By 1980 the
American scene had ceased to be something which can be fairly described in a
short history like this. The industry was mushrooming at an astonishing pace,
and at times it seemed that even the manufacturers themselves couldn't keep
pace with it. Light plane manufacturers, who were still thoroughly in the
doldrums, could only look on in wonderment at the upstart sport which was achieving
what they had so signally failed to do in the preceding six decades - bring
aviation to the common man.
In the Old
World the race was on to produce a viable two-seat trike, and to this day we
are not certain which country won. Nick Wrigley had turned up at the BMAA's
inaugural fly-in at Wellesbourne in June 1980 with a Sachs-engined side-by-side
two-seater which flew very well. However, the previous month Magallon had tried
a tandem machine with a 340 cc Sachs which produced 30 hp at 10,000 rpm. It also
produced a dreadful noise, and he soon ditched it in favour of two Solo
engines, these being replaced in turn by a Hirth 438 cc unit in September 1981.
At Brienne that
year, Magallon, Danis and other early French constructors timidly showed their
trikes. No more control surfaces: the Motodelta was forgotten, superseded just
as Geiser was feeling confident enough about it to begin serious production,
and the Americans had not yet arrived.
At least, they
hadn't in France. Across in England, the first Eagles had been brought in by
Gerry Breen that January and were finding a ready market among flyers who
wanted cheap aviation but didn't fancy a trike. Gerry had opened the
floodgates, and before the year was out just about every significant make of
American ultralight was being imported into the UK. The invasion had begun.
year the transatlantic onslaught reached France. Machines such as the
Weedhopper, Vector 600, Quicksilver, Rally and Goldwing having an enormous
impact throughout 1981. The early imports were all single-seaters, for it was
not until early 1982 that the Americans thought seriously about two-seaters;
until then, US pilots needed a license before they could take up a passenger.
PHOTO 1: Photograhed in 1986, A British registered
example of the Goldwing.
in Europe of viable fixed-wings broadened the appeal of the sport overnight.
Pilots of lightplanes or gliders, who had been put off by what was to them the
strange appearance and reversed controls of the trikes, suddenly found that
there was a whole range of ultralights in which they could feel at home. To
feed this new market, new manufacturers sprang up, some developing their own
versions of American products such as Eurowing, which built Goldwings in
Scotland, others creating designs of their own.
Firmly in the
latter category was Steve Hunt, who by 1981 had left Hiway to form his own
company Huntair. He was determined to produce a machine in which conventional
pilots would feel at home, and he succeeded so well that his 'Pathfinder'
became a best seller on both sides of the Channel.
PHOTO 2: Steve Hunt, designer of the Pathfinder
and founder of Huntair.
acquitted itself brilliantly in the '82 London-Paris, a marvellous, happy
occasion which was symbolic in many ways, not just because it was a race
between the capitals of the two countries which spearheaded ultralighting in
Europe, but also because it was dominated by the new European machinery, which
in many cases was proving superior to the American aircraft which had inspired
it - and cheaper, thanks to the strength of the dollar.
'Vector' won the fixedwing class, but second was a Belgian 'Butterfly' and
every other place in the top ten was occupied by a 'Pathfinder', apart from a
sole 'Lazair' in equal sixth. And in the flexwing class of course, there wasn't
an American to be seen. The London-Paris was a turning point in European
ultralighting, the occasion when the sport came of age and the media was forced
to take it seriously, if only because to the newspapers' eternal disappointment
no one dropped into the Channel.
PHOTO 3: Getting ready to fly. A Pathfinder
pictured at the Windsports Centre in North Yorkshire.
Sadly, this was
to be the high point of Hunt's career, for shortly afterwards he introduced the
ill-fated Pathfinder II in an attempt to produce a machine light enough for the
West German market and fast enough to beat the American 'Phantom'. The two
requirements were simply not compatible, and the result was a machine with very
little reserve of strength once its envelope was exceeded, as Hunt himself
found to his cost when he hit severe turbulence and was killed in the 1983
French Grand Prix.
It is easy to
look at the list of pioneer ultralighters who paid for their passion with their
lives and to conclude, quite erroneously, that ultralighting is a dangerous
sport. But the test pilot's job has never been an easy one, let alone being a
test pilot for a new technology in a little known realm of flight, and one can
easily argue that the pioneers did extremely well to achieve as much as they
did with the meager resources at their disposal.
Let us simply
be grateful that they have left us with a rapidly maturing and, for the
properly trained pilot in a properly constructed machine, safe sport. Thousands
of ultralighters can now benefit from their efforts, enjoying rallies, fly-ins,
and local and international competitions, and will no doubt continue to laugh
at the frontiers which, from on high, we have never been able to see very well.
This is where the history written by Alain-Yves Berger
and Norman Burr ends. All the text to this point is taken directly from their
book: 'Ultralight & Microlight Aircraft of the World', 2nd edition. Both
editions are now sadly out of print.
The rest of the materials that we have put together in
an attempt to bring the history up to date are drawn from Flight Line,
Microlight Flying, and personal memories. While we cannot possibly do the same
level of justice to the subject as Norman and Alain-Yves, we hope that you will
gain something from the materials that follow, and perhaps gain a greater
insight into the BMAA itself and the battles it has won for microlight pilots
over the years.