Learn to Fly

Microlights

With a huge range of modern aircraft offering outstanding performance, and operating costs that make regular flying truly achievable, Paul Kiddell thinks there’s never been a better time to get your licence

The new 600kg rules means you can fly machines like this Sportstar SLM – a useful load of around 285kg, allowing two 90kg adults to fly at 110mph carrying 25kg of luggage with nine hours of fuel available

Flying for fun is fantastic and microlights offer a truly affordable and accessible route into this amazing world of aerial adventure. There’s never been a better time to learn to fly microlights especially as 2021 saw the microlight weight limit increase from 450kg to 600kg, making an even greater range of highly capable aeroplanes available to microlight pilots.

Modern microlights enjoy exceptional performance, have an excellent safety record and generally, if you are medically fit to drive a car, then you are fit to fly. 

There is also a strong UK community of disabled microlight flyers, some flying microlights with modified controls to help them overcome their limited mobility.

Importantly, you can get your licence for around half the price of an EASA PPL and go on to operate a microlight at a fraction of the cost of a traditional General Aviation aircraft like a Cessna 150 or Piper PA-28. With the same pot of money, you can fly more. In fact, a lot, lot more. 

So why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, microlights can only fly in daylight under visual flight rules (i.e. you can’t fly in exceptionally poor weather or through cloud), cannot perform aerobatics and are limited to two seats. But if it’s fun grassroots flying you want, then microlighting is a seriously cost-effective option offering endless opportunities to explore the UK, Europe and beyond. 

As it implies, the term microlight refers to a broad range of aircraft at the lighter end of general aviation and they come in two forms, fixed-wing and flexwing. 

Fixed-wing microlights are effectively lightweight aeroplanes and are controlled using stick and rudder in the traditional sense. They range from the simple tube and fabric Thruster cruising at 65mph to the sleek, carbon-fibre Dynamic cruising at 125mph. 

Flexwing microlights can trace their heritage back to powered hang-gliders and have the familiar triangular-shaped, fabric flexwing from which is suspended a tricycle fuselage pod accommodating the crew and pusher engine mounted behind. 

Flexwing flying is exciting stuff. You’re sitting out in the elements with helmet, gloves and warm suit, manoeuvring the aircraft by use of the big horizontal bar in front of you. But don’t be fooled by their heritage. The modern flexwing is a very capable tourer and UK pilots routinely fly them to Europe.

We start 2022 with a quantum increase in the weight limit defining microlights. The maximum take-off weight goes up from 450kg to 600kg. The current weight limit of 450kg (472.5kg when fitted with a Ballistic Recovery System – a large parachute deployed in an emergency to bring the entire aircraft and its occupants safely down) can be restrictive for heavier crew members. The introduction of the 600kg limit enables  aircraft with exceptional load-carrying capability to be offered by manufacturers. 

For example, the new 600kg Sportstar SLM has a useful load of around 285kg, allowing two 90kg adults to fly at 110mph carrying 25kg of luggage with nine hours of fuel available (100 litres in the 120 litre tanks). Of course heavier crew can be carried with a corresponding reduction in fuel but it gives you an idea of the impressive capability available at the top end of the market. 

Microlighting in the UK is exceptionally popular with around 4,000 microlights registered with the UK CAA. 

The British Microlighting Aircraft Association is the national body, overseeing training, pilot licensing and airworthiness in conjunction with, and on behalf of, the CAA. The BMAA website is a great resource when looking to get into microlighting and they also produce an excellent monthly magazine.

When you say ‘microlight’ people usually think of flex-wing machines like this Pegasus Quantum Leap

The UK has an extensive network of long-established microlight flying schools full of passionate and highly experienced instructors. If you suspect the fun world of microlighting is for you, then identify a local school and book a trial lesson.

Certainly age is no barrier. I have had friends who are in their seventies learn, and children of friends who get their licence at 17.

