Biggest mistakes I ever made was in listening to guys like that,
instead of listening to my own heart
…what my granddad used to call
“the tyranny of reasonable voices.”

Mistakes you MAKE can always be worked out.
The mistakes you DON’T make because you do NOTHING,
because you don’t TRY,
you don’t RISK,
those are the ones that haunt you as you get old.

Regret, that’s the real killer

— Thor #10, 2007

Regret that's the real killer

Regret that’s the real killer

1.8 ounce Digital Altimeter & VSI — one instrument!

We’re just starting to ship our new combined Digital Altimeter & VSI.  In one unit, it combines a settable Altimeter and a high range VSI.  It has a bunch of other features as well, such as Density Altitude, Voltage and VFR Cruising Alarm.

It weighs 1.8 ounces and is about 1 inch thick.

The screen is extra sharp and vivid light green, and the backlight may be turned on or off.  (Or adjusted via an external dimmer pot; not included.)

LCD Altimeter

There’s a LED light (for showing when the altitude is on or off a legal VFR altitude); a power switch, Up and Down arrows (for setting correct barometric pressure) and a mode button.

The home screen always shows current altitude along with the current VSI rate.

Toggling through other screens, you can see Density Altitude:

LCD Altimeter DA

Or you can see the current system voltage:

LCD Altimeter V

Svelte unit.  The profile picture:

LCD Altimeter Side

It uses 10 – 15VDC as input; about 10 milli-amperes.

We’ll be publishing a new spec sheet on this unit on our website in the next few days.  You can find this product on our store, here:

Polini Thor 250 Engine Review — The best ultralight engine we’ve seen

There’s a general lack of information on state of the art ultralight aircraft engines. And there’s a minefield of mis-information on what’s been happening with small two stroke engines in ultralight aircraft. Many believe that two-strokes always seize and many also believe that the only engine to use is a Rotax.

A lot of that is chewed up baloney.

I can’t clarify every issue that’s out there — and I want to establish some positive vibes for a few of the engine manufacturers that still stand strong today — and I want to precisely distill what I’ve found with the Polini Thor 250 into this small collection of words and photos.

First, the background vibes on the current crop of engines. They are good engines. Each has positives and negatives.

– Hirth is making an exceptional 50HP engine — the F23. It is what I refer to as a stump-puller. It has incredible low end torque and is ideal for ultralights with a lot of drag and a need for acceleration and power. It yanks our Belite Sealite floatplane out of the water, even in hot and high and calm conditions. It makes runway length an optional requirement. It is reliable; it is available with electric start, fuel and oil injection, and it is a great value for the money. We’ve sold a fair number of them; but it is too much engine for many of our customers. And it uses a lot of gas (think a mininum of 3.5 GPH; 4 might be more realistic.)

– 1/2VWs continue to be the ‘go-to’ engine for pilots who want four strokes. They don’t have a lot of bottom end torque, but they do have a great reputation for easy to service, reliable operation with a low fuel burn. They are heavy, and ultralight customers fight the tradeoff between weight, legal FAR part 103 operations, and the classic boxer look (which these engines share the Hirth F23). They are a great choice if you are comfortable with the weight and can stand a little longer takeoff roll.

– Compact Radial Engines (CRE) continues to provide the MZ-201 (baby brother to the MZ-202 helicopter workhorse engine.) I’ve always enjoyed the E-ticket thrill ride associated with an MZ-201 takeoff. (Any early Disney theme park fans in reader-land???) The MZ-201 is economical; relatively smooth running; and a jolt in the butt when you hit the throttle.

But for the average Joe, these engines are just a little marginal. Consider:

– The F23 from Hirth is too much power and too high fuel consumption.
— The 1/2 VW is very heavy, and not a great performer in climb.
— The CRE MZ-201 is a little harder to cool, fairly smooth, but not very up to speed on current engine technology.
— And if you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned Rotax, it’s because they haven’t pursued ultralight engines in years; they’ve discontinued engines; and they have found a gold mine in ‘912’ and ‘914’ class engines. That’s where their heart is. Leave them alone. Let them be.

