until I had flown enough of them to decide I wanted to buy my own. It seemed to me then, and still does now, to be the purest and most free form of flight that I have experienced.

About that time, around 1991, I was doing a consulting job for a company building an automotive product, when I came across a single seat CGS Hawk Ultralight, stored in pieces in the back of their shop. It was built from a kit designed by a great guy and hang gliding pioneer named Chuck Slusarczyk. I called Chuck and he said he had all the parts in stock to rebuild it.  So, I approached my client and asked him how much he wanted for it and he told me, “Take it, it’s yours, I need the shop space”.

The next day a friend with a trailer and I hauled her home and I went to work on it. The original kit came with a full cloth cockpit cover with doors and large plastic windows, however, I chose to remove that, recover the wings and tail with light aircraft fabric with a Butyrate aircraft “dope” finish and add some light aluminum nose covering but leave the cockpit “open”.  I rebuilt the engine, a Rotax 447  which had been sitting for a couple of years.


This is our CGS Hawk with my son Brett getting ready to fly it. I am pulling the starter

This is our CGS Hawk with my son Brett getting ready to fly it. I am pulling the starter.


She flew great right from the first flight. Today Chuck is still producing them in several versions.  Very simple and sturdy aircraft. Brett and I  had lots of fun in it. To see more check out: .

My Quicksilver MXL Sport II, 2 place Ultralight. Still today, one of the most popular and sturdy designs

My Quicksilver MXL Sport II, 2 place Ultralight. Still today, one of the most popular and sturdy designs

The more I flew Ultralights, I began to do a mix of test flying for friends and acquaintances who would rather have me do the first flights on their aircraft including experimental amateur built (or EABs), first flights after annual inspections on certificated aircraft and first flights on Ultralights.

I earned my Ultralight Flight Instructor Examiner certificate,[or UFIE] and gave other Ultralight pilots who wished to become instructors their tests.  The bottom line is that I gained a lot of experience flying all types of Ultralights and Experimental aircraft.

In 1996 I was asked by the owner to do a flight test on a Hummingbird Ultralight, a small twin engine aircraft which had a “V tail” design.

My hangar mate at the time, Mark Nagy, and I assembled the aircraft and inspected everything as we went.The only parts we could not actually see were the aileron pulley retaining straps right behind the front spars in the leading edge of the wing. We checked the cables and they were free and operable. We lubed the cables, checked all attach points and “ran up” both engines and tuned them for our altitude. They ran perfectly.  This was a very basic aircraft with a sling seat and a right hand “side stick”.   One of my best friends, Dr. Doug Pleatman, a pilot and U.S. Accuracy Champion skydiver came to help monitor the flights . . . .  Thank God!

Hummingbird Assembly With Mark 101996

Hummingbird Assembly With Mark 101996

When our assembly and inspection was completed, I taxied the aircraft to the runway at Placerville airport (PVF) ran the engines up again and then did my first short and low “hop” to test pitch authority of the V-tail elevators. Pitch control was excellent.   My second test hop was to test “Yaw” authority and the V-tail rudders once again proved effective. On the third hop, I tested “roll” authority and the ailerons proved effective.   You can see a video of a hummingbird in flight at: The hummingbird video at  .

The fourth test was to be a check of the controls in all three axis at about 75 feet above the runway and then landing, with the fifth and final hop to be a “trip around the patch”.

For those unfamiliar with PVF, this airport is sort of an aircraft carrier in the sky with drop offs of over 1,000 feet to the valley on the south side of the runway and a drop off down to a residential area on the north side.

I lifted off for the fourth test and all went well up to 75 feet, then, while testing all three axes, I got hit with a gust of wind from the left and responded with left stick into the wind. With the correction complete, I went to center the stick again and found it had locked up solid to the left, with the left aileron in full left turn mode.   No amount of right pressure would break the aileron loose. As the aircraft began to depart the runway in a left turn, I tried a right rudder skid/slip to get back over the runway and realized if I held my position I was going to run right into the tetrahedron which is a large and heavy wind direction indicator. Hitting it would have been sure death or near death, so I popped off the rudder and ended up in a nice gentle left turn which I kept as “flat” as I could using the rudder and “differential power” of the two engines. Left engine to full power, right engine pulled back just enough to “widen the turn” but not enough to fly straight by any means.

