Adventure Travel: Celestial bodies

It sounds pretty simple: you strap yourself in, pull the starter cord and zoom skywards. But that's not all there is to flying a microlight, as Eric Kendall finds out
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The Independent Online
Microlights: small planes, almost, if you take the "glass is always half full" attitude to life; motorised hang-gliders if you tend to see it as half empty. For sceptics, the very name gives unwelcome clues - micro and light, just when you wanted big and reassuringly hefty. I always thought 747 had a better ring to it when taking to the skies.

But if you can put all that out of your mind, try strapping yourself into one and pulling the starter cord. The sheer sensation of zooming skywards in something smaller (apart from the wings) than a hatchback is unforgettable and keeps people coming back for more. The ludicrous engine on the back, with its dinky propeller, just adds to the fun; there's a definite sense of defying both the laws of physics and the odds. But a microlight's greatest appeal, in the cold light of your bank balance, is that it's the most economical way to experience powered flight.

Trying microlighting for the first time is certainly good value, easy and inspiring with an instructor. There's a choice between two main categories of machine: a flexwing, which looks like a hang-glider plus engine and is sometimes described as an aerial motorbike - you're exposed to the elements and control the craft by shifting your weight; and the fixed wing, sometimes known as 3-axis, which refers to the plane-like control system. It also looks like a plane, with its real wings and enclosed cockpit, and flying one is similar to flying a light aircraft.

In fact the CFM Shadow I clambered into looked enough of a flying machine to put me completely at my ease until its owner assured me - without prompting - that this particular model can't be put in a spin, can glide two-and- a-half miles for every thousand feet of elevation (in the event of engine failure) and has never been involved in a fatality. Splendid. Not having considered any of these impossibilities up to that point, I now had something to think about as we taxied to the runway, with control-tower gobbledegook stuttering in my ears.

Sitting up front under the clear dome of the cockpit, well forward of the wings, you get a good view which leaves little to the imagination as you take off in a matter of yards. But the controls look the business, all new and shiny and surprisingly complicated, which is encouraging as long as you don't have to fly the thing.

"If you'd like to have a go, now that we're airborne ..." crackled the instructor's voice in the headset. With my right hand on the joystick, left hand on the throttle, feet on the rudder pedals, and eyes on several different instruments and the horizon simultaneously, I tried not to think about the thousands of feet of nothing below me.

Gentle manipulation of the controls produces a comfortably progressive response and makes you feel the whole thing is quite natural. Only the yawing effect of the rudder doesn't feel quite right if you've never tried it before, and is nowhere near as exhilarating as simply using the joystick to bank the craft over and sweep round in tight circles. Tilting the nose down naturally increases air speed but the most impressive effect is when you pile on the power, pull back the joystick and climb, steep and fast. It may have looked a long way down to start with, but now everything's even more distant; time, once again, to concentrate on those dials, while keeping a look out for other traffic, which is rule number one in the air.

Coming back to base is was as smooth as take-off, mainly due to the fact that my hands and feet were nowhere near the dual controls. But there was a sting in the tail, as the lightest of touch-downs was followed by the roar of the engine and a surge of acceleration as we wheelied off the runway with the nose in the air - a high-speed taxi manoeuvre which is almost as good as the flight itself and a reminder, if you need it, that whatever you're flying in you should never unfasten your seat belt until you've come to a complete standstill.

Thanks to Deepak Mahajan, microlight flying instructor (0181-325 0197) who teaches in the London and South-east region, and CFM Aircraft (01728 832353).

Micro manoeuvres

The cost of microlighting is, of course, relative. For most people, this kind of money spent on pure fun is every bit as shocking as your first flight, but microlighting is a fraction of the cost of flying an aeroplane, every step of the way - the price of the machine, above all, and running costs such as fuel, storage and the use of airfields.

Flexwing microlights cost from a few thousand pounds second hand, whereas the state-of-the-art CFM Shadow two-seater fixed-wing microlight is around pounds 22,000 new. Even this is cheap when compared to light aircraft; syndicates are a common way of overcoming the financial obstacles of ownership, while the speed with which you can learn to fly - around 25 hours of instruction - means the cost of qualifying for a private pilot's licence can be less than pounds 2,000.

As well as value for money, both types of microlight give more flying sensation than bigger planes, though capacity isn't great - they're two- seaters at most, by definition; it's not a practical means of transport under normal circumstances and is limited to flying in good visibility. For purely recreational flying, the advantage they have over gliders, hang-gliders and paragliders is that they take off under their own power and are less dependent on weather conditions and specific sites from which to fly.

Microlighting has come a long way from the early, experimental days when they really did just attach motors to hang-gliders. As well as safety and aeronautical improvements, reduction of engine noise has been, and continues to be, a vital public relations exercise for the sport.

Full details about how and where to learn to fly are available from the British Microlight Aircraft Association (01869 338888; Schools operate all over the UK; despite the varied weather, these are good places to learn, with the highest regulatory standards in the world.