Monday, 24 January 2011

You say flex wing...I say fixed wing...

Visitors to the airfield often say to me, 'I want to learn to fly a microlight'. I'll say ...'one of these?' pointed at the C2 (featured above) which resides outside our office. 'No, no', they'll reply. 'A microlight'.

A novice can be forgiven for imagining that the term microlight refers to flex wing planes - with an open cockpit and a wing developed from a hang glider wing, they do indeed look like a completely different kettle of fish to a Cessna or Piper. But the term microlight refers to any plane that is under a maximum total weight of 450kg, and designed for no more than two people.

There are two types of microlight - fixed wing, (also known as a three-axis, or an ultralight), or flex wing (sometimes called a weight-shift, or trike). In a fixed wing, the controls are the same as with conventional planes, where the pilot controls direction through the use of ailerons and rudder, and airspeed with the elevator. A flex wing is basically a beefy hang glider wing with a trike unit underneath. It is controlled in a similar way to a hang glider, using weight shift - the pilot maneuvers the craft around it's hang point, ie where the wing is joined to the trike unit.

So, what are the pros and cons of each? The fixed wing microlight has the feel of a conventional aircraft, although because of its weight it tend to be much zippier. It is less physically demanding to fly than a flex wing, and it can be more comfortable both for pilot and passenger. The flex wing however, offers that 'wind in your hair' feeling, and because of the open cockpit, it probably has the best all round visibility of any powered aircraft. Many people describe it as the difference between driving a sports car and a motorbike. Both are fun, but they have a different appeal.

The other key difference is how the weather effects flying. The fixed wing is a little more resilient in windy or rainy conditions. Unsurprisingly, it is significantly warmer! Flying flex wing during the winter is not for the faint hearted, although if you wrap up warm, and plug in your electrically heated clothing, then sunny, still winter days can be a real joy.

And of course, price is a key factor when choosing to learn to fly or buy a plane. Flex wings on average are much more affordable than fixed wing.

So, best thing to do if you are not sure is take a trial flight in both.

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