If I was to dream about a very small aircraft engine, I’d make up a wish list with improvements on all of the above engines. The wish list would be this:

– The engine must produce an honest 35+ HP.
— It must be very lightweight.
— It must be from a major engine manufacturer. No startups, sorry.
— It must be smoooooooooooth. Like a 4 cylinder GA engine.
— Dual ignition. It’s got to have it.
— Reliability. I’ve got to be comfortable flying cross country in it.
— Fuel economy. I want to be able to loiter at 2 GPH, so that my 5 gallon fuel tank will give me 2 1/2 hours of fun. (Or 2 hours with a 30 minute reserve, to be a little more conservative.)
— It needs to look good.

I found that engine. It was from a major engine company called Polini, made in Italy to Italian standards (think recent vintage Ferrari), and it met every requirement I’d listed.

I was at the Aero-Expo in Friedrichshafen Germany, wandering around the exhibits of the various companies. I walked by a booth and was stopped by a row of engines which looked like they were the right size to be ultralight aircraft engines. One in particular caught my eye: it had dual ignition, a water jacket over the cylinder (water cooled!), gear reduction, a very small size, and the information showed that it developed 36.5 HP (27300 Watts). The indicated weight was less than 50 pounds! And it had an internally counterbalance shaft, for smooth running!

After a few months of reflection, I ordered one of the engines as a big test. Would the weight indications be accurate? Would the horsepower be real?

The engine arrived; we pulled it out of the box; and it looked like this:

Continue reading

Technical Side of Flight to Oshkosh

My flight to #Osh14 started with a general flight plan.  Actually, several.  I had worked on the route in anticipation of wind and weather management.  I ended up taking a southerly route, as this aligned with winds aloft and also kept me close to my chase crew for the first leg of the flight.

My flight started on Saturday.

I had 5 gallons of fuel on board, and with a strong tailwind at 3000 feet, I headed towards Kansas City.  My ground speed was showing 95 to 100 mph.  My first stop was to be Emporia, but with well less than half a tank of gas used, I just kept on going.   I communicated with my ground crew using texts.

Here’s the flight from the gliderport to Gardiner, KS.  With a very strong southerly wind down low, I landed on a grass runway, and Gardiner became my first fuel stop:

Leg 1


At Gardiner, I added about 3 1/2 gallons of fuel, and I had been in the air about 1:45.

After talking with some local pilots, and discovering that I had a customer based on field, I took off.  I skirted around the south end of the Class D, and stayed out of the Class B / 30NM veil entirely, then headed into Missouri for my next stop.  I was losing some o my tailwind, but still showing probably 75mph ground speed.  Nice.

Leg 2


North Central Missouri Regional airport was my stop, and I picked up more 100LL from the self serve pump.  Of course, I was always adding oil to the fuel for my Polini Thor 250 engine.  It runs 50:1 on the premix.

Now my tailwind left me entirely, and I made a short run barely into Iowa, landing at Bloomfield.

Leg 3Then I headed to Iowa City, where my chase crew met me and brought me lunch.  :-)

Monticello, Iowa was the next stop.  The crew met me again (I got there before they did — nice!) but that is also where the starter motor failed.  Bummer.  Our day ended there.  Christian got it fixed, but we were out of daylight.

The following morning (Sunday morning), I flew from Monticello to Mineral Point, Wisconsin (Iowa County) and I did a very unusual landing into strong wind.  It was at the edge of my skill level, and I don’t want to repeat it.  In winds gusting around 25 knots, I set the plane down, and flared.  With nearly zero forward energy, my ground roll was a literal 6 feet.  I carefully taxiied back to the ramp, and waited for the ground crew to arrive.

We waited out weather for 6 hours.  The wind needed to decrease, and some rain needed to move through.

