has always looked to the skies for answers, searching
its changing face for signs of grace and design, hoping
to gleen some small wisdom from its imperious distance
and reserve. Leonardo da Vinci regularly lifted his weathered
face in awe, sketching his discoveries and inspirations
on parchments that centuries later revealed an enduring
obsession with the sky and its floating citizenry, the
birds. It was his hope man would step into the air and
aided by only the barest but most ingenious of contrivances,
regain a heritage he had somehow lost to dreams and mythologies.
He would fly like an angel.
Leonardo's vision of bird-men aside,
there are contrivances today that go some distance to
meeting the great inventor's thirst for intimate flight.
On the ground, these devices appear flimsy and loose-limbed,
ridiculously exposed and underpowered. There's something
dragonfly-ish about the way they look. One feels a good
swat with a rolled-up newspaper is all that's needed to
keep them grounded. Of course I'm talking about ultralight
Ultralights are everywhere. Enthusiasts
and aficionados recognize no boundaries. They are just
as likely to be sawing through the skies above Brazil
as they are in southern California. We here in San Felipe
are not outside their persuasion. In fact, several locals
own their own ultralights.
As a business, purveyors of sky-dreams
have used ultralights as a means of lifting their clients
into intimate congress with a realm most people grudgingly
cede to the birds. A two-place kit plane can deliver a
passenger (often wedged in a step seat above and behind
the pilot and giving mere terrestrials the impression
of watching a winged motorcycle take to the air) to a
surprisingly maneuverable, visually stunning and front-to-finish
Some years ago I was visiting a
friend in the Ejido El Agrario, north of town. His house
fronted on the highway and faced the sea. We were talking
about air compressors or women when suddenly something
intrigued the corner of my eye and I turned to see what
looked like a wedge of blue cheese silently tracing an
arc in the air above Playa del Sol.
"What the heck is that?" I asked
"The guy with the wing," he replied.
Extracting information from a resident
of an ejido is a little like trying to use a refrigerator
repair manual to fix a lawn-mower. But eventually I learned
the pilot's name and that he kept the ultralight parked
near an improvised runway at one of the north camps. I
was also told he sold rides.
A few days later I was in the neighborhood
of the campo and I also happened to have ten dollars burning
a hole in my pocket. Although I was told the pilot charged
twenty dollars, I drove down to the runway anyway and
knuckled the door of a nearby trailer. A frowsy-eyed man
of about forty answered, understandably grievous at having
his afternoon siesta sawn off at the knees. I apologized
and within a few minutes had infected the poor fellow
with my unconcealed zeal and enthusiasm as I extolled
the virtues of his trade.
He was so taken by the groupie
approach he agreed on a price of ten dollars, ducking
back into the trailer to rake a hand through his hair
and pull on his flying jacket.
"It get's pretty cool up there,"
he explained and handed me a wind-breaker for the ride.
I helped him wheel the plane onto
the runway. He went through a quick safety check, which
didn't do much to reassure me because I was busy taking
a closer look at the contraption. It looked like an idiot
child of a go-cart and hang-glider marriage.
"Have you taken many people up
in this thing?" I asked him.
That was good enough. I put my
foot where he pointed and climbed into the back seat.
He went around, pulled the engine to life then returned
and performed a neatly executed bit of gymnastics to arrange
himself in the lower seat. I watched him settle his sneakers
against the foot-rests. He reached for the throttle and
the thing began to move.
As we picked up speed it seemed
every stone, twig and rut of the dirt runway telegraphed
an exaggerated profile of itself to my butt, which was
drumming against the hard seat like the front row of shoes
at a Buddy Rich concert. I glanced at the frail-looking
aluminum tubes and stays as they rattled into blurs beside
me and I became acutely aware of our vulnerability, careening
down a dirt road while attaching all our faith and hope
(not to mention ourselves) to nothing more than a kite
with a thyroid condition.
Then a miracle happened.
