“Powered, ultralight, weight-shift control aircraft” is a bit of a mouthful to say, which is probably why the guys that fly them just call them air trikes. Well, at least they do in the United States. Europeans and Australians refer to them as microlights.
If you were to describe a trike as a lawn chair dangling from a hang glider wing with a two-stroke engine stuck to the back, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. As crazy, even dangerous, as that may sound, there’s a perfectly good reason to fly them, says one of America’s top trike flyers, Larry Mednick. “Trikes are one of the most fun things you can fly,” says the 39-year-old president of Evolution Trikes in Zephyrhills, Florida. “Basically it’s like flying a motorcycle. The way it moves through the air is very different from the way an airplane moves through the air. It’s very different. I fell in love with it right away.”
Most trike pilots, Mednick included, are also fixed-wing pilots, but they choose to fly trikes for the sheer fun of it.
Mednick compares being suspended from the wing of a trike to sitting in the swing ride at the fair. In turbulent air you move like a pendulum, as opposed to being rocked and jarred around like in a fixed-wing airplane. And the seat is not enclosed, connecting the pilot with the experience of flying in a direct way that most conventional aircraft can’t match.
Not only are trikes fun to fly, they also look pretty cool. Evolution Trikes deals in Revo brand trikes, which have a sleek composite body and an avionics suite. The look and feel of these aircraft have made them extremely popular in Europe and Australia, where, according to Mednick, they are beginning to outnumber fixed-wing aircraft at some airports. Here in the United States, he says interest in microlights seems to be stagnant—strange, considering that the vehicles were invented here.
The origin of trikes dates to the early 1960s, when NASA developed the Parasev 1, which was basically an air trike without the engine. At the time, the space agency was looking for something that could provide a controlled descent to the ground for Gemini capsules.
“[Americans] invented the trike,” says Mednick, but then “hang gliding got bigger and bigger in the ’70s, and it was Europe that started producing and manufacturing these trikes. It just kinda went dormant in the U.S. until about the ’90s. That’s the first time you see the Americans get involved again in manufacturing any kind of trike.”
One reason trikes have been slower to catch on in the States may be the expense. The apparent simplicity of the design can mislead newcomers into thinking they’re cheap, but “Trikes, as a whole, are not necessarily more economical than a fixed-wing ultralight,” says Mednick. (The Revos his company sells start at $66,500.) “One of the things that makes trikes not the cheapest thing in the world is the fact that the leading edges (the front portion of the wing) have a cycle time, which means the frame is only good for 1,500 hours, and the fact that they’re made out of Dacron. Some are made out of different types of plastic materials. They’re not very UV [ultraviolet light] resistant, so that means the sails are only good for 1,500 hours. The Revo wing is an $11,000 wing, and it needs to be replaced every 1,500 hours.”
Trikes aren’t inherently more dangerous than any other aircraft, but the type of people attracted to them may have a tendency to fly recklessly. “Guys like to fly it like a fighter jet,” says Mednick. “It’s the way people fly them that makes them dangerous. People horseplay in them, flying low and around trees.”
Here’s Mednick demonstrating how to fly “low and fast”:
Flight instruction in a trike also is a bit tricky. The tandem seating arrangement, and the fact that the trike is controlled by a single bar shared by both pilots, adds risk.
“The guy in the front seat (normally the student) has a 2-1 leverage advantage,” says Mednick. “So if they really want to, they can fight you [for the controls]. Unfortunately, when there’s a panic, it’s usually when you’re near the ground. I had a student put me into the ground.”
The silver lining for flight instructors is that, due to this added risk, flight instruction is more expensive in a trike than in a Cessna, and the relatively small number of flight instructors in the U.S. means that they can make up to six figures a year.
Despite the hurdles, Mednick sees interest in trikes starting to pick up, particularly as the recession wanes. And for those worried about safety, trike pilots have a standard reply: They’re still statistically safer than riding a motorcycle.
Charles Boxell is a senior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University studying Communication, International Relations, and Humanities. He holds a single- and multi-engine private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.