Flying the VW of the Skies.

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.

After your trial flight, you can have up to three hours of instruction with no further commitment necessary. If, after the three hours, you decide to get your pilot's certificate, you must join the HGFA which is a CASA-recognised governing body for trikes. HGFA membership gets you your first log-book, your student pilot certificate, a year's subscription to the HGFA magazine and third party insurance. Additional publications for study will add about $200 but they are all the textbooks required to pass the theory examinations required.

The number of flying-hours needed to get your pilot certificate depends on your own ability, regularity of training and confidence but the minimum time to obtain a weightshift microlight pilot certificate is 20 hours of pilot training. The great thing about trikes is their price. At a cost of around $27,000-75,000 new and with their minimal running-costs, they bring aviation within reach of everyone. Once you 're qualified you can fly anywhere in Australia, provided you remain outside controlled airspace.

A while back, a group of 27 trikes and their owners flew along the east coast of Australia from Sydney to Cape York to raise money for children with cancer, and for several years in the 1990s there was a regular trike safari along the length of the mighty Murray river. The limit is your own imagination.

If you are at all interested in learning to fly or in aviation in general, you'd be crazy not to call the Sydney Microlight Centre Pty Ltd on 0428 420310 for a Trial Introductory Flight (TIF).

You can also give an introductory flight as a gift. Gift vouchers can be purchased for $220. Contact the Centre on the above mobile number for details.

(Since this article was written, ownership of the Sydney Microlight Centre has passed to the new CFI, Ned McIntosh. Trikes themselves have been refined and the latest models are powered by the reliable and economical Rotax 912 four-stroke engine...but the sense of freedom, fun and the joy of flying is still the same!)

Copyright © 2008 Sydney Microlight Centre Pty Ltd (ABN 67 132 461 780)