Hummingbird Crash Site from Left Rear

Hummingbird Crash Site from Left Rear

I realized I could not climb and I was lower than the runway level so I was definitely going to impact the side of our mountain, just below the runway.  Oh joy.

I had about a four minute ride during which to ponder my situation and realized there was simply no way out . . .  I was going to impact the side of the hill.  A hill covered with trees. Some tall pines and some scrub oaks.  At the last minute I thought I might have had a chance to get between two trees and then stall the aircraft into the side of the hill facing uphill  . . and  . .  well, . .  I almost made it.

As I was going between two tall pines, and trying to use full differential power, the left wing tip just barely hit the left tall tree and immediately turned my forward speed into a fast spinning spiral into the ground from about 75 feet in the air.

I hit so hard, I left an indentation in the ground and the impact was later estimated to be around 49 “G”s , typically enough to kill you.  When all the crashing sounds stopped, the smell of dripping gas hiss-hiss-hissing, on the hot engines started.  I tried to wiggle out of the seat but was firmly pinned in the bent aircraft.  Only a few minutes seemed like an eternity and then the first person arrived on the scene.  It was my Bud Dr. Doug Pleatman.

Doc had called the paramedics who were only a few minutes away and in no time they had hacked a path through the brush down to me and had me in an ambulance headed to Marshall Hospital in Placerville.

The pain was more substantial than I had ever felt, but I could move my toes and fingers and was thanking the Lord for that .  At Marshall hospital with Dr. Doug by my side, the X rays came back and the ER doc said, “There is no way we can do anything for you here, we’ll have to transport you by ambulance to Mercy San Juan Hospital in Sacramento.  You have a shattered vertebra and a piece of it is cutting into your spinal cord”.

It was about then that I realized that I could no longer feel my sphincter muscle . . .  But, I could still move my toes. Doc Pleatman asked the ER doc , “Say doc do you ever give a shot of steroids to prevent the tissue around the spine from swelling and forcing the bone chips from a blown apart vertebra from cutting spinal cords?”  [I did not know it yet but I had literally blown apart T12, and L1 and L2 vertebrae} The ER doc said “No we do not do that.”  I jumped in and told the ER doc that if he “did not listen to my doc and I ended up paralyzed, I would come back and find him in my wheelchair”.  Doc Doug calmed the situation by saying, “Well doc, have you ever heard of any negatives from giving such shots? And the ER doc said “no”  Then Doc Doug said, “well then we have nothing to lose do we? “

The ER Doc gave me the shot right where my Bud told him to and if I had not gotten that shot, I would not be walking today.  Here is what my back looks like today from the back(left) and from the side(right).

Back rods and screws

Back rods and screws

Back rods and screws side view

Back rods and screws side view

It took me nearly a year to recover from those operations but the minute I could, I was back in the air again in my own Ultralight, a beautiful two place Flightstar II SL which had been sitting and waiting for me. I even got my back surgeon to go for a flight with me and he loved it!

Below is a photo of Dave, one of one of my great flying buddies in a two place Flightstar IISL that was exactly like mine, just a different color.  Great plane! Flew really well and most any weekend you could find us flying around the valley, landing on levee roads along the river and having our paper-sack lunches in the middle of nowhere.  Flying does not get much better than this.

Dave shuts down after solo flight

Dave shuts down after solo flight

My two place Flightstar was not rated for aerobatics and I was missing doing aerobatics A LOT!. So, I decided to build an aerobatic single seat Ultralight as soon as I was again able to tackle a new project.   After a few months,  I finished my new single seat aerobatic Ultralight that was a real beauty and was incredible in the air. I worked with the factory to add some of my own design mods even though the aircraft was already approved as an aerobatic plane in several other countries.

