Baby boomers flying high in light aircraft
Lapeer — Six pilot trainees are ready to meet at DuPont-Lapeer Airport for the night’s lesson: aircraft instruments and plane dynamics.
But these trainees tend to have a few more wrinkles than you’d expect.
They are baby boomer pilots, the fastest-growing age group of light-aircraft aviators and Michigan is among the states with the most. The state has more sport-aircraft licenses — including those for powered hang gliders, parachutes and gyrocopters — than all but California, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, according to the General Aviation Manufacturing Association’s 2015 report.
“The pilot base is getting older and a lot of them are baby boomers and they want to keep flying so they are going to sports aircraft,” said Rick Hayes of Hayes Aero in Lapeer.
Nationally, the average age of sport pilots is almost 60, GAMA reported. Forty-three percent are 60 or older, GAMA said, citing Federal Aviation Administration data.
Sport pilots’ requirements are much more lenient than those for piloting other private aircraft, such as small planes. In Michigan, the latest available figures show there are nearly 200 licensed sport and recreational pilots, according to the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association. Sport piloting may be attractive to older people, who fear they cannot pass medical certifications for larger, faster aircraft, because they need only have a driver’s license.
“The good news is people who have medical issues — diabetes or what not — do not have to pass medical certification,” said Steve O’Connor, 41, a pilot since 1998 and an instructor at Lapeer Aviation Flight Training.
And there is another issue.
“It’s harder and harder to get young people involved in sport flying because of the cost. ... If it’s between a single-seat airplane and a boat they can take the family out on, they are going to choose the boat,” said Denny Demeter, president of the Michigan Ultralight Association.
Light-sport aircraft are generally lower cost than bigger aircraft; those classified separately as so-called “ultralights” require even less money and training.
An ultralight has one seat. If unpowered, it weighs less than 155 pounds. Fuel capacity cannot exceed five gallons; the ultralight is incapable of more than 63 mph. The Experimental Aircraft Association estimates it takes only an hour or two to learn to pilot an ultralight; the craft does not need to be registered, nor its pilot license.
As the number of recreational baby boomer pilots grows, so do crash concerns. Fatal crashes involving light-sport aircraft in the United States totaled 40 from 2005 through September 2014, according to Federal Aviation Administration data released in July, plus at least 71 more involving experimental light-sport aircraft the FAA does not actively track. There were 420 non-fatal crashes, the FAA reported.
Michigan-specific totals were not released, but most Michigan crashes are in rural, outstate areas, a review of individual National Transportation Safety Board records shows. Among them:
■In Kent County on Aug. 28, 2014, an unregistered “amateur built” ultralight crashed into trees during takeoff at Lowell City Airport. The pilot, Bryan Bowker, 67, of Edgewood, New Mexico, was killed. He traveled to the area to consider buying the plane.
■In Macomb County on Feb. 4, 2012, Charles Zichchi, 78, was killed when the motorglider he was piloting lost engine power after takeoff. The glider crashed on Wolcott Mill Golf Course, within one mile of Ray Community Airport. Zichchi had a private-pilot certificate with single-engine land airplane and glider ratings. His most recent application for an airman medical certificate was denied. Regulations do not require a person with a light-sport rating to hold a medical certificate.
■In Allegan County on Oct. 6, 2011, Gerald “Jerry” Rinkerhuff, 65, died when his amateur-built plane collided with a nearly 15-foot-tall approach light while landing at Tulip City Airport in Holland. Rinkerhuff of Gobles had made adjustments to the pitch and lateral control of the airplane. “It was determined the pilot had used the wrong template,” the National Transportation Safety Board said.
■Temperatures on Aug. 9 were in the low 70s with clear skies when Scott Headley attempted to land his ultralight aircraft near his home. But a tree was in the approach. Headley’s craft clipped the tree and crashed into his neighbor’s backyard in Ottawa County’s Olive Township. Headley, who is still hospitalized in fair condition, ended up having one of his legs partly amputated.
■The worst Michigan crash in recent years was in Oceana County, captured on a witness video. On Aug. 24, 2012, an experimental powered parachute crashed at Silver Lake State Park, where flags indicated gusty downwinds. The Destiny XLT crashed, nose down. Pilot Henry Austin, 66, and his wife, Carol, both of Shelby, were killed.