San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Man has always looked to the skies for answers, searching its changing face for signs of grace and design, hoping to gleen some small wisdom from its imperious distance and reserve. Leonardo da Vinci regularly lifted his weathered face in awe, sketching his discoveries and inspirations on parchments that centuries later revealed an enduring obsession with the sky and its floating citizenry, the birds. It was his hope man would step into the air and aided by only the barest but most ingenious of contrivances, regain a heritage he had somehow lost to dreams and mythologies. He would fly like an angel.

Leonardo's vision of bird-men aside, there are contrivances today that go some distance to meeting the great inventor's thirst for intimate flight. On the ground, these devices appear flimsy and loose-limbed, ridiculously exposed and underpowered. There's something dragonfly-ish about the way they look. One feels a good swat with a rolled-up newspaper is all that's needed to keep them grounded. Of course I'm talking about ultralight airplanes.

Ultralights are everywhere. Enthusiasts and aficionados recognize no boundaries. They are just as likely to be sawing through the skies above Brazil as they are in southern California. We here in San Felipe are not outside their persuasion. In fact, several locals own their own ultralights.

As a business, purveyors of sky-dreams have used ultralights as a means of lifting their clients into intimate congress with a realm most people grudgingly cede to the birds. A two-place kit plane can deliver a passenger (often wedged in a step seat above and behind the pilot and giving mere terrestrials the impression of watching a winged motorcycle take to the air) to a surprisingly maneuverable, visually stunning and front-to-finish exhilarating experience.

Some years ago I was visiting a friend in the Ejido El Agrario, north of town. His house fronted on the highway and faced the sea. We were talking about air compressors or women when suddenly something intrigued the corner of my eye and I turned to see what looked like a wedge of blue cheese silently tracing an arc in the air above Playa del Sol.

"What the heck is that?" I asked my friend.

"The guy with the wing," he replied.

Extracting information from a resident of an ejido is a little like trying to use a refrigerator repair manual to fix a lawn-mower. But eventually I learned the pilot's name and that he kept the ultralight parked near an improvised runway at one of the north camps. I was also told he sold rides.

A few days later I was in the neighborhood of the campo and I also happened to have ten dollars burning a hole in my pocket. Although I was told the pilot charged twenty dollars, I drove down to the runway anyway and knuckled the door of a nearby trailer. A frowsy-eyed man of about forty answered, understandably grievous at having his afternoon siesta sawn off at the knees. I apologized and within a few minutes had infected the poor fellow with my unconcealed zeal and enthusiasm as I extolled the virtues of his trade.

Ultra-Lite over Pete's Camp.

He was so taken by the groupie approach he agreed on a price of ten dollars, ducking back into the trailer to rake a hand through his hair and pull on his flying jacket.

"It get's pretty cool up there," he explained and handed me a wind-breaker for the ride.

I helped him wheel the plane onto the runway. He went through a quick safety check, which didn't do much to reassure me because I was busy taking a closer look at the contraption. It looked like an idiot child of a go-cart and hang-glider marriage.

"Have you taken many people up in this thing?" I asked him.


That was good enough. I put my foot where he pointed and climbed into the back seat. He went around, pulled the engine to life then returned and performed a neatly executed bit of gymnastics to arrange himself in the lower seat. I watched him settle his sneakers against the foot-rests. He reached for the throttle and the thing began to move.

As we picked up speed it seemed every stone, twig and rut of the dirt runway telegraphed an exaggerated profile of itself to my butt, which was drumming against the hard seat like the front row of shoes at a Buddy Rich concert. I glanced at the frail-looking aluminum tubes and stays as they rattled into blurs beside me and I became acutely aware of our vulnerability, careening down a dirt road while attaching all our faith and hope (not to mention ourselves) to nothing more than a kite with a thyroid condition.


Then a miracle happened. The pilot, whose hands gripped a horizontal bar under the delta wing, made a subtle motion and we were suddenly airbourne. The sense of reckless speed vanished immediately and we seemed to hover in the air as we slowly gained alititude. It was then, like Leonardo da Vinci, I fell in love with the immoveable feast of clean air and blue sky --the heritage of birds.

Although the abilities of an ultralight wouldn't ruffle the vanity of any bird, with the possible exceptions of chickens and ostriches, in the hands of a good pilot the machine can feel very dream-like. Imagine a roller-coaster without rails or a vast, gimballed merry-go-round sent spinning into the sky. The possible sensations are myriad. But the one great gift of ultralight flight, the thing that leaves its indelible imprint persisting in the scrapbook of your memory, is the immediacy and intimate nature of the view when you find yourself hung high in the air without an insulating bulkhead or porthole between you and a panorama.

Flying along the beach.

The essence of any revelation lies in perception. When one can invert the tunnel vision of life and face the wide end of the perceptual funnel, the sudden loss of reference leaves you breathless. At the same time, a wild laugh tears from your throat because you realize you've spent a lifetime pressing your eye to clefts and cracks and now, with a few ounces of gasoline, a hank of fabric and a propeller, the universe has become your peep-hole.

This broadening of vision brings with it another benefit, and it is perhaps the principal reason someone would want to become a pilot: there are no personal problems in the sky (outside of unforeseen circumstances which might prevent one from remaining there for the alotted time of the flight).

For some reason rising above the landscape also lifts you above its earthly worries. If only for twenty minutes or a half hour, a greater perspective collapses the props of your personal calamities. The expression 'free as a bird' suddenly applies to something more than just physical emancipation. The mind and spirit are eager to soar as well. On that autumn day the sky was slightly overcast, but this didn't detract in the least from the experience. It was my first time in an ultra-lite. The whole world looked marvelous.

Pete's Camp.

After a few passes over Pete's Camp I took out my camera but soon begrudged the thing because of its tiny view-finder. It seemed sacrilegious to turn away from the funnel's wide end to fuss my eye against another belittling peephole. After a few shots I put it away and enjoyed the ride.

We climbed to five or six hundred feet then banked into a right turn. The pilot cut the throttle and pulled back on his chin-up bar. We fell into a dive. He leveled her out just above the beach, gave it some gas and we followed the shore line no more than six or eight feet above the waves. I tapped the pilot on the shoulder and jerked my thumb skyward. He nodded and we began to climb again. Not that it wasn't fun skimming the beach, but if I had wanted to spend some time six or eight feet off the ground I would have just stood on a chair . He took the plane up to match-box perspective and Pete's Camp now looked like a jot of geometry on the edge of a vast wasteland of sand and scrub brush.

Twenty minutes spent wheeling in the sky is an odd mixture of eternity and brevity. It seemed all too soon when the pilot brought her down and lined her up for his landing approach. The touchdown was suprisingly clean even though we had a bit of a cross-breeze. And then the Buddy Rich concert along the road to his trailer.

When he thumbed the kill switch the engine stopped and the sudden quiet was a little startling. It was a strange silence, tainted by the memory of sound. Much like a ghost limb wanting to continue its career in the absence of flesh and bone. My nerves continued to hum the horsepower of technology's version of flight for at least an hour after relinquishing the sky to the birds again.

Being a passenger in an ultralight may not be to everybody's taste. Certainly there are those who would want guarantees, assurances and security. Well, that's what the public transit systems are all about. But if you've always had a bred-in-the-bone need to shake the cage of your personal perspective and enjoy erasing boundaries, then I highly recommend it. A ride in an ultralight is just what the name suggests: an attempt to send the senses flying with the least amount of attendant baggage. It won't make an angel out of you, but you'll perhaps enjoy an angel's perspective, if only for a little while.