Adopting An Orphaned Ultralight

Owning and flying your own small airplane offers a nearly unmatched level of freedom and autonomy. Traveling “as the crow flies” without having to deal with traffic on the ground immediately shrinks your world, and makes possible all sorts of trips and adventures. Unfortunately the crippling downsides of plane ownership (storage and maintenance costs, knowledge that you might die in a fiery crash, etc), keeps most of us planted squarely on terra firma.

But not [ITman496]. His dream of owning an ultralight has recently come true, and he’s decided to share his experience with the world. He’s got a long way to go before he slips the surly bonds of Earth, but there’s no better place to start than the beginning. In a recent blog post he documents the process of getting his new toy home, and details some of the work he plans on doing to get it airworthy.

The plane in question is a Mini-MAX that [ITman496] has determined is not only older than he is, but has never flown. It was built by a retired aircraft mechanic who unfortunately had problems with his heart towards the end of assembly. He wisely decided that he should find a safer way to spend his free time than performing solo flights in an experimental aircraft, so he put the plane up for sale.

After a considerable adventure transporting the plane back home, [ITman496] found it was stored in such good condition that the engine started right up. But that doesn’t mean it’s ready for takeoff by any stretch of the imagination. For his own safety, he’s planning on tearing down the entire plane to make sure everything is in good shape and assembled correctly; so at least he’ll only have himself to blame if anything happens when he’s in the air.

One the plane’s structure is sound, he’ll move on to some much needed engine modifications including a way to adjust the air-fuel mixture from inside the cockpit, improvements to the cooling system, and installation of a exhaust system that’s actually intended for the two-stroke engine he has. When that’s done, [ITman496] is going to move onto the real fun stuff: creating his own “glass cockpit”.

For Hackaday readers who don’t spend their time playing make believe in flight simulators, a “glass cockpit” is a general term for using digital displays rather than analog gauges in a vehicle. [ITman496] has already bought two daylight-readable 10.1″ IPS displays which he plans on driving over HDMI with the Raspberry Pi. No word on what his software setup and sensor array will look like, but we’re eager to hear more as the project progresses.

If you’re not lucky enough to find a mostly-complete kit plane nearby on Craigslist, you could always just make your own airplane out of sheets of foam.

69 thoughts on “Adopting An Orphaned Ultralight

    1. I see this reaction a lot to small airplanes, and it is understandable but it also saddens me. I think with enough care and precautions and good habits, small aircraft like this can be made safe enough that the risk is acceptable. There will always be some risk, but there is always risk in everything we do. People die every day in cars, on motorcycles, doing fun things related to sports and hobbies.. Nothing is completely safe but I think with good training, practice, and care, even things like ultralight aircraft can be made safe enough that they can be enjoyable and you can reasonably expect to come back down to the ground safely after departing it, much like most motorcycle riders reasonably expect to wind up back in their driveways at the end of the day.

      1. I have driven motorcycles for decades. I always looked at them as things that really wanted to kill you, so you had to pay attention to driving them. Than I tried a hoverboard. They make bikes seem safe by comparison. If you think this ultralight is dangerous perhaps you should try a homebrew helicopter.

        1. Yeah, I have seen homemade helicopters and mad respect to people who make them. Maybe I will some day, but for now.. too much for me. =) I’ve never tried a hoverboard, purely because I feel like I will last about 3 seconds and then become fodder material for a hoverboard fails compilation.

        2. I went to a really great “hands on” engineering college with really active engineering clubs. One club outing was helicopter flights. Everyone was really psyched and ignored me as I proceeded to chat the pilot’s ear off asking a million questions, including autorotation.

          He then demonstrated!

          Only one of us wanted a second flight after that :)

        3. I raced motocross, flat track, and hare scrambles on motorcycles for 8 years and went down about 300 times. Only once did I separate some ribs. My rule was stay off the street. That said, I have lusted after an ultralight for years. Ground school, lessons and 200 hours on a simulator has only enlightened me as to the risk. It only takes a second of bad judgement, engine out, structural failure, weather, a bird, or another plane to end your adventure.

    2. Balanced by something my flight instructor told me when he started training me to be an instructor (but I had to move across the country, and never completed…). Paraphrased:

      “Despite the maintenance, pre-flight inspections, flight-plans, weather checks & preparations, training, skills development, practice and care, we end up in all sorts of situations where we should not survive – yet we do. Best guess I have is that it’s like a bakery. You enter and you take your number. When your number is up, your number is up. If it’s before your number is up, then it’s like someone up there went ‘Whoa, what’s that one doing! This is interesting. I’m just going to give a little nudge to clear that ______ so we’ll keep them around to see what they do next time.’ ”
      yrmv – a lot

      Taking it all apart to be sure. And it was an aircraft mechanic who built it. Seems excessive. But, and it’s a big but, that is exactly what you do to be sure. Whenever you can, line up all of the cards/dominoes in your favour. When you can’t, don’t fly.

