June – November 2001
This is a brief description of my flirtation with flying trikes.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a “trike” is actually a powered hang-glider. The wing looks very similar to a hang-glider wing, but hanging beneath the wing is what some call a chariot, or pod, which has three-wheels, thus the name trike (for tricycle). As for the “powered” part, there is an engine (usually about 50 hp or so) hanging off the back, driving it forward.
At the outset of my ultralight training, I had the idea that a trike is much smaller and more portable than a fixed-wing ultralight — I had an out-sized interest in portability — so I set my mind on eventually acquiring a trike. I knew the range of an ultralight was pretty small, so having a transportable ultralight (the trike) would mean I could trailer it with me on a trip to, say, Big Bend National Park, then unfurl it and fly it around that area. This would extend the effective range of my flying. So, to me, a transportable ultralight was highly desirable.
But since most trikes were a little beyond my financial range at that moment, I went ahead and acquired a Quicksilver MXL ultralight, and had tons o’ fun flying it around.
Getting a trike, though, was still in the back of my mind. I spent lots of time studying all the different makes and models, trying to find the one that would satisfy all my criteria. What I ended up deciding on was a Rossi. Then it was a matter of saving up the $$$, and finding a good used one for sale.
The day came, finally, and one was found locally, which was all the better. The owner also provided me with about 10 hours of lessons in his 2-seat Airborne trike. The Airborne was setup for dual controls, and had a much larger wing — which meant it easy to fly and more stable, but slower.
The Rossi is a “1+1”, which means it normally carries one person, but you could carry another person for only a short distance/time; that second seat isn’t very comfortable. It certainly isn’t set up for dual controls or training of any sort. After the lessons at Skyhaven, I sold my beloved Quicksilver to my brother and solo’d my Rossi.
Now, there’s no doubt the Rossi is cool. It’s an Italian design and I found myself often waxing poetic about it, comparing it with a Ferrari. Not only was it sleek, but it was fast for a trike!
It came with a Rotax 503 engine, which was a lot more power than it needed. It climbed like you were in an elevator, and because of the intake and exhaust silencers, you could literally fly without needing ear protection. The Arplast 3-blade composite prop was as elite as they come, providing lots of thrust with little noise.
The Rossi had a DigiFly instrumentation package, which was a flat-panel LCD display, showing a represenation of analog instruments, both for the engine and for navigation. It fit nicely between the legs, and contained more “gauges” that you could possibly fit on the panel.
Then to top it all off (literally) was the Pegasus Bandit wing, which, being small, made it fast, and being two-sided, made it smooth. The stabilizing tail to the wing made for very smooth and steady tracking during turns. And the wing even had a sort of trim-tab arrangement, worked by a wheel that pulled on wires that adjusted the trailing edge of the wing.
By this point, you’re probably saying “Wow! That’s one terrific flying machine! But… wait… if it’s so terrific, why aren’t you still flying it?”
The Rossi certainly seemed to be everything I wanted. The breakdown of the wing was something I never got good at, but I would have improved over time and gotten it down to probably no more than 1 hour. The chariot (or pod) was certainly small and putting it on a small trailer would have been no problem. So, it was portable, it was fast, it was certainly good looking, and it had a great instrument package.
What more could you want?
Well, there were several issues…
When I solo’d my Rossi, I had a lot of problems lining it up for the approach. Once lined up with the runway, the descent was sudden, as you pull the bar almost all the way in, and the trike drops very quickly and at a steep angle. Just as you approach the ground, you ease the bar out smoothly but quickly to flare. If you do it right, you flare just above the ground, then ease it down to touchdown. My solo landing was, well, scary. Despite having done it many times during my lessons, I seemed to have lost the touch when I solo’d.
I didn’t crash, and I didn’t even land hard, but it was a scary moment for me.
Shortly after my solo, I had a chance to get some additional training from a world-class expert, Mike Huckle, out in California (July 2001). I had one lesson where I concentrated on lining up for the approach, and Mike totally cured me of those problems. (Yes, I can highly recommend him as an instructor!)
After I returned from California, I was all set and felt much more confident with my approaches and landing. I was getting quite good at those and never again had any problem landing.
But landing is only one element of flying.
One of the things I learned with my Quicksilver was, when learning to fly it, smooth, calm air was best. As you built up time, you could ease into more and more turbulent air. After a while, the bumps from thermals and such stopped bothering you as you gained confidence in the machine as well as in your own abilities. But, even after all the training, and some of my own solo flying, I was still leary of my Rossi, as it didn’t seem to “bite” into the air as solidly as a 3-axis fixed wing plane. (Yeah, that’s pretty vague, but I can’t explain it better.)
