James Stanley

My first microlighting experience

Sat 4 May 2024

Today I had my first microlighting lesson with Brad Wagenhauser of Great Western Airsports. I booked it about 6 weeks ago, but it has been cancelled 7 times due to the weather. I was beginning to think it would never happen, but today was the day.

The craft

This is a "Quantum 912". It is a flex-wing microlight (so called because the wing is flexible). Also called a "weight-shift" (because the controls are effected by shifting the centre of mass relative to the wing), or a "2-axis" (because it only has pitch and roll control, no yaw control). "912" refers to the engine, which is a Rotax 912, a flat-four four-stroke, 1211cc.

It looks like it's seen plenty of action, the LCD on the dash suggested it had ran for about 9,300 hours. The standard airspeed of this machine is 65mph, so if it was in the air for those 9,300 hours then it's flown over 600,000 miles. That is further than the moon and back!

The cold

I was advised to wear plenty of upper-body layers. In addition to the shirt and jumper pictured above, I wore a coat and a pair of thick motorcycle gloves, and Brad supplied a fleece-lined "flying suit" to go over it all. Also a helmet. I was surprised how much colder it felt in the air than on the ground. I'm told it gets 3°C colder for every 1000 feet you go up, and we went up to about 3000 feet, plus you have 65mph of wind-chill. My neck and face felt cold when we first got in the air but I quickly warmed up, or stopped noticing it.

The airfield

We flew from Brown Shutters Farm Airfield. There are 2 grass runways and a handful of buildings.

One runway is roughly horizontal in the centre of the picture, and the other (narrower) is approximately perpendicular, with a gravel track running adjacent to it.

It is important to check that you're not going to drive on the runway while someone is taking off or landing.

The flight

The takeoff was much shorter and steeper than I was expecting. My only reference point for what taking off feels like is normal commercial air travel, and the performance of the microlight felt leagues ahead. It doesn't accelerate for nearly as long, because it doesn't need to, but it points upwards much more steeply, even with a much lower airspeed. I was really impressed with the performance. Not that I think we went anywhere near the performance limits. Brad says taking off steeply is not showboating, it's just the safest way, because when you're near the ground you have less time to deal with problems that occur.

A sensible roll angle for turning is apparently 30 degrees. That feels a lot steeper than it sounds! Apparently it is safe to go as far as 60 degrees, but we didn't go anywhere near that.

Since the first "lesson" is really just an "experience flight", I was in the pillion seat. The control bar has some extensions so that the person in the back seat can control the wing, which makes it possible for the person in the back to steer, but it is apparently much easier from the front seat. You can't really rest the weight of your arms on the controls, because that gives a control input, so steering from the back feels a lot like holding your arms up and forwards, unsupported, for extended periods of time, which makes them ache. And that's before you're applying any force, which you're also doing from a mechanically-disadvantaged position.

I found that the control bar required much more force than I expected. I kind of thought it would move around as easily in the air as it did on the ground, but there's a lot more weight behind it when it's in the air.

I also found that the controls were difficult in terms of aiming the machine in the direction you want to go, because it continues to rotate after you've straightened up the bar. There's no positive connection like you have in a car, so the feedback you get from the controls is a lot more vague.

I wasn't scared as such at any point, but I found the flight quite intense at first, much more than I expected. I kept noticing that I was tensing up, and had to consciously try to relax. I felt a lot more comfortable after I'd had a go on the controls. Something about having felt the controls, and knowing that the craft can be controlled, seems to relax the nerves.

I was surprised how much turbulence there was. The turbulence is much worse below the clouds, I think Brad said that is where the "thermals" are. Apparently when you're underneath a cloud you're likely to be in air that is rising, and when you're next to an area underneath a cloud you're likely to be in air that is falling. You get the worst turbulence at the interface between these two zones, because different parts of the wing are experiencing different airflow.

Below the clouds is turbulent and above the clouds is cold, pick your poison.

The landing was a lot less dramatic than I expected. After the exhilarating takeoff I guess I was expecting something different, but the landing was quite shallow, and touching down on the grass was quite soft. At least it is when Brad is doing it. Maybe landings will be a bit spicier when I start doing them myself.

The sights

After I calmed down from the initial shock of takeoff, I started to have a look around. The feeling of looking down and seeing the ground so far away is incredible. It feels very different to a normal commercial flight, I'm not sure if that's because of the ability to look almost directly straight down, or because there's no fuselage surrounding you and you don't have to peer through a tiny window.

I noticed a flock of birds flying below us. I don't know if I've ever seen birds flying from above before. I was surprised how much air traffic there was. I kind of thought we would not encounter any other aircraft, but during the course of the hour we saw 2 helicopters and 2 small aeroplanes flying near us.

It gives you a very strange perspective on the world. I found it very difficult, from the air, to recognise even places that I know very well from the ground. I kept getting disoriented. When we were returning to land I had to get Brad to point out the runway to me because I couldn't find it even though I knew it was pretty much straight ahead. You can see so much from the air that it's really hard to pick something out if you don't already know where it is.

I was surprised how many really fancy country estates there are, set back just far enough from main roads that you wouldn't normally see them. One of the helicopters we saw was taking off from the garden of a fancy country estate.

The costs

To get your licence takes approximately 30 flight hours (25 hours is absolute minimum), at about £130/hr = £3900, plus some minor costs like club membership, ground school, and presumably fees for the 5 exams (air law, meteorology, human performance limitations, navigation, aircraft technical) plus the "General Skills Test".

You can buy a microlight to suit your requirements and budget, anywhere from £1k to £100k.

And here's what I remember from what Brad said about the ongoing costs of microlighting, mixed with what I've found online:

So after you've bought yourself a microlight it'll cost you about £3500/yr to keep it, the vast majority of which is spent on hangar space. So that's not cheap but it's a lot cheaper than flying a bigger plane, and it is a fixed cost rather than a cost per use. The marginal cost of an hour's flying is remarkably low.


My first microlighting experience was fantastic. I'm definitely going to take more lessons, and plan to get my licence. I don't know if £3500/yr is a bit steep for operating costs, so it remains to be seen whether I'm actually going to own one. I don't know that I'd fly it frequently enough to make it worth it, especially if 7 times out of 8 you can't fly because of the weather. Maybe I'd rather rent one as and when I want to use it, I don't know how feasible that is.

But even if you don't want to fly a microlight yourself, I highly recommend taking the introductory experience flight, it is a great experience.

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