and their flying machines Ultralight aircraft flock to Vermillion airport over weekend By David Lias
Plain Talk The fact that Saturday was the birthday of Denny Marten, long-time pilot and manager of Harold Davidson Field at Vermillion, was reason enough to celebrate by taking to the air. Perfect weather conditions just added to delight experienced by pilots from both near and far who traveled here last weekend to take part in the Two Rivers Light Sport and Ultralight Fly-In. The fly-in was organized by Lowell Rahn. He sports a head full of curly hair that's turned white as he's grown older, a full beard, and keeping with the curls on his head, a white handlebar mustache. Saturday, all he needed was an old time pilot's hat and a pair of goggles to fit the part of the barnstorming aviators who fell in love with flying during the early part of this century. He doesn't own a plane – at least not an aircraft that fits the conventional definition. Lowell – and several of his friends – have found a unique method to get airborne, however. They are making their dreams of powered flight come true by purchasing and mastering the operation of ultralight aircraft. He got the word out about last weekend's event – which began Friday evening and ended Sunday morning – by advertising it in magazines commonly read by people who love to fly ultralights. Last weekend, Lowell was joined by Dan Erickson of Davis, Dave Hertz and Bill Lokken, both of Vermillion, Jerry Konechne of Kimball, and pilots from Minnesota and Nebraska at the city's airport. It may not have been the biggest fly-in of ultralight aircraft in the region, but the size of the group didn't matter. It was all about the pure joy of flying. Lowell lives in the Newcastle, NE area. As the crow flies, his house is "right across the river," he said. His ultralight resembles a hang glider, with a frame under the wings that holds the pilot's seat, the motor and propeller that power the aircraft, and fixed wheels for take-off and landing. "It really is a hang glider with a motor on it," he said. "A lot of times, when people just had hang gliders, they had to take them up to the top of a mountain and run and jump off the mountain," Lowell said. "Hopefully they would hit a thermal and go up." His friends all fly aircraft that get their lift when their ultralights' propellers blast air into parachutes to get the planes off the ground. Lowell can successfully become airborne by just taxiing his aircraft on a level surface for a short distance. In other words, Lowell's ultralight is perfect for the plains of Nebraska and South Dakota. Lowell first started flying approximately nine years ago. You can blame the Newcastle-Vermillion Bridge for helping Lowell catch the flying bug. He sold his cattle after the bridge was built. "So I had a bit of money, and I knew about these, and I just thought, 'Now I have my chance.' " So he bought his first ultralight – the parachute model. "I loved it. And then I went to a fly-in one time down in Illinois, and a guy showed up with one of these," Lowell said, pointing to his hang-glider flying machine. Saturday evening, Lowell and the other pilots took to the sky, piloting their ultralights over the Clay County Rodeo Grounds, Clay County Park, with some even following the Missouri River for a time while the sun was still shining. Conditions were ideal, Lowell said, after landing and wheeling his plane inside a hanger at Harold Davidson Field. "This turned out to be about as good as it gets," he said. "It don't get better than this." Lowell admits that when he was 18 years old, he started dreaming of becoming a pilot. He was making a good living working at a packing house at the time. "I never did it at that time, and then I got married and had kids," he said. In other words, family came first, and his desire to fly was put on a back burner. His retirement from farming and the selling of his cattle gave him a bit of extra time and money to finally pursue his dream of taking to the sky. With the sun nearing the horizon, Jerry Konechne landed his two-seat parachute-style aircraft at the airport, packed its chute, and wheeled his flying machine toward a hanger. Like Lowell, Jerry has been flying for approximately nine years. Because his aircraft is larger than a typical parachute-style ultralight, he must be licensed to fly it, much like a pilot of a fixed-wing airplane. "We had to take FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) tests, written knowledge tests as well as flight exams, just like any other pilot," Jerry said. He saw a powered-parachute ultralight in flight while watching television back in 1996, and the idea of one day taking to the air in that manner immediately appealed to him. He couldn't afford to purchase this style of ultralight at that time. Eventually, he 2000, he was able to buy his first aircraft. Jerry has owned his larger, two-seat ultralight for three years. " I really enjoy flying," he said. Ultralight pilots are exposed to the elements while in flight. Temperatures were warm on the ground Saturday evening, but nearly all of pilots participating in the fly-in donned a pair of coveralls or a heavy jacket before taking off. Jerry said it's no problem to fly an ultralight all year long – in fact, the winter months provide some of the best flying conditions. "Wintertime is actually when the air is the best and the flying is at its best," he said. "I've been in the sky down to 6 degrees above zero, and if the air is dry, it's pretty tolerable. But if it's moist air, if there is a lot of humidity in the air, at 35 degrees it's really cold." You can't beat a 35-degree winter day with dry air in an ultralight, Jerry said. He flew for three hours one winter day with those weather conditions. "There was nice sunshine, and it was just beautiful flying the whole time," he said. "And it's amazing in the wintertime, especially with a little snow cover, because you can see all of the wildlife down below." One of the biggest deterrents to ultralight pilots are the high winds that are a well-known characteristic of South Dakota. Saturday evening, the weather was calm in the Vermillion region, and the fly-in participants took full advantage of those conditions. "There was not a breath of air down here, but we were experiencing about a 10 mile per hour wind up above," Jerry said. "But that didn't really bother us any." Last weekend's event was the fourth fly-in Jerry has participated in this year. He will be sponsoring an event similar to the one held in Vermillion his hometown in September. It's a great for ultralight pilots to renew their friendships and simply take to the sky together. "In the daytime, when we can't fly, we visit, we work on planes, we doodle around and do different things," he said. "Fly-ins are a good way for us to get together four or five times a year. "I just love to do this," Jerry said.
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