Leg 5

I then left for Madison.  Well, not really Madison (I avoided the class C entirely).  I avoided a squall line to the North, but then ended up colliding with it as I passed Madison on the south.  Using radar on my cellphone, and my visual view, I popped around the bad storm and ended up on the north side of the weather.  But the wind was still very turbulent, and the headwind was very strong, so rather than push on, I set down at Blackhawk airport, using the grass infield as my landing strip, so I could directly line up with the wind.  I ignored the paved runway.

Leg 4


My chase crew met me at Blackhawk and refueled me.  We had 90 minutes of daylight left, and a strong headwind.  I hopped in the ProCub and continued to Dodge County, where the plane spent the night.

We drove into OshKosh and spent the night in our rental house.

Monday morning, Neil and Christian drove me back to Dodge County, and I uneventfully flew the plane into the ultralight field at #Osh14 at around 9:30 in the morning.

I was elated.  Mission accomplished.


A note to United Air Lines

(Longtime blog readers — occasionally James writes about topics other than ultralight aircraft.  This post reflects on James’ experience with United Air Lines.  It was also posted on UAL’s FaceBook page.)

Dear United Air Lines:

I’m having some real trouble with your customer service.  I’ve flown 29K miles so far this year with you; maybe it’s time for a switch to another airline.  I am so frustrated.  I am writing this to help all of us – your company, myself, other flyers – understand what the problem is.  My hope is that this chronicle of events and frustrations will facilitate change within your organization.

Here’s the facts from a bad experience with United Air Lines earlier this week:

I arrived early for my flight from Wichita, KS to Las Vegas, with a connection through Denver.  The flight was posted “on-time” through your app and on the airport monitors.  As passengers waited at the departure gate, a sense of unease built as departure time approach:  the flight crew had not shown up.  I could hear the gate agent questioning aloud where the crew was.  With each passing minute, it became clear that United did not have a handle on the situation; the ‘on-time’ departure time was erroneous, and everyone was in the dark.  The gate area was filled with expectant passengers; a gate agent was on hand; the jet was outside and sitting on the tarmac.  The gate agent announced that no one knew where the flight crew was, and asked the passengers to please be patient. 

A typical airline-angst frustration settled over the crowd.  Adding to the weirdness was the fact that our departure gate was a re-purposed flight view lounge, complete with random chairs and a series of four wooden rocking chairs.  Weirdness.

A second gate agent showed up, clearly with a little more supervisory tone.  He attempted to diffuse the situation with what was Ill-placed, heavy handed humor.

More time passed.  The scheduled departure time came and passed.  No crew.  No word from the crew. 

The crew showed up 10 minutes after the scheduled departure time, and avoided the passengers entirely by walking the concrete tarmac directly to the jet.   Realizing the flight was going to happen, the supervising gate agent voiced a quick question to the crowd of passengers:  “Who’s going to Vegas (from Denver)?”.  Several hands went up, including mine.   “We think you’ll be able to make your connection, and if you miss it, you’ll be rebooked on a later flight,” from the gate agent.

[An important aside, from my inner voice:  in my 35 years of flying commercially, my ability to discern how long things will really take is usually more correct than the glib statements made by airline personnel.  I was to be proven correct, again.  Read on….]

After we were underway to Denver, the flight crew announced that we’d still be on time into Denver with a 7:40AM estimated arrival.  The original scheduled arrival was actually 7:25AM.  I don’t know how this fits the definition of ‘on-time’.  My connection out of Denver would leave at 8:00AM. 

I went to my outbound gate, the flight to Vegas had left.  The inner voice had been correct;  I missed my flight!  Because the flight crew showed up late in Wichita!

So I walked over to a United customer service counter.   There was no personnel there; just a series of kiosks.    I used one of the automated kiosks, and it gave me a ticket for a later flight.  I had a conference to get to, and I wanted a better option.   I continued walking to the next customer service counter, looking for a real human being to help me.  This counter was staffed with United personnel but was hopelessly slow with a long line. 

