Taking Flight in Tiny Aircraft In December 1903, the Wright brothers gave wing to the idea that man could fly. Aviation has come along way in the past century, but some pilots still prefer to take to the skies in ultralight planes not much bigger than the one used in the original flight at Kitty Hawk. Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center profiles maverick ultralight pilot Arty Trost.
NPR logo

Taking Flight in Tiny Aircraft

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1386557/1391510" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Taking Flight in Tiny Aircraft

Taking Flight in Tiny Aircraft

Travel in Ultralight Planes Recalls Spirit of Wright Brothers

Taking Flight in Tiny Aircraft

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1386557/1391510" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Pilot Arty Trost stands next to her ultralight, a 1984 Maxair Drifter. Hal Cannon hide caption

Enlarge image.
toggle caption
Hal Cannon

Everything -- including the fabric-covered wings and tail -- is bolted to the spine of Trost's plane. Hal Cannon hide caption

See a complete view of the plane.
toggle caption
Hal Cannon

Randy Simpson, Trost's flying partner, pilots an ultralight that offers slightly more protection from the elements than Trost's plane. Hal Cannon hide caption

Enlarge image.
toggle caption
Hal Cannon

In December 1903, the Wright brothers gave wings to the dream that man could fly with a 12-second flight over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. Aviation has come a long way in the past century, transforming flight into an experience many of us now take for granted. That's not the case with pilot Arty Trost. As Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center reports, her idea of flying comes very close to the spirit of the Wright brothers.

Trost and her flying partner Randy Simpson pilot ultralights -- aircraft that fly under the radar of strict Federal Aviation Administration regulations and don't require formal licenses. The planes weigh less than 254 pounds and carry only five gallons of gas. Trost flies an open-cockpit plane, completely exposed to the elements.

"I love this plane," Trost says. "It's like there's nothing between you and the air."

At the front tip of Trost's 19-foot, red and yellow-winged plane is a tiny instrument pod with a well-cushioned seat. Everything is bolted to the spine of the plane, including the fabric-covered wings and tail. All else is out in the open: a plastic gas tank, a small engine attached to a propeller. Trost uses straps to keep personal items -- camping gear, food containers -- in place.

Piloting these tiny aircraft, Trost and Simpson recently took off from Oregon on a winding journey through central California. Going 55 mph in planes that only carry enough gas for about an hour and a half of flying, the trip became a two-week odyssey. Everywhere they stopped, the pilots and their unorthodox planes drew locals' attention.

"On the ground these planes are gawky and loud," Cannon says. "But once they taxi down the runway and edge away from earth, they become two buzzing dragon flies floating over cattails in a marsh. It's almost like a slow-motion dance out of some fairy tale."