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TRIKES - Just How Safe Are They?

by Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer

Look, up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's someone with a death wish?

First you hear the buzz too loud for a mosquito and too quiet for an airplane. Then you glimpse the red triangular wing and open undercarriage, propeller and three wheels.

Who is that guy? And what, for heaven's sake, is he piloting? 

Chances are it's Michael Globensky, a fun-loving French Canadian and Petaluma transplant bopping around Sonoma County in his motorized hang glider, or flex-wing trike.

One moment, he's swooping and spiraling with the turkey vultures. The next, he's waving to gawkers below, landing on a coastal bluff, savoring farm and ocean views from 1,500 feet as the angelic music of Sarah Brightman flows through his headphones, or dipping lower to check up on the neighbors.

In low flight, 'You can see Bill's house,' he says. 'You can see if his wife's car is there. Bill's car is not there, but Jack's car is. You wonder, what is Jack doing with Bill's wife?'

Flying trikes, a type of ultralight aircraft, is the closest thing to bird-like flight man has yet achieved. At least, so say the few and the brave, Globensky among them.

For some ground huggers, however, there's that nagging gravity issue'the tendency of things to fall to Earth with a splat.

Not to worry, Globensky, 46, says with a French accent both charming and somehow reassuring. 'The point of danger is when you have too much self-confidence, when you think you're above and beyond. Then you're doomed to be remembered as, 'He was such a good guy.'

'The danger isn't the craft. The danger is the pilot and the weather.'

Globensky speaks with considerable authority on this subject. He has taught an estimated 2,500 students to pilot either hang gliders or trikes since he began flying at age 17 in his native Montreal (no injuries or crashes so far, he reports).

He's also a glider pilot, ski instructor, motorcycle enthusiast, inventor and jack-of-all-trades'an adventurer who conveys such a lust for life, the long hours you spend toiling in an office seem pathetically tame. 'I have to be one of the luckiest guys in the world,' he says.

His trike students have included a World War II Spitfire pilot who was 80-plus years old and a 56-year-old man blind in one eye as a result of a wound in Vietnam. There was also a 9-year-old girl whose typically slow speech turned to rapid speech after one flight and whose amazed parents think the experience might have been therapeutic.

'All kinds of stuff can happen when you go flying,' Globensky says with a shrug. 'Maybe it's the air.'

Despite his warning about the dangers of too much self-confidence, an ample supply of it is precisely what many riders  want from him when they climb into the two-seat cockpit for the first time. Invariably, he earns their trust within minutes of lift-off, which is steep and can be a bit hair-raising sort of like riding an elevator to the 40th floor at twice the usual speed.

In the sky, his expertise is quickly evident. He finesses his ersatz bird through skittish air currents by moving the control bar in front of him and by shifting his weight. There's no rudder, elevator or ailerons as in other aircraft.

Simply put, his movements are poetry in motion.

'I would trust him with my wife, my kids, anyone,' says Joseph Sheridan, 58, a Rohnert Park resident, part-time retail worker and student of Globensky with nine hours of trike time under his belt. 'He's an extremely safe and sane person. He's more than competent he has a feel for trikes.'

Certainly, Marti Watterman yearned for trust when she recently met Globensky at Petaluma Airport, where his Spirits Up flight-instruction business is based, for her first flight. Just a week earlier, the clinical social worker and psychotherapist from Oakland had gotten trapped underwater when her raft flipped over on the North Fork of the American River.

Another traumatic incident was the last thing she needed.

'As soon as I met Michael, all that stuff just disappeared from my thoughts,' Watterman says. 'He's funny and witty and warm. He can be quite a cut-up. When he's serious about business, though, he's completely serious.'

The best part of her flight, a 50th-birthday gift, was probably the 'wall of jasmine' fragrance they motored through somewhere over Bodega Bay, she says. It was so pungent and tantalizing, in fact, that they circled back for another whiff.

That's the thing about flying in trikes: All senses come alive in the open cockpit. The fields below don't just look green; they reek of alfalfa. And exposed skin serves as a gauge of air temperature, which can change radically from one moment to the next depending on altitude and other factors.

The popularity of trikes in the United States is just beginning to take off, according to John Ballantyne, founder of and senior adviser to the 12,400-member U.S. Ultralight Association in Frederick, Md. Though statistics are lacking (the Federal Aviation Administration requires certification only of two-seat trikes not single seaters flown for instruction), he estimates there are roughly 6,000 of them.

There used to be no calls [to the association] about trikes, Ballantyne says. Now, probably every third call is about trikes.