While standing in line, I called the usual Premier customer service phone #, got a real person, explained my problem.  I asked her to put me on another airline.  She was unable to find any option which would help me, and she would not consider putting me on Southwest (they had several flights to Vegas which might help me out).   

As I hung up, I gave up waiting in line.  It would take too long to sift through and get real help from one of the United personnel there.  Too many people with flight challenges and too few United agents to help.

I called the person I was meeting for conference setup and lunch in Vegas and explained the delay.  He took the news of my delay with a fair bit of grace, and I appreciated that.  He would end up setting the conference booth up mostly on his own.

Time passed; I did some email; I went to the departure gate for my reassigned flight to Vegas. 

I was pleased that I’d been able to select an economy plus seat that was not a middle seat.  I’d done this at the automated Kiosk.  (I’m 6’ 2” tall; I always fly in Economy Plus; and I try to make my seat selection early so that I end up with a window or an aisle seat.  Then I can flop my legs away from people.  Good for them and me.)   I had a new printed boarding pass in hand that showed my reassigned flight along with my excellent seat selection.

The flight was called for boarding.  I was in boarding group 2.

The gate agent took my boarding pass and scanned it into the reader.  The system flashed a message:  “record not found” or something similar.  She did it again:  same result.

She spoke to me:  “You need to step over to the counter to resolve the problem.”

Unbelievable.  Simply Unbelievable.

I pulled out of the boarding line and stepped over to the counter.  An agent took my boarding pass, tapped away on the system, and I heard another boarding pass printing out.  He handed it to me, and explained that I was now assigned to a middle seat in an exit row.  I had no problem with the exit row but I had a big problem with the middle seat.  I also had a bigger problem with the fact that just moments earlier I’d had a boarding document in hand that showed the seat that I was supposed to be in, and it was gone, and so was my desired seat.  And United would not honor the boarding document.

Unbelievable.  Simply Unbelievable.

Yeah, I was angry.  It didn’t matter how I voiced my anger; there was nothing that could be done.  Somehow, the computer support system for United Airlines couldn’t keep a boarding pass and seat assignment straight for 180 minutes.

Another technical observation:  my boarding pass had a note printed on it that indicated that I’d been added to the first class upgrade list for the flight.  Once in a while in my travels, I get an upgrade to first class, but most of the time, it is just humorous to note just how deep I am on the wait list.  (Upgrades are a rare commodity.)   And so I saw this note on my boarding pass, and I thought I might have an opportunity for an upgrade to first, given the big errors on the part of United earlier in the day.  I looked up at the computer screens showing flight status, standby information, and upgrade eligibility.  My name was not on the list.  Interesting:  a boarding pass in hand that shows that I’m on the list; a situation begging for an upgrade; a computer monitor showing I’m not on the list.  A broken system at United?  It appeared that way.

Let me make some suggestions as to how the various situations could have been better handled.

1)  LEARN HOW TO DELIVER A HEARTFELT APOLOGY.  When you make a mistake (such as the unannounced late flight crew), make a real and sympathetic apology:  you should say “We’re sorry, we screwed up,” or “We’re sorry that we’ve caused a problem.”  Use plain English words, not obfuscation and excuses as was offered:  “You’ll probably make your flight…”  I hate that.  So do most other customers.  The apology should come from the gate agent, as well as from the flight crew.  You need to especially avoid the words that make blood boil:  “Inconvenience” is a pretty good example of a word that now causes most people disgust, as in:  “We’re sorry that we inconvenienced you.”  You haven’t inconvenienced me — you’ve caused me a major headache.  I had some pretty good reasons why I needed to get to Vegas on time.  It adds stress to my day, but I can handle it a lot better if I feel like I’m being given good information with good empathy.  If you’d apologize with empathy to me, my anxiety level will decrease, and my comments to other about your airline will not be so disparaging.  And I will be far more likely to book you in the future.

