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It's never been easier to fly

As hobbyists take to the skies, is there something holding back microlight flying in India?

 

For most of us, flying means being squeezed into a tiny seat in a commercial airline. For the privileged, it’s stretching their leg in a first class cabin. But, there’s a third kind (ignoring the tiny population of pilots) that is an experience in itself, microlights.

With a boom in aero sports, it has become possible to enjoy flying in a more personalised way. A microlight is a small aircraft which can seat two people and as affordable as driving a luxury car. As per the rules, the cruising speed of a microlight is limited to 220 km/hr in India. It has a fuel capacity of 50 litres with a mileage of 10 litres (ATF) per hour.  All you have to do is acquire a pilot’s license.

While microlights have been around for a while, they have become more accessible now with the flying cost coming down. “Microlights have been in India in some form or the other for the last 30 years. In terms of evolution, powered hang gliders gave way to ultralights and microlights. Microlight weighs less than 450 kg. The main reason for the popularity of microlights is that they are now affordable,” Capt. Vinitha Mariappa, founding member of Bangalore Aerosports, says.

The interest around microlights should bode well for manufacturers, but they do not seem to share the enthusiasm. “In an age where aero sports are gaining popularity around the world, our sales are down. More people were flying microlights in the ’90s than today. The compliance and regulatory norms around microlights makes it a nightmare to sell to customers. Today, people have the income and time to enjoy this sport. But, government regulation is causing bottlenecks, not allowing this industry to reach its peak,” Javad Hassan, Director, Albatross Flying Systems, an approved microlight manufacturer, says.

“There have been efforts to promote this sport across the country. It was practiced in Delhi and there was a facility in the North East as well. However, it has managed to sustain itself only in Bengaluru. The regulations governing the sport have increased and is a major deterrent,” Vinitha adds.

 

Aye, aye captain

So, who can become a microflight pilot? The first step to become a microlight ‘captain’ is quite basic. A microlight flyer needs to have a certificate of fitness. In order to acquire the flying license, one needs at least 40 hours of flying experience out of which 20 hours must be solo flying. Proper training can mitigate most of the safety concerns.

By design, a microlight is of low weight, which ensures that it can glide. Some microlights come equipped with parachutes that deploy in case of an engine failure. Routine maintenance of the aircraft and a good assessment of weather conditions are the most important safety considerations. The Jakkur aerodrome near Bengaluru is known as a hub for microlight flying.

 

Citizens may not fly

Though there have been no outright ban, the government has frequently cited security concerns as the main reason in regulating microlight flying. Countering any such concerns by the government, Javad says, “The government is worried that the microlights may become a security concern if they fall into the wrong hands. However, here is no record of any terrorist activity. On one hand, the government says it will promote aero sports in the country and on the other, it makes it impossible for us to sell microlights to our customers.”

Post 9/11 attack, Indian government has been concerned about aerial security, which explains the complex background verification that precedes the acquisition of a microlight.

 

Flying into the future

The only way microlight flying can grow in India is through the support of a passionate community of aero sport enthusiasts. “In terms of affordability, the aircraft are in the range of `15-`20 lakh. They are easy to maintain. Instead of pub-crawling on weekends, people are choosing to go on a sortie on their microlight. Hobbyists are the future of this sport,” Vinitha says.