      Like the old hands testing the newbie/new pilot at the field: the weather is iffy, see if he’ll be prodded/pushed into flying or if he’ll calmly take the ribbing yet stick to his judgment that his skills aren’t up to this weather. What he does tells you if he’s likely to be an old hand one day, or can be cultivated in that direction, or if you don’t want to get close and need to keep yours clear so he doesn’t take you out too.

    3. I’ve been building and flying homebuilt aircraft since 1985. I’m still kicking! Just because you are too afraid to live a life of adventure, please don’t try to project your fears on others. You are more likely to be killed driving to the airport than in an aircraft accident.

      1. Oh, that’s definitely the plan. My main timeline is going to be: get plane rebuilt, working, inspected by several aircraft friends, get real legitimate training to fly an ultralight, and then begin taxiing, hopping, and then finally flying.

        1. Experimental aircraft owner here! The FAA has an AC that’s very useful for planning test flights:

          They also have another AC that helps outline some maintenance and inspection techniques:

          Good luck, and welcome to the club!

  1. I would give much more safety credits to analog gauges than a Raspberry Pi ones. Those extra layers of complexity (sensors, cabling, ´Pi electronics, OS, storage, GUI, power supply) don´t add up to safety. Even an Arduino based glass cockpit would probably be more reliable. Having both (analog-mechanic and digital) would.

      1. Yes, you hit the nail on the head.

        The main reason for the glass cockpit is mainly for the cool factor, because I’ve always wanted to make one. So now I am. Also I will be able to keep an eye on a lot more things then with the gauges.

        Technically I don’t need any electricity flowing through the aircraft at all, so all instrumentation is a nice to have. That said, there will be a backup cluster of very essential things. The reason I’m using an RPi is mainly because I struggle to get an Arduino to drive an HDMI display with enough fidelity to be useful for a bunch of graphic elements. I have not found any 1000nit brightness 10″ Arduino displays!


        1. A lot of experimentals, like various Vans RV’s projects, have panels with a place for an iPad (with GPS), which is the glass panel or/and navigation.

          And Dynon makes great avionics for this market that is lower cost because home-builts. I think because don’t need all the certs.

          But I suggest that the most important life-saver for you aside from the sacred 6 or the top 3, is an angle of attack indicator. Stalls during takeoff and landing or in the pattern are the most common killers IIRC. AOA is the way to go. It is being installed as standard equipment in newer planes. In fact, Dynon’s sister company, Vashon Aircraft, makes the Ranger which comes with AOA with audible warnings.

          1. There are AOA sensors that I don’t understand, but they look like they have a pitot-like device with an extra hole on the bottom. I suspect a differential pressure thing of some sort based on relative wind.

        2. Epaper springs to mind, since it’s sunlight-readable, but has this problem of not indicating when it loses power…

          Could be good for maps, hourmeters, weather info, stuff that doesn’t change quickly. No compass… :P

        3. “The reason I’m using an RPi is mainly because I struggle to get an Arduino to drive an HDMI display with enough fidelity to be useful for a bunch of graphic elements.”

          “most of the instrumentation is more for information and/or show than flight safety”

          0. very much luck to you. Have fun. Life is short.
          1. recommend the Teensy 3.5 or 3.6 – more than enough processing resources for this ( The libraries by PJRC are more performant (is that a word), and far more robust the the laughable arduino stuff; but if you must, the ardy IDE and libs can be used on all of PJRC’s Teensy product line.
          2. humans are designed to be programmed (‘learn’) through repetition. Once you have about 10 hours in front of a glass cockpit, you will develop some level of dependency on these instruments. This is a very strong effect to the low-time pilot. This is why partial-panel drills are common pilot training.
          3. Find an engineer that is a licensed pilot to bounce ideas off.With a little help, ARINC 825 / CAN is realistic.

          1. I actually am a huge fan of the teensy. I use them in lots of stuff I make! I would jump to that in a heartbeat if I could find a “arduino to hdmi” converter that I liked. Or a 10″ 1000nit screen that took commands over SPI that wasn’t awful.

            I do understand the dependency and complacency that I will wind up having on this system, so I do plan on trying to make it as robust as possible. As for the partial panel drill, a training and practice system is honestly one of the ideas I had for this thing that would help me become better. Things like offsetting the instruments to that ground level is actually 2000 feet in the air, to practice sudden reaction times to failures at low altitude, while safely much higher up in the air, using the instruments to obviously tell if I didn’t quite make it to the ground nicely, as well as simulated instrument failures.

