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An FAA First

by Rob McKenzie

The sport of hang gliding in the 70's and into the early 80's had essentially non compliance of the FAR's. This was because with the birth of the sport being so close to the ground with it's small hill groundskimming, it was difficult to think of these craft as part of the general aviation industry needing licensing etc. As the gliders began to become powered increasing their weight and range and with the non powered flights getting higher and farther the FAA introduced a new PART into the regulations.

In the fall of '82, FAR PART 103 was introduced and regulations for what we call "hang gliders" and what they call "ultralight aircraft" came into effect. For the most part, the regulations in PART 103 were very liberal and allowed freedom to operate in an unregulated and unlicensed way. The obvious... no flying into busy airports and no flying at night was an example of the type of restrictions we received, but right up front in the definition of what is entitled to be considered an "ultralight" is the limitation of being single occupant. In other words, you can't operate as an ultraight if you are flying tandem.

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So now, all of the hang gliding community had been provided a legal "place" in the aviation community except the tandem hang gliding operations. Inquiring with a local FAA office it became apparent that one could either apply for an exemption to the single occupant requirement or actually register the tandem hang glider as a "two seater glider" and get a glider pilot license through the FAA.

The exemption was applied for and ignored. With no other option, a Raven 229 hang glider was registered and I started the process of getting a license. The license I would be getting is usually earned in a sailplane with either aerotows behind an airplane or ground towing behind a car.

Photo of the glider registered as a 2-place Experimental Glider. Note... the N-Numbers on the keel pocket.

It made more sense to do my flight test in the aircraft I would be flying and also to do it tandem in order to give the testing procedure more validity.

What follows is the FAA inspector's account of my flight test.

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An FAA First/ R.C. Morton

It was one of those warm, hazy Southern California days, not unlike most summer days in the Los Angeles basin; but for me, this day was going to be definitely unlike other days. I was standing at the ridge near Crestline, just off Sky Line Drive. My applicant, Robert McKenzie, was assembling his Raven 229 hang glider nearby, which he recently had certificated as an experimental aircraft in the glider category. Why was I here? As a General Aviation Operations Inspector, every flight check I had ever administered before started and ended at an airport. But this one was going to start with a step off the ridge and terminate at a place called Pine Crest Air Park, several miles away and several thousand feet below. Pine Crest is a local landing area for hang glider pilots in the area; at least I hoped that's where this flight was going to end.

My applicant, Robert McKenzie, had been flying hang gliders most of his adult life. He had accumulated more than 800 hours of flying time. He had been giving instruction in this two place hang glider until the FAA passed FAR 103, which made it contrary to the regulation to operate the aircraft with more than a single seat and for other than recreational purposes. So, Robert elected to certificate his hang glider as experimental and to become a licensed pilot through the normal certification processes of FAR 61. This he was attempting to accomplish, and today was the moment of truth for him and for me. For me, it was the moment of truth because I had never before been in a hang glider, nor had I thought I ever would be. I wasn't sure whether my administering the flight test was a sanction or a priviledge for me as I looked downward to the floor of the LA basin, 4000 feet below the ridge.

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Technically, this hang glider had single controls, which left open the option to observe from the ground the required maneuvers, and for several weeks prior to the scheduled day of the check ride, I vacillated between observing it from the ground or actually flying in it (in this case hanging beneath it). I think what made up my mind was when, several days before I was listening to a well known psychologist, writer, and public speaker, Leo Buscaglia, give a talk about how most of us let our fears prevent us from doing what we would really like to do, and that life is only once and we should take advantage of any new experiences offered. I knew this was a perfect example of his point. I really did want to do it but it was fear that was holding me back. I decided at that point "to go for it".

And so, with some instruction from my applicant on how to get in and out of the harness and on what I should do during the launch and landing, the moment of truth was close. I stuffed the Flight Test Guide in my shirt pocket and told Robert I was ready when he was. We made several trial runs towards the jump off point so Robert could be assured that I could run in unison with him and we were ready.

It seemed that what I had been fearing for weeks ended in about three seconds, as soon as I felt the lift from the wings, and we were over the edge and flying, I knew why so many people did this. Most of my nervous apprehension left as we began a series of turns, stalls, spirals and climbs in rising currents of air. At one point we were maintaining our position in a thermal while two hawks circled with us. They gave us little indication of fear or concern. It was more of an acceptance of us as a fellow comrade of the air. The visibility and view was awesome and I felt truly a part of the sky.

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After Robert completed the required maneuvers in the flight test guide, he asked me if I would like to fly it. I did, and I then experienced my first control of a flying machine simply by weight shift. It was challenging, but I could tell with practice it was a very workable system. As a matter of fact, I felt it was surprisingly natural. It was sort of like riding a bicycle; lean left and go left, lean right and go right, lean forward and go fast, and lean back and go slow.

After 35 minutes in the air, the rather poor soaring conditions this day deemed it necessary for us to head directly to Pine Crest for our landing. I was, by this time, actually quite glad because, for the first time in over 4000 flying hours in all different kinds of aircraft in all kinds of different weather conditions, I was getting air sick.

I figured it must have been because of the very tight turning radius these aircraft have and because of the frequent feeling of weightlessness when encountering turbulence in an aircraft of such a light wing loading.

My anxiety increased somewhat as we approached our landing spot. Robert had hoped for a 10 to 15 mile per hour wind for the landing, but the wind sock indicated it was dead calm. That would mean we would contact the ground faster and, therefore, increase the chance of stumbling or falling while trying to run suddenly at the correct speed as we contacted terra firma. Actually, it turned out to be an extremely easy touchdown with no apparent problems. Robert had landed well within the required distance mandated by the flight test guide and we stopped moving within about 5 running steps. It was over and it took about 15 minutes before I could really begin to appreciate my experience, as my stomach settled down.

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And so, on August 23, 1983, Robert McKenzie became the first pilot to receive a private pilot certificate for gliders in a certificated hang glider and I was almost positive I was the first FAA Inspector to administer such a flight check. From the reaction of the local hang glider pilots who witnessed this event at Pine Crest, much was accomplished. I'm sure their viewpoint of the FAA changed. I received back slaps, smiles, and hand shakes of congratulations for my display of trust and confidence of the equipment and pilots involved in this sport. The biggest smile, and the firmest hand shake came, of course, from Robert McKenzie as he was presented with his new private pilot certificate for gliders.

Later that night, at home, I must have made a dozen telephone calls to family and friends, to share with them the excitement and enthusiasm of my experience. It was truly a first for me and the FAA, and I can hardly wait for Robert to be prepared to take his commercial flight check so I can take that second step off the edge.

2 months after RC Morton issued the flight test his superiors wrote me a letter demanding I surrender my license followed by my refusal to comply and a year later they dropped that matter. Here is the text of the correspondence.
Initial letter from the FAA
Rob's response
The FAA's response a year later