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The flexwing Microlight

Microlights are the largest single group of light aviation aircraft in the World. And, believe it or not, flexwing (weight-shift) microlights like the one you could fly originated from NASA's manned space flight programme! In the 1960s, when the USA was looking at ways of returning the first space shuttles safely to earth, a NASA research scientist, Francis Rogallo, designed a collapsible delta wing which would deploy from within the hull of the shuttle after re-entry. Although NASA did not pursue his proposal, aviation enthusiasts in the USA saw the Rogallo wing's potential for leisure flying. They developed his design into the first delta wing glider and the sport of hang gliding was born, quickly spreading worldwide.

Almost immediately, some of the early hang gliding pioneers tried various ways of attaching power units to their wings so they could take off without first having to climb to the top of a hill. After all kinds of experimentation, the forerunners of the modern flexwing microlight took to the skies in the early 1970s. Since that time, wing and airframe/engine technology has moved on rapidly. Today's factory-manufactured microlights, powered by a choice of reliable two-stroke and four-stroke engines, are the result of years of design improvements within a framework of strict safety regulations. In the last few years microlights have circumnavigated the globe and set new world records.

Despite their fragile appearance, modern microlight aircraft are incredibly strong and have one of the best safety records in leisure aviation. With their large, high-lift wings, microlights simply glide safely to earth in the event of engine malfunction - these days, with high performance aircraft engines, a very rare occurrence! Imagine you're riding pillion on a motor scooter. The engine starts. You're holding on to the metal tubes just behind your seat. You start moving along the tarmac and feel the wind underneath the visor of your helmet. And then, after just a few metres, the whole thing suddenly rises up into the air and you're flying!

That's the nearest you can get to describing the takeoff run of a weight-shift microlight. Most people have never seen one close up, let alone flown in one. We just occasionally see these rather odd moth or bat-shaped wings in the sky and wonder what they are. Well, be assured that the sensation of flight in a microlight is quite unlike anything else you will ever experience. Conventional light aircraft or helicopters are fast and exciting, but you're enclosed in a cockpit. Balloon flights are fantastic and tranquil, but more often than not you're jammed in a basket with stacks of other people. In contrast, being airborne in a two-seat microlight is probably the nearest thing to what the earliest days of flying must have been like; slow flight at relatively low altitudes in an open cockpit where you're almost completely exposed to the elements and where the view from the cockpit is unbelievable.

In the early days, microlight flying was unregulated and most machines were, in any case, single-seaters. To learn to fly people just jumped in and "had a go". Then they started towing them, without the engine running, behind a vehicle while the instructor in the tow vehicle shouted instructions through a megaphone. Clearly this appealed to those with an adventurous disposition, but this kind of flying remained very much the preserve of the daredevil. "Ordinary" people have only become involved in microlight flying in any significant numbers since the aviation authorities stepped in with safety and licensing regulations. Aha, you're going to ask - do you need a licence? Yes, you do. Nowadays the microlight pilot training course is pretty much the same as that for light aircraft pilots, and you get a Pilot's Certificate at the end of it. The course is a bit shorter: you need at least 25 hours of instruction for a microlight Pilots License. That, coupled with the lower cost of tuition, brings a microlight pilot's licence within reach of people on modest incomes. In Australia you might expect to pay around $100 to $150 an hour for Microlight aircraft lessons. Less if you train on your own machine.

And that, of course, is the other attraction of microlight flying. You can buy a brand-new microlight in Australia for around $30,000 (or a bit more if you want one with the 80hp four-stroke engine) but you can also buy a safe, flyable second hand microlight for as little as $15,000. It will give you years of service, and the annual costs of servicing, parts and insurance are pretty much the same as running a second car. And those costs can be reduced if you service the aircraft yourself.

So why on earth would someone want to spend time and effort learning to dangle in the air underneath a kite with an engine on the back? Surely you have to be slightly deranged? Well, looked at dispassionately, it must seem a rather odd thing to do. The appeal is very hard to put into words. It's not about white-knuckle rides or adrenalin rushes or things like that. It's about a profound sense of being in another dimension. The sense of freedom, of being afloat in three dimensions is quite simply, life-changing. There are those who become microlight pilots because they love engines and gadgetry. There are lots of others who never lose that sense of awe and wonder which flying brings.

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