Monday, October 5, 2009

Track 12

“Track 12”

By James Wiebe, CEO

Belite Aircraft

© 2009 James Wiebe

For reprint rights, contact the author:

James ‘at’ (that’s ‘@’)

Chapter 1: Scrubbing a flight

I stare at the concrete ramp in dismay. There is a leak by the quick drain on the tank. Every 5 seconds, another drop hits the concrete, a steady drip, coming from the general area of the quick drain on the fuel tank. The day’s flight is scrubbed. The tank needs repair.

I could swap the tank for another, I have two more back at the shop. But those tanks either have no fuel sender installed (the device which determines the quantity of fuel), or their fuel sender is not compatible with the one installed in the panel of this particular plane. In other words, I’d be flying blind on fuel consumption, and I’m not eager to do that.

Been there, done that, it shouldn’t happen, but I’m cautious. So the flight is definitely scrubbed.

Chapter 2: Flint Hills, again

My mind wanders as I drive on I35 towards Emporia KS, to a fly in at the Emporia airport. The grass in the hills remains luscious and green even though the season is late September; the valleys that are within the hills fall into the distance, and the turnpike wanders around through it all. I see cattle, many ponds, and the crest of hills and fade of valleys. Even though the elevation gain and loss from the Kansas ‘flint hills’ is not large, the majesty and mystery of what I see in these hills makes me feel awed.

While driving, I consider a recent email I received from a potential dealer for our Part 103 ultralight, the Belite 254:

“My first ultralight was an eye opener! Training and reliability was a joke. If I wasn't already an experienced pilot (and pretty good at that time), I would have never survived. Several years ago, when I jumped back into the FAR par 103 ultralight word, much progress had been made. My new bird was incredible in many ways but still elementary in others.

One of the things I never could accept was the attitude of the management at the company I bought it from. This merits some explanation but please understand it is merely the opinion of one person, perhaps not the majority of their dealers.

The factory never showed any genuine interest or trust in their dealers. To even get a plant tour or basic product information took major effort on the part of the dealer... it was almost as if you were considered an outsider or even an industrial spy. No training or indoctrination was available from the factory. Even worse, they didn't even try to encourage dealer interaction.... we didn't have a clue who covered various areas or who to refer customers to other than the factory. Bottom line is this. It is impossible to take pride in something and work to continually improve when there is no team spirit or leadership from the company brass. Frankly, I have never experienced anything like it unless they were trying to fail.

Now that’s an honest email!

He’s describing one of the many bruises that the FAR 103 ultralight industry has taken over the last 3 decades. Manufacturers who fell into the role of being manufacturers, not because they planned and managed, but because they had a nice design, and regular guys said they wanted to buy it.

Obliging young businessman providing new ultralights to eager customers. Seems easy, correct, natural, right?

I’d been there, in my first major company, Newer Technology. I was young, the company had a hot product, we didn’t have a clue how to produce or build it reliably in high volume. We ended up taking more than 25,000 orders for a $200 product, thus selling the product at a pricepoint that could not reasonably be expected to earn us any money, and then we delayed product shipments for 6 months, just to make sure the customer base appreciated our incompetence.

We were incompetent. OK, maybe not all of us, maybe not everyday, but we blew it on the big decisions. I learned lessons, I changed as a result.

Newer Technology was occasionally called ‘Never’ Technology, and we deserved the unfriendly moniker. We ended pissing off our dealers and sales representatives. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Bankruptcy and failure. I like to describe the Newer period of my business career as how I obtained my ‘Masters of Business Administration’ degree, the hard way.

(Read more on Newer, written by my friend Roger Kasten: )

Chapter 3: Two cell phone towers

I’m still driving down the turnpike, and I see two cell phone towers. They are, in fact, the same two cell towers I had spotted from a distance several weeks ago, when my plane and I spent an eventful afternoon broken down.

This time, I’m seeing them from close up. They had provided the cell phone link which was my lifeline.

Back to reflections from the email:

“Aviation is an inherently risky venture, especially if you are not always working hard to do the correct thing and establish the right attitudes and habits. It is almost like the FAR Part 103 ultralight community knowingly sweeps mistakes and problems under the carpet (probably for liability reasons) rather than being open and above board to discover weaknesses such that they can be addressed intelligently. Even the FAA seems complicit in this regard with their hands off approach (especially in ultralights) even when they have reason to know negative trends exist in certain product lines. Getting valid information regarding accidents is especially hard to come by since many problems are simply not reported and are not appropriately investigated by trained personnel. Consequently, mum is the word so as not to hurt the reputation of anyone involved. Meanwhile, problems do not get addressed on a timely basis.

OK, I’ll think about FAR Part 103 accidents for a few minutes. No one is publicly talking about or reporting ultralight incidents or accidents (with my little flint hills experience apparently a rare exception) and no one in the FAA is paying attention. Really! No one is paying attention.

