The BMAA 1980 - 1981

By 1980 the American scene had ceased to be something which can be fairly described in a short history like this. The industry was mushrooming at an astonishing pace, and at times it seemed that even the manufacturers themselves couldn't keep pace with it. Light plane manufacturers, who were still thoroughly in the doldrums, could only look on in wonderment at the upstart sport which was achieving what they had so signally failed to do in the preceding six decades - bring aviation to the common man.

In the Old World the race was on to produce a viable two-seat trike, and to this day we are not certain which country won. Nick Wrigley had turned up at the BMAA's inaugural fly-in at Wellesbourne in June 1980 with a Sachs-engined side-by-side two-seater which flew very well. However, the previous month Magallon had tried a tandem machine with a 340 cc Sachs which produced 30 hp at 10,000 rpm. It also produced a dreadful noise, and he soon ditched it in favour of two Solo engines, these being replaced in turn by a Hirth 438 cc unit in September 1981.

At Brienne that year, Magallon, Danis and other early French constructors timidly showed their trikes. No more control surfaces: the Motodelta was forgotten, superseded just as Geiser was feeling confident enough about it to begin serious production, and the Americans had not yet arrived.

At least, they hadn't in France. Across in England, the first Eagles had been brought in by Gerry Breen that January and were finding a ready market among flyers who wanted cheap aviation but didn't fancy a trike. Gerry had opened the floodgates, and before the year was out just about every significant make of American ultralight was being imported into the UK. The invasion had begun.

The following year the transatlantic onslaught reached France. Machines such as the Weedhopper, Vector 600, Quicksilver, Rally and Goldwing having an enormous impact throughout 1981. The early imports were all single-seaters, for it was not until early 1982 that the Americans thought seriously about two-seaters; until then, US pilots needed a license before they could take up a passenger.

Image: Photograhed in 1986, A British registered example of the Goldwing.

The appearance in Europe of viable fixed-wings broadened the appeal of the sport overnight. Pilots of lightplanes or gliders, who had been put off by what was to them the strange appearance and reversed controls of the trikes, suddenly found that there was a whole range of ultralights in which they could feel at home. To feed this new market, new manufacturers sprang up, some developing their own versions of American products such as Eurowing, which built Goldwings in Scotland, others creating designs of their own.
Firmly in the latter category was Steve Hunt, who by 1981 had left Hiway to form his own company Huntair. He was determined to produce a machine in which conventional pilots would feel at home, and he succeeded so well that his 'Pathfinder' became a best seller on both sides of the Channel.

His creation acquitted itself brilliantly in the '82 London-Paris, a marvellous, happy occasion which was symbolic in many ways, not just because it was a race between the capitals of the two countries which spearheaded ultralighting in Europe, but also because it was dominated by the new European machinery, which in many cases was proving superior to the American aircraft which had inspired it - and cheaper, thanks to the strength of the dollar.

Admittedly, a 'Vector' won the fixedwing class, but second was a Belgian 'Butterfly' and every other place in the top ten was occupied by a 'Pathfinder', apart from a sole 'Lazair' in equal sixth. And in the flexwing class of course, there wasn't an American to be seen. The London-Paris was a turning point in European ultralighting, the occasion when the sport came of age and the media was forced to take it seriously, if only because to the newspapers' eternal disappointment no one dropped into the Channel.

Image1 : Steve Hunt, designer of the Pathfinder and founder of Huntair.

Image 2: Getting ready to fly. A Pathfinder pictured at the Windsports Centre in North Yorkshire.

Sadly, this was to be the high point of Hunt's career, for shortly afterwards he introduced the ill-fated Pathfinder II in an attempt to produce a machine light enough for the West German market and fast enough to beat the American 'Phantom'. The two requirements were simply not compatible, and the result was a machine with very little reserve of strength once its envelope was exceeded, as Hunt himself found to his cost when he hit severe turbulence and was killed in the 1983 French Grand Prix.

It is easy to look at the list of pioneer ultralighters who paid for their passion with their lives and to conclude, quite erroneously, that ultralighting is a dangerous sport. But the test pilot's job has never been an easy one, let alone being a test pilot for a new technology in a little known realm of flight, and one can easily argue that the pioneers did extremely well to achieve as much as they did with the meager resources at their disposal.

Let us simply be grateful that they have left us with a rapidly maturing and, for the properly trained pilot in a properly constructed machine, safe sport. Thousands of ultralighters can now benefit from their efforts, enjoying rallies, fly-ins, and local and international competitions, and will no doubt continue to laugh at the frontiers which, from on high, we have never been able to see very well.

This is where the history written by Alain-Yves Berger and Norman Burr ends. All the text to this point is taken directly from their book: 'Ultralight & Microlight Aircraft of the World', 2nd edition. Both editions are now sadly out of print.

The rest of the materials that we have put together in an attempt to bring the history up to date are drawn from Flight Line, Microlight Flying, and personal memories. While we cannot possibly do the same level of justice to the subject as Norman and Alain-Yves, we hope that you will gain something from the materials that follow, and perhaps gain a greater insight into the BMAA itself and the battles it has won for microlight pilots over the years.