FS Spyder best pic

FS Spyder inst pnl 2

The Cockpit was a work of art with a right side “joy” stick like many of today’s jets and the handle on the left was for the brakes.  It featured a five point aerobatic harness.  Red handle on the left is for the Ballistic Recovery system Parachute.  The small gage under the white stopwatch is the G meter.  CHT (cylinder head temp) and EGT (exhaust gas temp) gages are on right side.

Getting ready to go fly upside down. Note the top-mounted BRS Parachute canister

Getting ready to go fly upside down. Note the top-mounted
BRS Parachute canister that eventually saved my life:
BRS Parachute Canister Website


I believe this plane was one of the best planes I have ever flown. I still love them today. One day as my buddy Mark Nagy, owner of a drum filler equipment manufacturing company  and I were  out flying, a local radio station airborne traffic reporter, whom we knew, (Commander Bill Eveland) who flew for KFBK radio in Sacramento, heard Mark and I talking on the air com channel and asked us for a traffic report on Hwy 50 traffic.  We gave him the report and then he asked if we could “see the old Salmon Falls Bridge “ that only pops up in the American river as it gets low each year. I told him I would go check it out and I pulled the nose up steeply like I had done so many times before and kicked the rudder hard right to enter a spin to the right. {I had done 22 turn spins from 10,000 feet in this bird and she was steady as a rock}  ! could easily pull her out right on a point.

This time it did not work out that way, after several turns of the spin, which I entered at about  2000 ft. AGL (Above Ground Level), when I hit left rudder, it would not budge.  The right rudder was “nailed” to the floor. I tried everything I could, power on, power off, tried to pitch it over inverted . . nope nothing worked. The rudder had jammed itself into a mechanical/aerodynamic lockup, an almost unheard of phenomenon (which by the way was immediately fixed by the factory and as far as I know has never happened again)

I radioed Commander Bill and my buddy Mark and told them I was going to pull the BRS ballistic chute.   Finally at about 750ft AGL, I pulled the chute. It opened instantly.  I gave commander Bill my GPS coordinates and he radioed the CHP (California Highway Patrol) medevac helicopter and gave them my position.  Had my landing gone as hoped, I would have floated down and landed on the ground in a still intact aircraft, but that was not to be. I NOW know that I could have restarted the engine and pulled myself over to a nice sandy beach under near full power, but I did not know that then.  I HAD restarted the engine to pull myself away from a rocky cliff, but the more throttle I used, the more the aircraft nose went upward and I did not want it to deflate the chute, so I shut the engine off, shut off the fuel and electrical system and gently floated down into the top of a huge 50 ft. Oak tree.

And, I am scared of heights. For a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, I pondered how the heck I was going to climb down from this big tree . . . .  but I did not have to ponder very long.  I began to hear branches breaking and slowly the aircraft slid out of the tree and went straight down nose first onto a very HARD mountain bike path, breaking that pretty red nose and bending it upward taking my right knee and right leg up with it until it blew apart my right knee. And it HURT a LOT.

I sat there pinned in the wreckage and listened to the sound of gasoline hissing as it dripped on the hot engine and exhaust pipe. I remember, vividly, sitting there, not really scared since I was probably in semi-shock, while I pondered what it would feel like to burn. About that time, two guys appeared, mountain bike riders, who had heard the ballistic rocket fire and then watched my descent . They were both sons of two different California Highway Patrolmen, God bless’em .

Their first words were, “Hey man are you ok?”  I cannot possibly express my level of joy of seeing them.  I said, “No guys, I am pinned and I think my right leg is broken”.   They jumped in and lifted the nose of the plane and then gently helped me out. Literally by the time I was out of the aircraft, JC Dodd, one of El Dorado County CHP’s best helo drivers was landing his medevac helo “H10” in a tiny clearing behind me that BARELY cleared his rotor blades. And this was SIX MINUTES after I hit the ground.  JC just happened to be in our area when Commander Bill gave him my coordinates.

 Red nose broken upward.  Engine mount and frame tube bent straight down. Nose wheel gone. Tail Boom twisted and bent

In the above photo you can see the crushed nose, the broken and twisted “Tail Boom” and see that one blade of the three blade prop almost hit my left hand hold, within about 8 inches. I was very lucky.  At least I had a well-reinforced back.  My right leg and knee were not so lucky but, hey they are a LOT stronger now with a titanium plate and ten screws.   Without the BRS chute I would not be writing this!