2)  IMPROVE YOUR INTERNAL CREW / SYSTEM COMMUNICATION.  If your flight crew knows they are running late – they need to let your operations and schedulers know.  United has a wonderful system of providing me and other travelers text alerts as to late flights.  But, it is meaningless when your employees have not provided accurate information as to their status.  It is hard to fathom how an employee would knowingly act like that.  Yes, I suspect the crew had a very late night from their inbound the night before.  It is important to differentiate between a reason for lateness and an excuse for non-communication.  They showed up at the plane 10 minutes after scheduled departure, and they didn’t let anyone know they were running late.  (Or you didn’t let us know – but I doubt that.)

3)  USE MORE REAL PEOPLE TO HELP ME.  If you do screw up, provide me with a real customer service person, in person, promptly.  The lines at customer service in Denver are as long as the airport and state are high and, seemingly by design, creates ill will.  (You had an alternate service counter area which had no employees manning it.)  It is maddening when the flight options are disappearing because of the wait time.  Don’t tell me to “see a customer service person”, when, in-fact, that is not an realistic quick option.

4)  HELP ME.  SPEND YOUR OWN MONEY TO HELP ME.  If you can’t solve my problem on your airline, provide me with an alternative on a competitive airline, at your expense.  Make ‘my problem’ into ‘your problem’.  Don’t make me feel like I have no options — because I do.  Flying is a commodity, and the only real differentiators are schedule and quality of service.  As someone who has flown nearly a million miles with you so far this lifetime, and around 30,000 so far this year, can’t you help out once in a while?  Yes, I do wonder if that’s unreasonable.  But I ponder these things after I’m overloaded with cumulative small failures. 

5)  MAKE YOUR SYSTEM WORK PROPERLY.  A little less than 3 hours later, when I presented my boarding pass for the later flight, your computer system could no longer find me.  My reservation and seat assignment?  Who knows.  My assigned seat, which I’d picked earlier in the morning?  Taken, by someone else.  The agent kicked me out of the boarding line to resolve this with a gate agent.  I was denied boarding to the aisle seat on my freshly printed ticket, and I was offered a middle seat in the exit row.  I took it, as I had no option.   And where was my name on the upgrade list?   I did take a moment to vent on the gate agent for the generally poor way I’d been handled by United.  and that takes me to my final observation.

6)  DON’T MAKE EXCUSES.  I told the agent how the crew had not shown up in Wichita.  He started to mumble something about probable overnight problems from the prior day for that crew.  I understand that!  The real problem is that no one said:

    *  “We’re sorry they overslept.”  This could have come from the gate agents in Wichita.

    *  “We’re sorry we overslept, and we’re sorry that we didn’t pass that information on to our flight scheduling.”  This should have come from the flight crew on the Wichita – Denver leg.

    *  “We’re sorry that our system lost your boarding pass and seat assignment information for this flight.  There is no excuse for that; we’re sorry. “

    *  “We’re sorry the system dropped your name off the upgrade eligibility list.“

It boils down to transparency and humbleness.

Footnote:  As I had just entered the airplane cabin, the gate agent came on board the airplane and reseated me to a window seat in economy plus.  I am grateful for that.


1)      Learn how to apologize.  Be real.  Be authentic.  Don’t use weasel words.

2)      Improve your crew / system communication, so that passengers aren’t left in the dark with wrong information.  We’re not fungible material.  And so that you won’t look…  well…  so inept.

3)      Add many more bodies in customer service.

4)      Help me with all of your resources.

5)      Make your system glitch free.  You are a big company and technology infrastructure is an important, if not paramount, part of what you are.  There are no excuses.

6)      Speaking of excuses, don’t make excuses.  Be transparent.

I’ll sign off with the same comment that I started this note with:

I’m having some real trouble with your customer service.  I’ve flown 29K miles so far this year with you; maybe it’s time for a switch to another airline.  I am so frustrated.

Submitted by James P Wiebe, Wichita, KS.