"I think you better get out of that hobby, while you can still walk away from it," my uncle admonished his friend Richard. "I saw on the news where a guy went nose down in one of those contraptions the other day. Crashed and burned."
"Naah," said Richard, affectionately patting his machine, "This is my baby. Besides, I know what I'm doing. I've got one of the best instructors around."
Richard flies an ultralight plane through the skies of rural Edgefield County.
Rich assembled his ultralight plane in his garage using snap-together aluminum tube and fabric. The kit came via UPS in a cardboard box. Although many manufacturers sell engines and assembly services for an additional cost, Richard opted out of those expensive add-ons, grumbling about fools falling for sales gimmicks. Following the simple instructions, he put together his wings with a hot glue gun, twist ties, and an iron.
Why an iron, one might ask? Well, number one, self-assemblers pray over it while getting wrinkles out of the control surfaces, and number two, pilots use it as an in-flight safety system. When the engine cuts, they knock themselves unconscious, in hopes of dieing without soiling their britches first.
On the advice of his teacher, Richard reworked an old motor, from a lawnmower he cast aside years before because it choked out constantly. His wife, Mertice, recalls him kicking it and screaming that it wasn't any better than a seeing-eye dog behind the wheel of a monster truck. Now considering previous slurs against the pull-motor just grass in the bag, Richard strapped it to the fragile frame.
If anyone is wondering, an ultralight plane and a glider are not one and the same. Enthusiasts like Richard make a clear distinction. Inferior gliders depend on another pilot in another aircraft to loft them. Ultralight planes, the owners smugly argue, have engines and, thus, real pilots who independently surge their vehicles to flight.
On the other hand, there's a caveat. A glider will stay afloat on air currents, usually until the so-called pilot decides to land. Ultralights will not hover, float, drift or otherwise remain airborne without the steady whir of a gas powered motor. Once the weed eater string tangles, an ultralight turns south like a Canadian goose in September.
Richard and his fellow aviators possess clear enthusiasm for Russian roulette.
Last week, after frugally patching holes in his fuselage fabric with worn out dishtowels from his wife's rag basket, Richard's instructor took his blender powered sky basket for a test-spin around the pasture. Abruptly, the motor noise changed from humming, to zinging, to plinking. Then it quit making noise altogether. That's when he grabbed the iron and started cussing himself for not sewing together a parachute from old bed sheets.
Richard called my uncle yesterday. "I just can't believe it," he lamented. "Mertice says I've got to give up flying."
"She's right, but why did she say that?" asked my uncle.
"I don't have an instructor anymore."
"Yeah, his wife hit pay dirt in that field behind Jubral McGruder's barn. Mac had to send one of his cows that got hit with the shrapnel to the packing plant. But I told Mertice, this is just a sign," continued Richard.
Exasperated with this nonsense, my uncle questioned him, "A sign? A sign of what? A sign that, if you couldn't swim, you would take up boating in a craft that wouldn't float unless the propeller turned?"
"No," he dismissed my uncle, exuberantly explaining, "A sign that the student has become the teacher."