Higher than a kite

Flying in an ultralight over the hills and valleys of rural Nevada seems just the right k

Mitch Olsen swoops over the runway at Silver Springs Airport.

Mitch Olsen swoops over the runway at Silver Springs Airport.

Photo By Deidre Pike

High Sierra Ultralights offers U.S. Ultralight Association pilot school with Mitch Olsen at the Silver Springs Airport. Introductory flights are $25. Flight training is $65 per hour, and the whole flight training course with ground school is $750. Call (775) 577-0322.

Just zipping along at a brisk clip, about 30 miles per hour down the runway. Wind in my face. Noisy brrrrring of the 50-horsepower engine.

I expect that we’ll speed up some, then, when the time is right, we’ll take off in Mitch Olsen’s Quicksilver two-seat ultralight aircraft.

I’m wrong.

“Are you ready?” asks Pilot Mitch, his mouth close to the microphone of his headset.

I grin and move the microphone closer to my mouth to shout back.


Then, with the slightest tug on the elevator, we’re up. The wind catches us, and we rise with each gust over the runway of Silver Springs Airport. Over the homes and trailers. Over Piper’s Casino. Over the intersection of highways 50 and 95. Like a bird in flight. Like a superhero in a cape. Like a plastic bag caught in an updraft. Like a …

“I feel like a kite!” I exclaim to Mitch.

“What’s that?”

“I feel like a kite!”

“Yup,” he replies, nodding. The wind wafts us to and fro, but with Mitch’s hands on the controls and his feet on the pedals working the rudders, I feel safe. Good thing I’m not flying this thing, I think to myself. I crash kites.

Flight is deeply pleasing to me.

It’s that sensation of lift, conquering gravity, catching air. Some people are divers, enjoying the weightlessness of immersion, the ability to go deep. Others enjoy climbing mountains, getting high with their boots still firmly planted on terra dirta. Spelunkers like to crawl around in small, dark, tight places.

I like being up, no strings attached.

I had my first balloon ride last fall, and it was truly peaceful and uplifting. But when the wind came up, and we started hurtling from Rancho San Rafael Regional Park toward Verdi, I could see the limitations. First, you’re faced with limited control over the direction your craft is taking. Then there’s the complexity of the balloon itself—and the fact that it takes a crew of folks chasing you around in order to land. While I’m sure these things are part of the attraction to balloonists, who likely adore these challenges, I recall thinking that I might like a bit more control.

Enter the ultralight aircraft.

An ultralight, as defined by the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, is a single-seat, powered flying machine that weighs less than 254 pounds, has a top speed of 63 miles per hour, stalls at 28 mph (for slow, safe landings) and carries no more than five gallons of fuel.

Ultralights were a natural offshoot of the hang glider trend in the 1970s, Mitch tells me.

Ultralights carry no more than five gallons of fuel, but that can take a flier about 70 to 125 miles.

Photo By Deidre Pike

“Hang gliders thought it might be nice to stay up in the air a while longer,” he says. “So they said, ‘Why don’t we put an engine on it?’ “

Attaching what’s often referred jokingly as a “lawn-mower” engine to a hang-glider turned out to be a precarious proposition. The movement kind of “tripped and fell” for a while in the 1980s, Mitch says. One of the biggest threats was that ultralights just didn’t come in a two-seater model. So the only way to teach yourself to fly one was to get in and try.

“In the mid-1980s, there were so many deaths from people trying to fly that the FAA stepped in,” he says. In 1985, the two-seat instructional ultralight got off the ground. An experienced, licensed instructor like Mitch can fly with a newbie kite-crasher like me and give lessons until the trainee is competent to go up alone. (In my case, that’s a long, long time.)

“Since then, the accident ratio has gone way down,” Mitch says.

During the weekdays, the soft-spoken mechanic commutes from Silver Springs to Reno, where he works on Subarus at Lithia. But over the past few years, Mitch has also taken more than 100 people up for weekend lessons. It’s $25 for an intro flight/lesson. About 15 of his students have gone on to fulfill the course requirements, 10 hours of flight training with ground school, to go solo.

When I arrive at the Silver Springs Airport for my first lesson early one Saturday morning in May, Mitch already has his Quicksilver pulled out of its hangar. Its wide yellow and fuchsia wings are made out of a sturdy fabric. All the materials used in the ultralight have to be of the quality manufactured for aerodynamic use.

“These are not parts you can buy at the hardware store,” he says. To fuel up the plane, Mitch stands on a small wooden stool and, using a slender hose, pours gasoline from a red 5-gallon can. Mitch is dressed casually in jeans and tennis shoes. He has a moderately heavy coat over his tie-dyed T-shirt.

He’d already warned me that it might be cold up there, so I have my leather coat and some gloves that I unfortunately choose not to wear.

To ease any qualms I may have about flying, Mitch gives me a tour of his machine, pointing out the gauges, levers and (my personal favorite) the rocket-powered ballistic parachute. If the ultralight’s engine stalls, that’s really no problem, Mitch says. We can just glide in for a landing. But if some major mechanical problem should occur while we’re soaring over Silver Springs, the ‘chute jets out the back and balloons up over the whole lightweight apparatus to bring everything down safely.

“It’s for dire emergencies only,” Mitch says confidently. “I’ve never had to use it.”

This is strangely reassuring.

In fact, Mitch goes on, the only folks who really run into trouble with an ultralight are usually either inexperienced or immature.

“They’re either flying in weather they shouldn’t be flying in or they’re doing things with the plane they shouldn’t be doing, like aerobatics. Ultralights aren’t made to do aerobatics.”

He explains this in terms of the plane not being “stressed” for negative G-forces. I nod as if I understand completely.

Then I’m in the plane, and we’re in the air, flying over Lahontan Reservoir. I feel like that squirrelly guy who freaks out Mad Max in The Road Warrior. I feel free. I feel … real cold.

Since my fingers are freezing, we don’t go much higher than 600 feet. I check our progress on the altimeter. Though most ultralights are OK to fly 10,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level, Mitch doesn’t take students up higher than 1,000 feet above Silver Springs (elevation 4,200 feet). Single-seaters can fly for about two hours—or about 70 to 125 miles—on a tank of gas. Mitch can fly to Carson City or the Black Rock Desert or to Lake Tahoe. No filing flight plans or checking with control towers. Just gas up and hit the lower layers of the atmosphere.

For my first few minutes in the sky, I clutch a thin metal bar with my left hand, but soon I feel fine. I let go, kick back and take aerial photos of Silver Springs, the plane’s shadow on the ground and my shoes.

Then we’re landing and I’m already formulating a budget plan to save for my own ultralight. You can get a good used one for $3,500 to $9,000. And Mitch’s whole 10-hour course is about $750. Not bad.

“Some people call these the ‘go-karts of the sky,’ “ Mitch says.

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