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Ultra-Fright in an Ultra-Light

August 05, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. This column is one in an occasional series of first-person accounts of leisure activities in and around Orange County.

It looks like a lawn chair with wings, or the mosquito from Planet X. But Mike Selfridge of Encore Ultra-lights, who took me for a ride in one, describes it as "the motorcycle of the skies."

"The difference between an ultra-light and a general aviation plane is the difference between a dirt bike and an automobile," Selfridge said. "A general aviation plane, like an automobile, is for going places. A dirt bike is just for fun."

We were standing near the runway at Bear Creek Airport in Murrieta in Riverside County. Selfridge handed me a helmet with built-in headsets so we'd be able to communicate over the sound of the engine and the wind. His partner, Bill Clark, had lent me aviator glasses, so my contact lenses wouldn't dry, and his World War II-vintage bomber jacket.

I climbed in and buckled my seat belt, which I later found to be a very important item.

"The ultra-light is not even considered an airplane," Selfridge continued as we began to taxi. "It's considered a recreational vehicle. I'd say it's the ultimate off-road vehicle. Really off-road."

Manufactured by Quicksilver Enterprises in nearby Temecula, the ultra-light is indeed a vehicular platypus, defying easy classification.

With our feet about a foot off the runway, and nothing but skeletal cables to hide the view, it felt like a dune buggy. The ground-level perspective during takeoff made me think of those now-defunct sidewalk sleds on wheels.

The big difference is, an ultra-light can go from sidewalk to 24,000 feet.

Selfridge and I were seated side by side, flanked by twin throttles. Slightly above us was an instrument panel with an altimeter, a gas gauge and sundry other presumably crucial dials. Directly over our heads was a gas tank the size of one of those institutional boxes of Cheerios from the Price Club.

The brake, attached to an "elevator stick" between us, looked as if it had been stolen off a 10-speed bicycle. The elevator stick also controlled the ailerons. Foot pedals turned the rudder.

"The ailerons make you roll, the rudder makes you yaw," Selfridge explained. "If you roll and yaw in the same direction, you turn."

"Luckily, you'll be steering," I said with a nervous laugh. I knew I now was unofficially enrolled in ultra-light 101.

We ascended to 500 feet very quickly. Selfridge pointed out the beautiful homes in Murrieta Hot Springs, and the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.

His voice came crackling over the sound system: "Let me know if you're starting to feel 'lookee.' The last thing you want is to get sick flying into the wind."

I felt reasonably fine at that point, and began to say so, but never got the chance.

"Oops, there was an updraft," Selfridge said. "We just gained about 300 feet."

My stomach had only gained 100.

"Oops! There's the corresponding downdraft," Selfridge said. "We just lost 300 feet." He nodded toward the altimeter in case I needed confirmation. "You can imagine what would happen without seat belts."

Before I knew it we were flying out over Lake Elsinore, and it occurred to me that this plastic-wrapped toothpick would make a decidedly inefficient life raft.

"Want to try and fly?," Selfridge asked.

"No, that's all right," I answered.

"Here, take it."

In theory, flying the craft seemed straightforward enough. Move your left foot, it moves to the left. I gingerly pushed the pedal; we began to bank left. Waaaay down below us, I could see ducks in formation over the water.

Whereupon, I was paralyzed by the thought that I would not be able to pull out of the turn. "Take it back," I said.

Selfridge wouldn't hear of it.

"Most people after the first lesson say they'll never be able to learn to fly one of these," he told me. "That's normal. Fear of heights is normal. All pilots have fear of heights. They just eventually get desensitized."

I tried again. I took the plane one way and--miracle of miracles!--back the other way. It was not entirely clear exactly what was due to wind and what was due to my piloting. Still, the very fact that our course had been corrected at least temporarily assuaged my feeling that we were on the verge of an eternal left- and downward spin. That heady feeling lasted about three seconds.

"Take it back," I said.

This time, Selfridge--probably white-knuckled himself with my steering--obliged and cheerfully headed us back toward shore. He seemed oblivious to the wind bandying us about like a discarded gum wrapper.

"It being the day after a major storm, today's unusual," he agreed. "Moist cool air meets warm air masses and is forced upward and forms clouds. It's what you call unstable air, much more turbulent than normal. It's harder to fly one of these when it's not calm." We shimmied steadily, if that's not an oxymoron, for a few moments.

"OK, I'm going to do a slip," he suddenly announced. "We're going to lose altitude quickly."

Ultra-fright.

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