Ultralight Aircraft Safety Concerns Raised
A series of recent crashes in southwest Florida involving ultralight aircraft has highlighted the risks of operating these non-standard, unregulated aircraft – for the pilot, and people on the ground. All of the five aircraft that crashed were non-standard, and two of the five pilots were more than eighty years old, with one being over seventy. Because ultralight pilots need no license and are exempt from taking a yearly physical, it would appear that older pilots, who may fail to meet the requirements to keep their licenses, are turning to ultralight aircraft to satisfy their need to fly. Critics are raising the question of whether these ultralight, homebuilt and experimental aircraft, along with unlicensed and unqualified pilots, are creating a public safety hazard.
Ultralights that carry only one person, a maximum of five gallons of fuel, and fly no faster than 62 mph need not be registered with the FAA, with the proviso that they stick to non-urban areas, but this is not regulated, neither are there any mandatory maintenance requirements. The main investigative agency for air crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), only investigates if the plane has a number on its tail. Otherwise the investigation is left to local authorities, who only investigate if there is a death. Also, because there is no regulation and/or investigation, there is no database on accidents and their causes, and information gathered is more anecdotal in nature. The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) director of communications, Dick Knapinski, noted in an interview with the Herald Tribune that the organization is working with the NTSB to narrow down the causes of crashes.
Of the five recent crashes, only two of the ultralight aircraft had tail numbers and were flown by trained pilots, the kit-built Seawind 3000 that crashed on the Sarasota campus of the New College of Florida on Jan 12, 2013 and the amateur-built Skybolt that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico on December 19, 2012.
Currently, pilots who move from piloting a smaller airplane, such as a single-engine Cessna, to a larger twin-engine plane, are required to undergo additional training. But when pilots downsize, additional training is not required despite the fact that the aircraft handle very differently. As more and more amateur pilots built their own ultralight aircraft and take to the skies, authorities are being urged to take steps to regulate the operating of what one critic described as “flying lawn furniture”.