            I do have a couple pilot friends that I am bouncing ideas off of already, I am striving to find one that is an engineer, however!

      2. So the digital instrumentation is a suppliment to mechanical controls and indicators?
        IE things like GPS, windspeed, gyro, etc.
        I don’t have much experience with flight controls, but I did tear down a glider control panel a friend gave me. It was running windows CE and had a capacitive touchscreen. I have no clue how it got vetted to hold someone’s life in its hands.

        1. Well, the fact that made it into an aircraft makes me feel better about mine! Wow..

          And yes, the digital stuff is a main nice looking way of seeing tons of information, but there will be a backup of the key key ones (altitude, airspeed, compass, fuel) Don’t really need gyro because you are not allowed to fly the aircraft in any condition where you can’t see the horizon anyway. And the controls are still cable operated, but I will have electric trim tabs.

    1. I do not know of any plans that are free/open source (but there might be) but I do know that normal plans are not that expensive, especially compared to the cost of materials. Most aircraft, this one included, will sell you a well priced kit of raw materials and plans.

    2. Michael Sandlin has published impressively detailed CAD drawings of the various ultralight gliders and motor floaters he’s built over the years (most recently the powered Bug 4), and released them into the public domain. Several people have built duplicates from his plans.

      He also participates in a yahoo group, answering questions about how he built his aircraft.

    1. I ordered it from some random LCD company on Alibaba. I am considering buying more of them and selling them off for cheap because.. man they were cheap. I’ve seen displays with a third the brightness sell for twice as much as I paid for these on major sites like Adafruit. I wish they stocked these!

  2. Looks like a sweet aircraft. There’s thousands of them flying around the world.
    I know the man who owned Mini Max before he sold it to the guys in MI.
    If you want to meet him, the airport where he built and sold kits, has a fly-in / drive-in every New Years day.
    John Graber will be there and some of the guys who built mini max planes. There’ll be some of his planes there.
    I’ve flown in there before. Doesn’t matter how cold it is, they always grill brats and
    have homemade food.
    I verifed that they’re having the fly-in / drive-in.
    I’ll be driving there this yr.
    It starts at 11 AM ends at 2 PM

    New Years Day Fly-In 2019
    Nappanee Municipal Airport (C03)
    24751 US 6 E
    Nappanee, Indiana 46550

  3. Super cool! I look forward to following this rebuild and following the process of building up to a full first flight. I’m always fascinated by people that have the guts to build and fly their own airplane, but then remind myself that I’ve driven cars that I built the suspension on over mountainous roads at 80+mph. Comfort zones are very personal I guess.

    Any idea how long something like this can stay in the air? My only ultralight experience was following Peter Sripol build his electric, just curious how flight times on a gas engine compare to electric. Anyway good luck and fly safe!

    1. Thank you! Honestly, people like you are what is going to really motivate me to push through the problems, knowing it will be a good read for someone other then me! So thank you.

      Totally agree with comfort zones. As I said in an earlier comment, I think it is as safe as you make it. Be careful and do things correctly, and you’ll probably be fine, short of a fluke that is out of your hands. And honestly, I really don’t concern myself too much with things completely out of my hands. If I did, I’d never be able to enjoy anything, and just be waiting for that meteor to crash into me.

      My engine seems to consume (based on some googling) around 2-2.5gph of fuel depending on how ham fisted you are. I have a 5 gallon fuel tank, so if you stretch it super thin, around 2 hours. Realistically 1.5 with reserve. But after I get some aerodynamic improvements and streamlining, maybe it will be more efficient?

      I got into this with peter’s build as well, and as much as I love electric, I don’t know if its the way for an ultralight. He’s losing out on 40ish lbs of free weight because fuel weight doesn’t count but batteries do. And batteries have so much less energy then gasoline for the time being. As a result, it seems like he’s only really able to fly for a few minutes at a time. I think maybe 15?

  4. It’s the range that gets you. Sure you can beat local traffic to a select few specific destinations, but where can you actually go with people and baggage? I remember doing the math on this and it seemed pretty hard to justify a small aircraft. Intrastate travel maybe, definitely not interatate. Business jets seemed like about the minimum size/speed combo before some other form of travel is faster/more convenient

    1. Vans RV7 or 8 (or other RV). 200mph. 600ft grass airstrip to full size airports. 30mpg and the cost of a sports car. Range depends on power setting. 1000 miles in 5.5 hours — 800 miles in 4 hours. Owners call them “time machines” because you can do in a day or a weekend, what requires a week vacation by car.

      I have family in my home state that are over 5 ours away by interstate. For an RV owner they are 40 minutes away.

      (You can’t fly this weight, speed, or variable pitch prop on just a Sport Pilot certificate.)

