Flying (not all that) highThe history of ultralight flight in South Korea began in the early 1980s, when a pilot named Park Heung-su took off in a hang glider to which he’d attached a small engine.
Strictly speaking, that wasn’t ultralight flight as we know it today; it was merely a glider powered by an engine. Nowadays, a pilot controls an ultralight plane with a rudder (which controls horizontal steering) and an elevator (which controls vertical movement).
The United States, France and Germany are the world’s main producers of ultralight planes. The planes reach average flight speeds of 100 to 150 kilometers (62 miles to 93 miles) per hour.
An ultralight plane is different from a light plane in many respects. An ultralight has an altitude limit of 150 meters. It requires less space for takeoff and landing ― only 100 meters. An ultralight plane can still continue a flight if its engine is turned off, whereas a light plane is dependent upon the engine.
There are more government-approved airstrips in Korea for ultralights than for light planes; the approval process is easier. It’s also much easier to become licensed to fly an ultralight than a light plane.
Applicants over age 14 need only 20 hours of flight time to apply for an ultralight license. They must then pass an exam given by the Korea Transportation Safety Authority. (Until last year, the licenses were issued by the Korea Ultralight Aviation Association.) The license is honored worldwide.
The training can be expensive; 20 hours of flight training, plus classroom education, costs from 2.5 million won to 3 million won ($2,170 to $2,600).
Licensed pilots can rent planes for about 50,000 won per hour; a person who doesn't have a license can experience a flight with a pilot at a rate of 40,000 won per 15 minutes.
Osom airfield is near a small village called Gopo in Hwaseong city, Gyeonggi province. In the crystal-clear sky above Lake Sihwa, there are always ultralights, which look like dragonflies.
Of the 20 places in Korea ― including Incheon, Songdo and Daecheon ― that allow ultralight flight, Osom airfield is considered the best.
There are no obstacles such as hills or wires, and the airstrip is more than 600 meters long. The permitted flight range is about two kilometers in each direction. On a clear day, pilots can see into the distance as far as the Seohae Grand Bridge.
On a recent day at the airfield, when the smell of ripe grapes was in the air, 41-year-old Kim Sang-chan, a director at a pharmaceutical company, was full of enthusiasm about flying an ultralight. He had applied for, trained for and obtained a flight license soon after reading a JoongAng Ilbo article last year about Osom airfield.
Mr. Kim, still a beginner at only 30 hours of flight experience, even made his 12-year-old son, Kim Sung-won, get a license.
“My son was even afraid of riding a rollercoaster. But now, he loves to fly the plane more than I do,” Mr. Kim said. “It’s a safe pastime and I feel so happy to enjoy it with my son.”
The Korea Ultralight Aviation Association, impressed by the zeal and sincerity of the father and son, made an exception in approving the license for Sung-won, who would not ordinarily have qualified, since he is under 14.
There are two types of ultralights: single-seaters and two-seaters. Under the law, a two-seater must weigh less than 225 kilograms (496 pounds), which is less than a light plane weighs.
“It is not a fancy type of hobby. We are just enjoying freedom and leisure in the bright blue sky that is unimaginable on land,” said Lee Sung-hwan, 37, a member of the flight circle Aeropia (www.aeropia.co.kr), which has built a nest, if you will, at Osom airfield.
Mr. Lee, one of whose hobbies is building model planes, has been a staff member at Kyonghee University for seven years. The association, more than 100 of whose members are licensed to fly ultralights, draws people from a variety of fields. Kim Dong-gun, 39, is an engineer who works in the field of heavy equipment, and Lee Jung-hee, 36, is a nurse at Kyunghee Medical Center. Their common dream is to soar through the sky.
Ultralights are on their way to becoming a popular pastime. There are about 300 ultralight planes in Korea, and more than 3,000 people are licensed to fly them.
On weekends, Osom airfield gets crowded with people wanting to go up in an ultralight with an experienced pilot.
“I obtained my license in February and bought an old, used plane in April,” said Yoo Ho-won, 47, an executive for an environmental venture company.
“For two months, in the courtyard at my home, I repaired all the broken parts of the plane, including the engine,” Mr. Yoo said.
Mr. Yoo tried practically every kind of outdoor recreation imaginable, including scuba diving, before discovering ultralights.
Now his plane is the focus of his leisure time enthusiasm. He says that if the employees at his company want to learn to fly them, he’ll pay for the training.
“I believe there are three kinds of time that a person has: one for working, another for sleeping and the third for having fun,” Mr. Yoo said. “To diversify and enjoy one's life abundantly, he or she has to invest the leisure time in various fields after working hard.”
He added that he plays golf for business, but he flies his plane for happiness.
by Sung Ho-jun