The pilot, whose hands gripped a horizontal bar under
the delta wing, made a subtle motion and we were suddenly
airbourne. The sense of reckless speed vanished immediately
and we seemed to hover in the air as we slowly gained
alititude. It was then, like Leonardo da Vinci, I fell
in love with the immoveable feast of clean air and blue
sky --the heritage of birds.
the abilities of an ultralight wouldn't ruffle the vanity
of any bird, with the possible exceptions of chickens
and ostriches, in the hands of a good pilot the machine
can feel very dream-like. Imagine a roller-coaster without
rails or a vast, gimballed merry-go-round sent spinning
into the sky. The possible sensations are myriad. But
the one great gift of ultralight flight, the thing
that leaves its indelible imprint persisting in the scrapbook
of your memory, is the immediacy and intimate nature of
the view when you find yourself hung high in the air without
an insulating bulkhead or porthole between you and a panorama.
along the beach.
The essence of any revelation lies in perception. When
one can invert the tunnel vision of life and face the
wide end of the perceptual funnel, the sudden loss of
reference leaves you breathless. At the same time, a wild
laugh tears from your throat because you realize you've
spent a lifetime pressing your eye to clefts and cracks
and now, with a few ounces of gasoline, a hank of fabric
and a propeller, the universe has become your peep-hole.
This broadening of vision brings with it another benefit,
and it is perhaps the principal reason someone would want
to become a pilot: there are no personal problems in the
sky (outside of unforeseen circumstances which might prevent
one from remaining there for the alotted time of the flight).
For some reason rising above the landscape also lifts
you above its earthly worries. If only for twenty minutes
or a half hour, a greater perspective collapses the props
of your personal calamities. The expression 'free as
a bird' suddenly applies to something more than just
physical emancipation. The mind and spirit are eager to
soar as well. On that autumn day the sky was slightly
overcast, but this didn't detract in the least from the
experience. It was my first time in an ultra-lite. The
whole world looked marvelous.
After a few passes over Pete's Camp I took out my camera
but soon begrudged the thing because of its tiny view-finder.
It seemed sacrilegious to turn away from the funnel's
wide end to fuss my eye against another belittling peephole.
After a few shots I put it away and enjoyed the ride.
We climbed to five or six hundred feet then banked into
a right turn. The pilot cut the throttle and pulled back
on his chin-up bar. We fell into a dive. He leveled her
out just above the beach, gave it some gas and we followed
the shore line no more than six or eight feet above the
waves. I tapped the pilot on the shoulder and jerked my
thumb skyward. He nodded and we began to climb again.
Not that it wasn't fun skimming the beach, but if I had
wanted to spend some time six or eight feet off the ground
I would have just stood on a chair . He took the plane
up to match-box perspective and Pete's Camp now looked
like a jot of geometry on the edge of a vast wasteland
of sand and scrub brush.
Twenty minutes spent wheeling in the sky is an odd mixture
of eternity and brevity. It seemed all too soon when the
pilot brought her down and lined her up for his landing
approach. The touchdown was suprisingly clean even though
we had a bit of a cross-breeze. And then the Buddy Rich
concert along the road to his trailer.
When he thumbed the kill switch the engine stopped and
the sudden quiet was a little startling. It was a strange
silence, tainted by the memory of sound. Much like a ghost
limb wanting to continue its career in the absence of
flesh and bone. My nerves continued to hum the horsepower
of technology's version of flight for at least an hour
after relinquishing the sky to the birds again.
Being a passenger in an ultralight may not be to everybody's
taste. Certainly there are those who would want guarantees,
assurances and security. Well, that's what the public
transit systems are all about. But if you've always had
a bred-in-the-bone need to shake the cage of your personal
perspective and enjoy erasing boundaries, then I highly
recommend it. A ride in an ultralight is just what the
name suggests: an attempt to send the senses flying with
the least amount of attendant baggage. It won't make an
angel out of you, but you'll perhaps enjoy an angel's
perspective, if only for a little while.