These aren't slapdash contraptions taped or glued together with spare materials in someone's garage. Rather, they're expertly designed and assembled, and incorporate the latest high-strength fabric, aviation-grade aluminum tubing and high-performance engines. Amphibious models are now on the market, too, putting a new spin on the term 'fly fishing.'

Most trikes are built by manufacturers in Europe, where trike flying is a much older tradition. Prices of domestic and foreign models range from about $7,500 to $30,000.

 The National Transportation Safety Board doesn't monitor trike accidents because officially trikes are for sport, not transportation. But based on his thousands of contacts among trike enthusiasts and other pilots, Ballantyne says their safety record equals that of ultralights generally.

'It's as safe as you want to make it, says Sheridan, the trike student from Rohnert Park who also is an airplane pilot. 'I think it's much safer than an airplane. The forces on it are a lot lighter and the landing speeds are a lot slower. The stopping distance is literally 200 feet.'

The difference between flying a trike and flying an airplane is like the difference between riding a motorcycle and driving a car, enthusiasts say. The trike pilot and motorcycle rider are more aware of and responsive to their surroundings, must remain focused at all times to avoid sudden disaster and are more a part of their machines.

'You're a pendulum under the wing, whereas in a powered plane or glider, you're fixed in relation to the wing,' Sheridan explains.

Globensky's personal code of conduct doesn't even allow for trike mishaps. 'Getting injured or having accidents is illegal,' he says firmly. 'Repairing is illegal. We don't carry spare parts I think it's bad luck to have spare parts. That means you expect to destroy something or not to land properly.

His mantra: 'You have to study. You have to practice, practice, practice. You have to compete with yourself and see how well you're absorbing the information, how you're performing. You have to keep pushing yourself all the time.'

Globensky's 80-hp trike, with a wingspan of 33 feet, can range up to 400 miles on a tank of auto fuel and, unlike hang gliders, doesn't depend on updrafts to stay aloft or on leg power for launching. Riders sit erect on comfortable seats that offer unrestricted and spectacular some might say heart-stopping views in three-dimensional space.

'It was all too short,' Bonnie Hembd, 78, a retired school librarian and teacher in Healdsburg, says of her flight last year. 'It was unique flying over the sea gulls circling above the farm ponds, and seeing cattle and the lay of the land.'

Globensky has more in common with birds than moving through air. Like ducks, he's migratory, venturing at times from Petaluma down to Southern California and back when the weather permits.

Last December, he and a student delivered a new trike from Phoenix to Stockton, which entailed flying over Southern California's Tehachapi mountains at 11,500 feet while bucking Santa Ana winds of up to 25 knots. They arrived safely in the Bakersfield area only to discover it was fogged in, with visibility of about 1 mile.

Low on fuel and flying a 'W' pattern in search of the airport, they spotted a group of guys riding motor bikes in a field, and made a rough landing nearby to ask for directions.

'It was a classic scene,' Globensky recalls. 'They shut down their engines and looked at me like, 'Wow.' Then I opened my visor and said, 'Excuse me. Do you know where the airport is?'

'All of them pointed in the same direction at the same time. That was a good feeling because I was afraid one would say, 'Go this way,' and another would say, 'Go that way.''

The hunt soon ended safely at Bakersfield Airport about 8 miles away, although officials there became concerned when Globensky dropped from the sky and buzzed the field to assess the situation (his radio wasn't functioning). Later on the trip, he narrowly avoided an oncoming C-130 Hercules cargo plane near Travis Air Force Base by climbing quickly and passing over it.

'Everything was done by'' And here, groping for the right words in English to describe the journey, he grabs the seat of his pants.

This reporter got a taste of Globensky's seat-of-the-pants maneuvering on a recent 40-mile roundtrip flight from Petaluma to the rugged Sonoma County coast. The pace is a blistering 45 to 50 mph.

Fun gives way to an adrenaline rush when our captain decides to land on a dirt track atop a wind-swept oceanside bluff between Bodega Bay and Dillon Beach, where the only inhabitants are sheep and cattle.

He circles the landing site once to gauge the wind speed and direction, then drops in from the west. With deft micro-movements of the control bar and by shifting his weight ever so slightly forward and backward, right and left, he compensates for the unexpected crosswind by staying just to the left of the dirt track until a second before touchdown.

After a quick stroll among poppies, irises and scrub brush, we are back in the trike and zooming down the track toward bluff's edge and the chill Pacific drink hundreds of feet below it in pursuit of lift. This is when Globensky's earlier joke about bringing along a face mask, snorkel and fins seems, on second thought, like good advice.

But soon we are aloft and climbing fast. 'Boys will be boys!' Globensky hoots as the trike swirls upward into an empty blue heaven.

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