Right leg plate screws front view

Right Leg Plate Screws Front View

Thanks pilot JC Dodd and thanks Medic Leslie Berndl (of CHP H10) .  I will ALWAYS remember you.  Many people have no idea that our California Highway Patrol helicopter rescues climbers, accident victims etc. AT NO CHARGE.   My same ride in a private helo would have cost $10,000!!  [See a CHP medevac helicopter in action on You Tube at ]

I am a big believer in Ballistic parachutes (parachutes fired from the aircraft by a rocket) I was save 141. See:  and they are now up to save 295 . .  that’s a lot of lives saved   My new aerobatic airplane has, yup, a BRS chute in it today!  And last of all, every time I have been stopped by CHP for speeding, I THANK THEM  (:>))

It has been years since that crash and I have been back flying full size aerobatic planes I built myself ever since  . . .  but I still think about landing Ultralights on dirt roads, picnicking out in the middle of fields, on mountain tops and near or on islands in the middle of lakes and the pure freedom of Ultralight flying .  I miss that and may have to have another one, one day. They are getting better every year now.

Speaking of the freedom there are a couple of funny stories to share. One nice sunny day one of my buddies and I were out flying low meaning about 5 feet off the deck and we came upon what seemed like an endless vineyard, with nice wide rolling hills with dirt roads in between the rows of vines.  Looked like a perfect place to have our bag lunches, so we popped down on one of the roads and came to a stop at the top of one of the rolling hills, shut off our engines and broke out our lunches. We were commenting on what a beautiful spot this was when we noticed rising dust clouds from a truck coming down the road toward us. When it reached us, the driver hopped out and asked, “Do you guys know where you are? And I said, “Yup, eating lunch” and he stammered, “But, but this is Franzia Vineyards”, I could not help it, I said “GREAT, where is the tasting room.”  That broke the ice and we all started laughing.  I told him we didn’t really drink and fly and he said, “Ok guys finish your lunches and just take off I will pretend I never saw you . . . and DON’T CRASH!”

Another great story was landing UP the spillway at Comanche reservoir , near Ione, CA and having lunch. This spillway is huge but perfectly protected for lunching in Ultralights. The spillway is extremely steep and plenty wide and at the top there is a big half-round area that is blocked off to boats, so they don’t accidentally go over it when the water level is high.  This was summer and Lake Comanche was lower than the spillway, but the string of buoys was still in place, so even the Ranger’s boats could not reach it.  To keep people from falling into the spillway, it is surrounded by a 12 ft high chain link fence with no gates which also keeps the Rangers at (forgive me) “bay”.

This is right after landing, looking up to the top of the spillway with the overcrossing in sight in between.  We taxied to the top, turned the planes around, ate lunch at the top and then flew out under the overcrossing.

This is right after landing, looking up to the top of the spillway with the overcrossing in sight in between. We taxied to the top, turned the planes around, ate lunch at the top and then flew out under the overcrossing.

We were about finished with our lunches when a Ranger on the outside of the fence yells down, what do you guys think your doing?”  We responded, “Eating lunch”.  He said, “this is illegal, you two stay right there”.  Keeping in mind that this is one long and steep spillway, the only way to reach us was by 4 wheel drive jeeps. . and they had one.  They could not see our registration numbers since they were under our wings.   We had a clear view of the jeep trail to the bottom so we finished our lunches, stowed our trash and started our engines just as the jeep started up from the bottom of the spillway. There is a road overcrossing about halfway down, so we were in the air almost immediately due to the slope , flew under the overcrossing and then did steep climbing turns and we were outa there!  Not many folks can say they flew in and had lunch in the spillway at Comanche reservoir. Below, that’s Mark grinning away right before lunch.  You can see how high the sidewalls are.

Jim and Mark in lake Camanche spillway

Jim and Mark in lake Camanche spillway


Ya know . . . . I think I need another Ultralight.