One of my joys at AirVenture 2011 was visiting a seemingly revitalized Ultralight Area. Though a shadow of its former self in the 1980 heydays, new life seemed to be springing up, whether through electric powered aircraft or affordable Part 103 fixed wing designs.
Proving the naysayers wrong (again!) were at least two intriguing Part 103 airplanes you can buy and fly today for less than $20,000. That’s well the under the average price of a new automobile for a ready-to-fly aircraft with desirable features, not a stripped-down machine that no one really wants. I wrote about Terry Raber’s lovely little Aerolite 103. A day after looking over his work, UltralightNews and I shot a video review of the Valley Engineering Backyard Flyer. Once again, I had my eyes opened.
If you’ve ever visited AirVenture’s Ultralight Area, odds are you saw a pilot known as the “Flying Farmer” doing circuits of the Ultralight Area pattern. Seemingly a different (though vaguely similar) aircraft would do pattern flights each year accented by a throaty, guttural four-stroke sound that did not mimic the ubiquitous Rotax or the smooth Jabiru, or even the also-distinctive-sounding HKS. Powering the Flying Farmer’s aircraft was a Generac generator motor converted to airplane use. It pulled aloft a welded aluminum structure under a semi covered, or semi enclosed, aircraft that also didn’t imitate any other airframe you saw. They all looked to fly energetically.
I refer to Gene Smith (the “Farmer”) and his Valley Engineering airplane designs. All feature Culver Props as well because that’s the most famous brand in the Valley Engineering family.
Now Gene’s son, Larry Smith, is the front man for their newest-yet Backyard Flyer, a legitimately Part 103 aircraft that looks as solid as much heavier aircraft — “251 pounds even with tricycle gear,” said Larry. Welded aluminum permits larger diameter tube-frame construction that has a reassuring beefiness to it.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of this not-like-the-others airplane is the swing wing. Four bolts allow movement on a “turntable” so the one-piece wing pivots 90 degrees to sit over the tail and protrude beyond the nose. The “swing wing” requires a 30-foot trailer but would truly be useful in a crowded hangar as it measures only 83 inches wide. Aileron disconnects took a couple minutes; the whole process didn’t consume five minutes.
Backyard Flyer UL pricing could not be better: “$19,500 open cabin ready-to-fly; $20,000 enclosed.” That includes a four-stroke electric-start engine plus ballistic airframe parachute.
Soft-spoken and straightforward, Larry Smith’s easy-going nature belies an active organization that apparently never sits still. (They’re also investigating electric power and hybrid, but that’s a story for another article.) Prop, engine, two seater, or Part 103 single seater, even the trailer… all come from Valley Engineering. Nearly a self-sufficient airplane producer, Valley sticks tightly to its goal of highly affordable airplanes for anyone who wants to fly.