Flying the VW of the Skies.

(This is an old story by now but I will leave it up on the website until 30 June 2018)

For Keith, a retired engineer from Roselands, trikes are the realisation of a lifelong dream.

Also known as microlights, trikes are those new powered hang gliders which are rapidly becoming the high-tech Volkswagen of the skies.

I met Keith when I went down to Albion Park Aerodrome, an easy hour's drive from Sydney, 20kms south of Wollongong on the F6 Freeway. Keith, 62, had just returned from a training flight with Paul Haines, the Chief Instructor and owner of the Sydney Microlight Centre, Albion Park's trike flight training operation. "I'd always wanted to fly but never had the money or the time." Keith said. "A friend of mine who works for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority recommended the trike because of their great safety record."

Keith's instructor, Paul, is a wiry, friendly character who loves talking flying. This guy has been flying hang gliders since 1976 since the days of the Rogallo wings (like the gliders Bill Moyes used to fly behind boats with) and was a member of the British Hang Gliding National team for many years. He worked as chief sailmaker for two of the leading UK trike and hang glider manufacturers and helped design and test trikes in their early stages of development in 1984. Paul left England for Australia in 1990 for the weather, the beer and the beaches and was one of the first pilots to get his Chief Flying Instructors rating with the Hang Gliding Federation of Australia (HGFA).

Trikes are factory-made to aircraft safety standards and are approved by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority ( CASA). Up close, you can see trikes are simply and solidly-constructed using the latest technology such as self-locking nuts and all engine parts are safety-wired They are easy to fly, speeds are low and some can land in the length of a cricket pitch. Trikes also have an awesome glide-ratio. In the unlikely event of engine-failure they can glide for up to 20 kms from a height of 5000 feet. In certain thermal conditions, they can stay up for hours without power. Another big advantage is that they are fully transportable with a trailer and can be rigged or derigged in just 30 minutes.

"It's affordable aviation." Paul said. "Costs are the lowest in general aviation and their safety record is the best."

After chatting with Keith and his mates in the Albion Park Aerodrome clubhouse, Paul took me on one of his 40-minute introductory flights. Having explained the way the trike flies, Paul and I donned our flying helmets. They were fitted with headphones and mikes which made it easy to talk to each other. We taxied out to the runway and Paul radioed his intentions to take off. He gave the throttle some stick and I was surprised how quiet the engine was.

Paul explained later that at 60 dBa, the Rotax was the quietest aircraft engine in Australia.

I expected a lengthy run to build up enough speed for the take off, especially with those extra Christmas kilos piled around my waist, but what actually happened really took my breath away. After a comfortable trip of about 60 feet on the grass alongside the runway were we suddenly airborne and rocketing skyward at what seemed like a 45 degree angle. As the ground fell away, so did my fears. There was hardly any vibration and the whole flight was very comfortable, even in shirtsleeves.

Paul explained the simple controls of the trike. You simply move the control-bar sideways to turn right or left. Think of leaning the wing to the left to turn left and vice versa. To climb, add more power. To descend, take the power off. The bar moves in the opposite sense to a conventional aircraft joystick, but if you remember that the wing is above you and it's directly connected to the control-bar, there's no problem. At all times the control-bar automatically returns to trim and in the right conditions you hardly even have to hold the bar.

The flight was truly exhilarating and great fun and I was seriously proud of myself for having conquered my fear of flight.

Though the intricacies of advanced aerial manoeuvres, avoiding rough air, landing, and air traffic control laws are all well beyond me, at the end of the flight I was confident I could get my pilot's certificate and that the whole aviation trip was far safer than driving to work.

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