      1. Totally agree. These ultralights are not economical or efficient or practical in the same way that a dirt bike isn’t a commuter vehicle. I didn’t get into it because I wanted to travel, though, I got into it because I wanted to fly.

        As for what you are saying Regnirps, that is my eventual dream. I have my eyes set on either a Vans or a Velocity. If I somehow do extra well, my dream dream dream airplane to build some day is a Velocity V-Twin. But realistically, I will probably settle with a Kitfox or something. Still a great aircraft.

        1. Kitfox costs as much as an RV, is a lot slower, but will land ANYWHERE. I like the ICP Savannah Light Sport with tundra tires in this category. It cakes a couple hundred feet at the most. 300 hour kit build and there is a tail dragger version.

          A Kitfox will cost as much as an RV. A Savannah about half as much. The RV has a huge friendly builder/owner community and aftermarket goodies, but you have to jump through the hoops of Experimental and full pilot’s license.

          Your plane looks a lot more like a Light Sport to me than an Ultralight. I just wish there was something cheaper than a Rotax.

          1. My plane is indeed an ultralight, and it uses a Kawasaki engine rather then rotax, which I believe most would use on this airframe.

            I honestly had no idea an RV cost the same as a Kitfox. That.. changes things.

  5. Back when 2 seat ultralights could be used as trainers by what was then called Basic Flight Instructors (not cfi), I used to train ultralight pilots. 2 of my students tried to do their own first solos on their own. Sadly they got killed. One of the student pilots I firmly told he was not ready. He reportedly took off ok, but flew over an area where he could ld not land. He had an engine out and know lled himself. The other student pilot I think was just trying to do a fast taxi down the runway when he became airborn and decided to go around. He killed himself when trying to land. When he became airborn, he should have leveled off and slowly pulled the power back and let the plane just settle back on the ground.
    If you fly a two stroke, you will have an engin out, you just don’t know when. You should actually fly any single engine aircraft like a glider. Always have a good landing field within easy glide with wind direction and speed taken into consideration.
    I used to give my students about 10 hours if emergency training before turning them loose. You would be wise to get that kind of training too. I’d start training right now so you are well trained before you start test flying.
    Fly safe…

    1. That’s terrible to hear! =(

      I know, I’ve learned a lot about 2 strokes and their fickle nature after talking to a lot of people about them. I will be very sure to always keep in mind that the fan in front of me can stop spinning at any time.

      I have 10 hours of training lined up for me with an ultralight instructor. I will make sure that he covers lots of emergency situations with me. The idea is to build the plane, and before I do anything with it, get my training, then immediately start taxiing and hop testing the airplane, then flying, while the training is fresh in my head. I have no desire to taxi it around at speed and hop it with no training, I know from RC planes how easy it is to accidentally take off if the wind decides it wants you in the sky.

  6. Many years ago I remember reading an article in Popular Science about a guy who lived in the Soviet Union. He wanted to b e a pilot but was not allowed. He designed an ultralight that came apart and could be carried in a few suitcases. He would drive out into the country somewhere, assemble his plane, fly it, disassemble and pack it up all in a night. After the borders opened up I think he came to the US and tried to sell his design. I’m kind of fuzzy on the exact details, this was a long time ago.

    Anyway… his story would make a great HaD article if someone can find him!

  7. I bought Kitfox with a Rotax 582 from a friend of mine less than a year ago. I sold it to him about 10 years ago. I’ve replaced the whole fuel delivery system from the tanks to the carbs. Overhauled the carbs. Added back up electrical fuel pump. Rewired most of it. Replaced the bungi suspension, new tires. I finally tried to start it up Sunday. It almost started, but has weak spark. Has anyone else solved the weak spark issue on a Rotax 582 before? I realize it could be many things, just thinking someone might give me a new idea.

      1. If you want to make sure you finish your Mni Max project, hold off on doing anything to it that is not absolutely necessary to get the plane certified. After it is certified and flying, then you can do phase 2, such as glass cockpit, or anything that is non essential but really cool.

        1. Definitely! However the only certification it has to pass is my own, as nobody legally has to actually look at it for it to be allowed to fly. But I think I’ll probably be pickier and more worried about it then someone else would be, anyway.

          1. If you have the 1030F Max-103 with the Hirth F-33, 28 hp, or 28-30 hp engine that weighs no more than the Hirth F-33, you ok. If you have one of the other Mini max models you won’t be ok. Which model do you have?

  8. Ok, I just looked at a picture of the true ultralight Mini Max. It has a tube and fabric fuselage and yours looks like plywood. I think you have the experimental version, which is a good thing because they are stronger and much more airworthy and can take more powerful engines and don’t get kicked around nearly as much while trying to land.

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