The thrill of flying returns with super-light airplanesFlying these days has become a banal event, as simple as riding a subway train every morning. However, some people feel that commercial aviation is not really flying, but merely being shuffled like cargo. These people want the hands-on experience of escaping the clutches of gravity and soaring freely around the sky. And these are the small plane pilots I hitched a ride with.
Until you experience it, you cannot imagine how easy it seems. My journey started with Lee Gweu-ik, chief executive officer of Aeropia, a sports club company that offers flight instruction and rentals of lightweight planes and hang gliders. He turned on the ignition of his lightweight-plane, called “Ggachi,” with a sound reminiscent of a large motorcycle. The propeller started spinning, and we embarked on our training flight.
The plane picked up speed on the grass runway, and after a little over 100 meters (300 feet), we took off. Suddenly, objects at eye level started shrinking below me. The sunlight reflecting off Sihwa Lake blinded my eyes.
As the nervous student pilot, I remained stiff as a corpse. The instructor, Mr. Lee, began to explain about the dual flight controls. The central steering device ―essentially, a joystick ― controls the ailerons that make the plane ascend or descend and bank left or right, he said.
Two pedals below the joystick control the rudder that turns the plane left or right. As this was a training aircraft, it has two sets of duplicate controls so that both the instructor and student can fly the plane. But it’s hard to describe in words how to control a plane. “You have to feel it and learn,” Mr. Lee said. “Delicately handle it like an egg. She is very sensitive.”
Taking a big breath, I turned the joystick to the left. The sudden veering to the left made us feel like the ground was sucking us down. Startled, the pilot tried to control the plane by turning in the opposite direction. The aircraft violently bounced to the right. “Lightweight-planes are like riding a bicycle. Try to feel it and react to it,” said Mr. Lee, proficiently taking charge and smoothing out the flight.
The most frequently asked question about flying is whether it’s safe or not. I threw the question to the instructor, who was taking us up and down and circling in the sky. As if he was waiting for the question, he replied right away.
“The planes are extremely light and don’t have heavy wings, so even if the power is off, it can continue to glide,” Mr. Lee said. “ As long as a small safe landing spot is found, there shouldn’t be any problems.”
Even before he finished answering, he demonstrated his words with action. “We are 150 meters above the ground, and I’ll turn the power as low as I can.” The altimeter needle was going down, but there was no feeling of urgency. While gliding, he was looking for a safe landing spot.
“If you lift the nose of the airplane thinking it will stretch out the possible distance, it will only slows down the plane and shortens the flight time,” he added.
He turned the power up again and made a big counter-clockwise turn. Passing over the Sihwa Lake embankment, Hyeongdo Island, Eum Island and the Sihwa industrial complex, he finally brought the plane back to the airfield and we landed.
About 20 hours of flight practice is required to get a license to fly one of the planes, and the passing rate is higher than 90 percent. The tuition fee is 2.5 million won ($2,500). The price of a plane ranges from 40 million won to 80 million won, depending on the model and the engine size.
However, most people choose to rent a plane at a club at a cost of about 45,000 ($45) to 70,000 won per hour. Renting, however, is only open to members, and a membership costs 600,000 won per year. For those who don’t have a license, you can try a sample flight with an instructor.
There are 21 designated light plane flight zones around the country. You can fly outside the zones as long as you turn in a flight plan to the regional aviation administration beforehand.
And as long as you don’t fly over a military base or airport, you are safe depending on your piloting skills. You can spread your wings as far as you wish to in search of freedom.
by Choi Hyun-chul