At Oshkosh a few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk with someone at the FAA who used to be in charge of a lot of FAR Part 103 paperwork. He said he’d see an application cross his desk every couple of days. This was years ago; eons ago. I asked him who or how many now in the FAA tracked Part 103 aircraft these days. Nada, Zilch. No one. He told me that the FAA doesn’t have anyone working on Part 103 issues. “That would be a Flight Standards issue… he says”. In fact, this FAA employee flies ultralights, and he’s hunting our booth, trying to find help getting some struts for his bird. I try and help him.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make any sound?

If an ultralight falls out of the air, does any part of the industry or government really care?


No, not really. No one cares.

When I started Belite, I bought a used Kitfox Lite ultralight, to help me figure out how to build a Belite.

That bird had its fair share of safety and regulatory issues: A) one of the rod end bearings had a serious bend, with the resulting upcoming failure certain to cause a loss of control. B) the engine reduction bearing block had six bolts, of which four were cracked and lying in a cavity in an engine casting. C) it was 40 pounds over legal flying weight. I considered how to publicize the first two problems to the community; I knew that plane had been flown regularly, but with neglected maintenance. ( As for the third point, the story of the weight reduction was the cover story for the September issue of Sport Pilot.)

Other anecdotes about old ultralights float through my mind. Thousands of planes with worn out sails; old engines, bad engines, coats of dust, no upkeep, mice living in the rear of the pilot’s seat, under the cracked fiberglass chair. Most of these old ultralight aircraft will never fly again.

Last weekend, I spoke with a gentleman who had a couple of ultralights, one needing repair before flight. He called the manufacturer, and was told to take a hacksaw to his plane and cut it up. (They were only partly serious; the parts he needed were available – with shipping costing more than the parts. He asked if that was because they wanted him to buy a new plane, and they said yes. Fair deal.)

Chapter 4: the Emporia fly in

I arrive at the Emporia airport. To my delight, another of my friends, Craig Sooter, is there. We exchange greetings; he has to leave almost immediately. (Craig took the photo of the Belite 254 CF which ended up on the cover of Sport Pilot magazine; he was in a Cessna 172 chasing my Belite. How he got slow enough to take photos is a story for another time…)

I head inside the hangar, and I find even more friends. Terry Alley is there, along with another friend, Paul Fiebich. Paul flew to Emporia in his Airbike, and Terry flew in his Kitfox Lite. The weather is perfect; very light winds; lots of sunshine. The temperature is in the 70’s, the pancakes, coffee and orange juice are less than four bucks. A nice lady take my money, and I join Terry and Paul over at a table. Terry’s $100 breakfast probably cost less than $20, roundtrip, including breakfast and gas.

I am disappointed by the turnout. I see maybe 70 or 80 people, along with maybe 3 dozen planes on the ramp. A group of powered paragliders are clumped together on the grass. All sport ‘for sale’ signs on them. Prices range from below $10K to $18K or $19K. I see ‘make offer’ signs posted as well. I am surprised that on such a beautiful day, the proprietor has chosen not to fly his inventory. None of the paragliders are moving. In fact, they look like they are huddled together, a little discouraged, talking about flying tales from 2 or 3 years ago.

A few more words from the email provide a counterpoint to the low crowd count:

“The ultralight crowd is usually a gregarious bunch of people with social ties. This should be encouraged and exploited in my opinion. Birds of a feather flock together so it makes sense to go with the flow rather than ignore the natural tendency. This can be done intelligently with training and skill building in mind (RV get togethers come to mind) rather than mindless partying and unstructured interactions. This can be a unique opportunity to differentiate one company from its less creative competition (RANS seems to work this angle well).

That seems obvious, I agree.

Musing to myself: In the last few days, I had the opportunity to walk around several private airstrips. I feel privileged. All are grass; one is a glider port, another is a strip mowed out of a hayfield, and the third is an airpark. The runway at that one is gorgeous, with manicured grass, generously wide active runway, homes on both sides, and a hayfield off the departure end of the runway. Power out on takeoff?? No problem… just coast into the next field. I see an older gentleman who is working on his airplane collection. At this level, aviation is clearly vibrant and alive!

I was oblivious to all of these hidden airport places, before I started flying ultralight Part 103. Each has a story to tell, each has some community. One of these places is a glider port, and it hides a couple of very small businesses; it has an individual building and selling helicopters, another restoring classic sailplanes, sailplane instruction, a dozen ore more sailplanes in storage trailers, and more.

Someone from the glider club is always at the local airshow, handing out brochures, encouraging rides, and generally talking up the joy of sailplanes.

I landed a new Belite there a few days ago. The A&P was working on the helicopter. He came out and looked at my very competent little plane, and so do several other folks. Everyone seems delighted. He notices a loose jam nut on a rod end bearing and scurries off to grab a wrench. A moment later, the problem is fixed.

Chapter 5: Track 12

On the drive back from Emporia, I’m playing my CD player; I like a couple of the tracks that I like and play them over and over. One is Track 12. It grabs my attention. It talks about ‘having a long long way to fall’.

No, I’m not musing about falling out of an airplane.