The National Private Pilot’s Licence (NPPL) with a microlight class rating requires a minimum of 25 hours of flying training, 10 of which must be solo and you must complete two cross-country trips of 40nm. Medical fitness to fly is based on the DVLA Group 1 ordinary car standard and for most, there is no need for a medical – you self-certify online.

Like driving, there are a very limited number of medical conditions that will require follow-up, but there are very few that will actually prevent you from flying.

With lessons with an instructor costing from £100 per hour to perhaps £145 near London, a full course covering minimum 25-hour flight time with study material and examination fees will cost around £4,000. Everyone learns at a different pace and your progress will be influenced by your age, budget, family and work commitments and, of course, the great British weather.

As with all flying training, few students pass in the minimum hours and the majority of students will take perhaps 35-45 hours so a budget of around £5,000-£6,000 may be more realistic.

Principles of flight

Look to enjoy the training experience and try not set unrealistic deadlines. As well as passing a flying General Skills Test (GST) in the air with an examiner, you have to pass five multiple choice exams covering air law, principles of flight, meteorology, aircraft technical and navigation. It may seem daunting but I guarantee it will be an incredible experience and for many, learning to fly will remain one of the greatest achievements of their life.

Having achieved your dream, it’s time to buy or rent within a club. While the convenience of renting will suit some, if you fly regularly, it is generally far more cost-effective to own a microlight, either outright or with a group of like-minded enthusiasts in a syndicate. Again, you should carefully consider your needs. Do you want to tour extensively or are you happy flying around the local patch enjoying the views and maybe dropping in on local strips? Your level of ambition may develop as you gain experience but it’s good to have a clear starting point.

The new and used microlight markets have something for everyone with prices ranging from maybe £2,500 for an older airworthy flexwing such a Flash II Alpha to around £100,000 for a brand new high-performance, modern tourer like the aforementioned new 600kg Evektor SportStar SLM with a fuel injected 100hp Rotax 912iS engine.

There is a huge choice in between in both the new and second-hand markets with some excellent UK manufacturers like Flylight with their very popular SkyRanger range and flexwings and Ascent who have sold 130 of their wonderful Eurofox aircraft. Most manufacturers also offer the option of self-building a microlight from a kit.

Afors.com has daily listings of used microlights for sale and the majority of modern, second-hand fixed or flexwings in good condition range from £8k to £40k.

Joint ownership is very common to split both the purchase and ongoing costs. While there is no limit to the size of the group, four to six is probably the most popular representing a good compromise between shared costs and aircraft availability. Besides sharing costs, groups pull together differing skills and most importantly, offer fantastic camaraderie as you set off on exotic flying adventures.

Microlights are powered by modern, reliable engines and have an excellent safety record.

Microlights are capable machines that will enable all sorts of adventures with friends – these EuroStars are at Glenforsa airstrip

The most common engines are the 80hp and 100hp Rotax 912 series which use standard unleaded petrol from your local garage or unleaded aviation fuel though it can also use standard aviation gasoline (avgas) for short periods. It is very economical, and the 80hp 912 in our modern EuroStar aircraft only burns 10 litres per hour flying along at 95mph so an hourly fuel cost of around £13/hr.

The owner of a microlight is responsible for the airworthiness of their aircraft and, as a result, can undertake as much of the maintenance as they feel comfortable. Many owners change oil, plugs, tyres and filters and get professional engineers to do more complex tasks like gearbox maintenance.

We are lucky in the UK to have a number of excellent professional microlight engineers who have outstanding product knowledge and charge hourly rates around £45, much less than your local car dealer! Like your car, a BMAA Inspector will conduct an annual inspection and issue a Permit to Fly – this and the application fee will cost £300-400.

At this point it’s worth mentioning Single Seat De-Regulated (SSDR) aircraft. SSDR aircraft weigh up to 300kg (315kg with a BRS), do not require any approval or annual inspection and owners have complete freedom to make experimental modifications as required. Some UK pilots are using this freedom to experiment with electric propulsion. Pilots still require a licence and third party insurance though. Around 700 aircraft of the 3,918 UK microlight fleet operate as SSDR. You can pick one up for a few thousand pounds and they provide exceptionally cheap flying.