There were also a few issues with “opposite” controls — something that occurs when a 3-axis fixed-wing pilot converts over to a trike. For example, turning left in a 3-axis involves pushing the control stick to the left. But in a trike, you push the control bar to the right. To go up in a 3-axis, you pull back on the stick; in a trike, you push the control bar forward. Even on the ground it was opposite: in a 3-axis, you press on the right rudder pedal (most planes) and you go right; in a trike, you’d go left. But I actually handled these failry well and I considered them to be minor and didn’t play a big part in my “troubles.”
Now, at about the point I returned from California and got my approaches and landings squared away, I decided to move the trike from the hangar where my instructor was (at Skyhaven Airport) to my home hanger at Bailes Airport.
My brother Jim flew the Quicksilver from Bailes to Skyhaven, and we were then going to fly back to Bailes together. But it didn’t quite work out that way.
He arrived at Skyhaven safely, happy to have just finished his longest cross-country trip yet (Bailes to Skyhaven, about 70 miles).
Now he was going to turn around and do it again, so he was pumped! We refueled the Quicksilver and got ready to go. Since the Rossi was faster than the Quicksilver, we decided to let him take off first, and I’d follow shortly after and catch up.
About 2 minutes after he departed, I too screamed down the runway for takeoff. At about 100 feet AGL, my wing — suddenly and dramatically — seemed to lose all “bite” and literally fell about 20 feet through the air. This very sudden lack of lift just as quickly disappeared, and I was once again flying. But the confidence I had slowly built up over the past months had just been shattered. I was thoroughly shaken and my mind was racing with “what happened? what was wrong? will it happen again?” and so on.
So here I was, totally without any confidence in my craft, circling the field. I decided that gaining altitude was probably a good thing and I quickly climbed to about 1200 feet. I was still circling the field as I wanted to be able to land quickly if something else happened. I was now ultra-sensitive to every tiny bump, the smallest change in the wing, the least little difference in sound from the engine. I was, frankly, terrified.
Somewhere out there was my brother, and although I scanned the skies for him, I could not see him. Finally, after circling the field for about 10 minutes, I decided that the trike was okay and that I should continue on. I slowly came to the conclusion that I must have flown through the propwash of my brother’s Quicksilver, causing severe, but only momentary, turbulence. While intellectually, this seemed reasonable, my emotional state was still in shambles, my confidence still at an all-time low.
I climbed as high as the Houston Class B wedding cake would allow, and thankfully found some smooth air. Once out from under the Class B, I climbed even higher, searching for that calm air. Above the clouds, it was very smooth… I even had enough presence of mind to take shot of the San Jacinto Monument, and — as I got higher — a picture of the clouds!
As I approached Bailes, I knew that I’d have to descend through the bumpier layers of air to land, so I braced myself for it, gritted my teeth, and did what I needed to do. The landing was uneventful, and my brother — glad to see me since he had lost track of me, too — and I stood together for this picture. You’ll notice that I’m not exactly smiling.
Later, I did feel a little better about the remainder of the flight, but my confidence was still very low. I decided to only fly in smooth air for a while. In subsequent weeks, despite my happier demeanor, I was still not having fun.
While the Rossi, in smooth air, was a dream to fly, and tracked very well, I still couldn’t stand that first little bump, the first wing waver, the first onset of a burble in the air. It’s hard to be happy and have fun when you’re also a bundle of nerves.
My best two moments came when my brother and I flew to Alvin, and I landed just fine on their shortest runway…
…and my trip out to San Luis Pass, a memorable flight because the air was so calm that it was like skating on smooth ice.
But I soon realized that, with just a few exceptions, I was simply not having fun flying this trike. I found myself longing for the sureness of 3-axis control, of a rigid wing, of what I had come to term, “normal flight.” I knew at that point I had to sell it and find another plane — a 3-axis fixed-wing plane — to fly.
My plans for a transportable ultralight went down the tubes. Although I had considered a Kolb — it’s wings easily fold, making trailering very viable — I couldn’t find one close by for sale. One of the local pilots received notice that his job was moving overseas, and had to quickly sell his RANS S12-XL, so I took a look. Eventually I bought it, and I’ve been quite happy with it, flying in all kinds of bumpy air with no worries.
But I’ll never forget my Rossi… it was ultra-cool in almost every way.
Postscript: In retrospect, it gradually became clear to me that the Rossi is not a trike for a beginning trike flyer. I never had a problem flying trikes that had large wings, and the small wing trikes are something you move up to after you’ve got 40-100 hours in the beginner trikes. So, if you’re in the market for a trike, don’t be seduced by the Rossi sirens of glamour and power… they are best left to those experienced trike pilots that have earned the confidence it demands.
Although it is true that I had a somewhat bad experience, I don’t intend for this story to actually discourage anyone from exploring the world of trikes. I am just trying to emphasize that going slower, using a large wing, and getting lots of experience is the way to go… don’t do it the way I did it.