I am musing about how the ultralight aircraft industry had done so well, and is now doing so poorly.

I talked with one of my vendors. He recalled better days for Part 103, when volumes of aircraft sold were hundreds or even thousands of units. He mentions having supplied parts to one company in volumes to support 2,500 aircraft sales. I am pretty impressed. My sales goal for 2010 is a tiny fraction of that number.

Why so poorly now?

Quick observations:

1) Products were priced below the cost of production. Of course the product was a bargain – the vendor had agreed to ship dollars with each airplane. He just didn’t know it at the time, nor did the purchaser. The purchaser thought he got a great, but fair deal. A year or two later, the seller and his accountant determined the error in selling price (too low).

2) Factory support and dealer networks were abysmal.

3) The product killed a lot of customers.

4) Maybe, just maybe, the fact that you don’t need a pilot’s license is not a good thing. I talk this over with Kathy, my wife, and she agrees. We shouldn’t sell our aircraft to people who don’t have minimum training, and we’ve just concluded that means you should have a license. (But we’re eager to sell aircraft to folks who’ve lost medicals – we can put a grounded pilot back in the sky, legally, even with a denied medical, and with no rationale reason not to fly again.)

Even more from the email:

“Professionalism and competency seems to be inconsistent or totally lacking in much of the ultralight community. Many of the people I worked with didn't have a clue how to work on essential components of their aircraft. This should have been a major source of concern but to my amazement it didn't seem to be an issue. If I were trying to stake a claim in this arena, I would give this some serious thought and use it to differentiate my company from the others. It may help justify higher price points and highlight quality and performance issues without using high pressure sales tactics. Simply put, it is hard to promote the joy of flying (in your brand) when your customers are dropping like flies. Or put another way, I'd rather have a business plan based on thoroughness, quality & safety than one of low price and minimum involvement.

I realize I have some additional insight into the coma that Part 103 finds itself in.

I happen to own a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA): a delightful Flight Design CTLS.

I haven’t flown it in four months.

Chapter 6: Part 103 as a counterpoint to Light Sport Aircraft (LSA?)

LSA were supposed to make it possible for everyone and all to fly in cheap aircraft. These aircraft were supposed to provide performance superior to a Skyhawk, on half the fuel burn, and also with one-fourth the price point. All we had to do was agree to a modest performance limitation (120Kts) and two folks on board. No problem, right? This was supposed to be the end of Part 103.

Except a funny thing happened: LSAs ended up costing 75% of a Skyhawk (mine was nearly $150K) and most all of them sold so far have been high end versions with high end pricetags. The very lowest cost LSA that I’m aware of is $60K, and it’s a stripped ugly thing. (YMMV).

I had lunch with someone at Cessna. He told me what they went through to gather customer feedback on aircraft pricing. Fascinating! Most folks who want to buy new aircraft expect them to be less expensive than what they know they cost to build. Is that surprising, amusing, or both?

This suggests that the pendulum which swung hard towards LSA will swung hard in the opposite direction as the disenchantment grows. For that group, Part 103 remains the best choice.

Chapter 7: Red car

As I approach the turnpike entrance out of Emporia and back towards Wichita, I notice a small red car has pulled into the automated lane for entering the Kansas Turnpike. It’s called the K-Tag lane. They clearly don’t have the electronic tag, and the gate won’t open. I pull in behind them, and my K-Tag sensor causes the gate to open. They drive through, oblivious, and I follow. I wonder what will happen when they get to their turnpike exit, without a K-Tag or a paper turnpike coupon.

I pass them a moment later. I discover that there is a sole occupant, and she is talking non-stop on a cellphone, oblivious to the micro-drama she created at the turnpike entrance. 10 minutes later, she passes me. She is still talking on a cell phone. I really, really want to see what happens when she exits the turnpike somewhere down the road. Unfortunately, she eventually disappears.

The email continues:

“Many ultralights start out with some obvious strikes against them. Their pilots are likely not the most experienced or trained in any aspect of aviation. The aircraft itself may have deficits compared to its heavier brethren. Reliability, crash-worthiness, durability, marginal operating envelopes, low power-to-weight ratios are but a few areas of concern. Somehow all of this needs to be addressed successfully such that the participants can enjoy their passion for flying and live to tell about it. Risky sports abound but that is no excuse to accept loss rates brought on by complacency and ignorance.

Agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed, and more.


I like flying my Belite 254, but this morning, I’m glad I had a fuel drip. Slowed me down to think.

After I return to Wichita, I swap the leaky fuel tank out and fly the bird closer to home base. I fly for a total of 2.3 hours before I call it a day. It is a beautiful day, and I have absolutely total freedom to barnstorm. I am joined by a friend, and we fly formation. He slowly passes me, but I don't feel too bad because I'm flying one of the birds which has just 30HP. In a couple of weeks, I'll have a 45HP version done as well and I will pass him. The skies are beautiful, the cut grass fields are green, and it is a joy to be flying.

James Wiebe