Exciting options

As they are light, modern microlights enjoy excellent performance and happily operate from grass strips as short as 200m and that opens up a huge number of exciting options for touring off the beaten track. There are at least 1,500 landing sites available to microlights in the UK with new grass strips coming online all the time. You may even know someone with a suitable field – under UK law you can land anywhere if you have the landowner’s permission. Many owners choose to base their aircraft on farm strips away from the formality of larger airfields where hangarage is significantly more expensive.

From the above you’ll get a sense of just how affordable microlighting is.

Our four-man group owns a wonderful 2008 Evektor EuroStar. G-CEVS is a high-performance and very well-equipped, two-seat tourer fitted with the latest GPS navigation and collision avoidance systems. We pay £35/hr which includes fuel, maintenance and a contribution to a fund to purchase a new engine at around 4,000 hours. In addition, we pay £60/month each to cover hangarage and insurance. As a result, we can afford to fly a lot, and I average about 140 hours a year costing me £5,620 (£4,900 for the hourly and £720 for the fixed costs).

Microlighting is a very sociable hobby and most of our exciting adventures involve flying alongside friends in other microlights allowing us to explore the beautiful planet like never before. In summer 2020, our group of four aircraft spent three days flying the entire coastline of Devon and Cornwall visiting 16 airfields and farm strips in glorious weather, meeting great people and camping overnight in stunning locations – it truly was magical!

Most European countries continue to accept UK microlights and the UK NPPL (Microlight) pilot qualification. As a result, in summer months UK microlights can be found touring the length and breadth of Europe. Impressively, some intrepid British microlight adventurers have crossed the Atlantic to the USA and Canada while Yorkshireman Dave Sykes (a paraplegic) flew solo all the way to Australia in his flexwing.

For those coming from a more traditional GA background, one notable change in 2020 was that fixed-wing microlight hours can also now be used to maintain an EASA PPL or LAPL.

There’s never been a better time to get into microlighting.

The licence is still relatively affordable, there is a huge range of modern microlights offering outstanding performance with great choice in the new and second-hand market and operating costs that make regular flying truly achievable. But most of all, it is full of funny, kind and generous characters who really know how to fly for fun.

Solo story

Tamm Carr took a trial flight in a Eurostar, and was hooked…

“I had a trial flight with Alba Airsports at Perth and was instantly hooked. It was exhilarating and everything I had ever imagined. Not only did it look like a ‘real’ aircraft, the performance was way better than many small GA types that I’ve experienced. At 62 years old my training lasted much longer than the minimum hours required. 

“Sometimes I thought I would never master landing the aircraft but after 45 hours of training I flew my first solo circuit. Ten months and 25 hours later I passed my GST and achieved a lifetime ambition of becoming a qualified pilot. 

“The complete learning journey not only involved time in the air. The ground exams and Radio exam also required lots of studying but I found it very interesting and all were passed first time. Gaining my NPPL has given me a renewed enthusiasm for aircraft and flying. So much so that I was not satisfied with renting the club aircraft and began actively looking to either join a syndicate or form a new group. Microlighting is full of generous people and I received lots of friendly advice and guidance to my seemingly endless questions. As a result, I purchased a second-hand Eurostar G-IDOL last September and formed a group with another pilot based at Perth. 

“So far my most thrilling moment was when I collected G-IDOL from Sittles Airfield in Staffordshire and flew her for the first time on an adventure to her new home at Perth. This was the biggest challenge since gaining my licence. I stopped twice on the way north, at Breighton and then Fishburn. The feeling of achievement when I landed at Perth was immense. 

“Having your own aircraft allows you to fly more regularly and at much reduced cost than when hiring club aircraft. 

“I love the fact that I have the freedom to go wherever I want, for as long as I want, and have ventured much further with my own aircraft than club machines – Oban, Plockton and Bute on the West Coast of Scotland being the highlights. 

“Learning to fly has been a lifelong dream, and I’m looking forward to many exciting microlight adventures in future.”

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