South Bay sky trike
Otherwise known as weight-shift-control light sport aircraft because that’s how you steer them — by shifting your weight.
by Dexter Ford
You’ve seen them buzzing along the beach like monstrous bees, or swooping low like Skittles-colored seagulls off the Manhattan Beach Roundhouse. They look—and sound—like the unholy spawn of a hang glider and an industrial-strength leaf blower. Some people love these carefree, airborne symbols of freedom and fun. Some people—not so much. As with many loud, brightly-colored adult toys, from Ducatis to Lamborghinis to Jet Skis, these tiny, open-air airplanes look incredible fun if you’re the one steering. For the rest of us, those of us staring up at all the noise and merriment, uninvited from the aerial fun-fest—well, your emotions may vary.
But where do these things come from? Is there an airborne biker bar hidden somewhere on the industrial side of the 405? Is there a secret Bat Cave that houses these bat-like airplanes, presumably owned by a reclusive, wealthy thrill seeker, a kind of Beach Cities Bruce Wayne?
A few seconds on Google provided some answers. These airplanes are flown by Pacific Blue Air, a flight school that specializes in what are called Weight-Shift-Control Light Sport Aircraft. From its base hangar at the Hawthorne Airport, just south of the 105 Freeway, Pacific Blue conducts introductory flight lessons that just happen to go over some of the most beautiful and interesting sites in Southern California. After the first, fun-oriented intro lesson, Pacific Blue can also take you all the way to earning a full Light Sport Pilot’s License, setting you loose to fly across the country if you want.
They may look a little Backyard Buck Rogers at first sight, but these airplanes are FAA certified, exhaustively tested and rigorously engineered. Small, single-engine airplanes, like routine Pipers and Cessnas, are typically built to withstand about three times the force of gravity — that is, to support three times their loaded weight. The LSA that Pacific Blue flies, the Evolution Revo, is designed and tested to twice that—6gs. So even though it may look like a combination of a lawn dart, espresso machine, and a bloated bobsled, it is very much a serious, civilized airplane.
Instead of conventional controls, these trikes, as they are called in the business, are steered by the pilot adjusting the angle of the wing relative to the body of the plane hanging underneath. This method of control is older than the first airplane. The gliders that inspired the Wright brothers, flown by the German pioneer Otto Lilienthal, were controlled this way, as are the thousands of unpowered hang gliders. Instead of a control yoke or a joystick, the pilot holds the bottom of a big aluminum triangle that is rigidly attached to the wing flying above, while the fuselage, complete with engine, pilot, and passenger, actually dangles beneath like a plumb bob. It sounds sketchy. But it works.
The Blueberry Sea Dragon
Pacific Blue Air’s headquarters hangar is located just a couple hundred feet north of Elon Musk’s SpaceX compound. When I arrived, peeling off the 105 freeway, I saw a bizarre contraption touching down on the runway, a crazy-looking, blueberry-colored gyrocopter that looked like a cross between Barney the Dinosaur and a Leafy Sea Dragon from an aquarium shop. Sure enough, the madman who was flying it was going to be my own personal madman, errr, flight guide.
Henry Boger, the company’s owner, is a Certified Flight Instructor, fully examined and licensed by the FAA. He has been flying for over 25 years. He’s fun, smart and warmly proficient, with the rare ability to teach without making learning feel like work. Since I’m already a licensed pilot, Henry cut to the chase, giving me a quick walk around our bright yellow Zonker of an airplane, setting me up with a flight suit and helmet, complete with headphones and microphone, and strapping me into the rear seat of the Revo. You don’t so much sit in a Revo as on it; my manly legs were soon wrapped tightly around Henry. Most Light Sport Aircraft flying is done from smaller, uncontrolled airfields, but Hawthorne is a bonafide big boy airport, complete with business jets and an FAA control tower. Which meant that when Henry wasn’t chatting to me over the headphones and intercom, he was talking to Hawthorne tower as we taxied out, did our preflight checklist and engine run-up, and then, cleared for takeoff, trundled out onto the runway. The 5,000-foot runway at Hawthorne could be considered excessive for our purposes. Henry gunned the throttle of our 100-horsepower Rotax engine and had our lightweight craft well into the air after only about 500 feet. “That’s Harrison Ford’s new hangar complex, for his airplane collection,” he said as we climbed over the runway, pointing out a massive 3-hangar construction site on the northeast corner of the airport. Hawthorne Airport is right on the boundary of the LAX restricted airspace. It felt bizarre to be climbing in a vibrating, open-air June bug, humming over the gray expanse of the city, flying parallel to huge Airbus A380s descending into LAX just the other side of the 105 freeway.
On Top of the World
We climbed to a bit over 1,000 feet and set sail for the coast, the afternoon sun reddening as we flew. True to his instructor nature, Henry had me take the controls to get acclimated to flying this odd beast. If you’re an experienced pilot, everything you know is suddenly wrong. In a normal Cessna — or, for that matter, an F-18 — you pull back on the flight controls to go up and push forward to go down. The Revo works exactly the opposite. Which made my first attempts to keep us flying straight and level an exercise in doing anything but. “Pilots make some of the worst students,” said Henry, laughing. “New students don’t have to break any old habits before they can start making new ones.”
Pacific Blue Air will take you anywhere in the Los Angeles area you want to go. Many out-of-towners choose a tour of the Hollywood sign. But their usual flight path — which I have observed many times from the comfort of my backyard hot tub — takes them along the Valley/Ardmore green belt, over Manhattan Beach to the pier, then follows the coast south to Palos Verdes. Once over the ocean, Henry dived down to wave-to-the-surfers altitude — FAA regulations allow this type of slow, lightweight craft to fly as low as desired above water or deserted areas, so long as they are not over people or structures. This is far safer than it looks, or feels. Because of our slow speed and short landing distance, we could pop down onto the sand and land in a few seconds if we had an engine problem, with little risk to ourselves or anyone on the ground.
The low, slow hello
The experience was gorgeous. The entire Los Angeles basin was laid out underneath us as if we were flying in our own private beach chairs. We were low enough to wave to people on the pier, and people walking along the beach, and see them happily wave back. It felt a bit like being the mayor, waving to the crowd in a July 4th parade. Or like Charles Lindbergh, waving to the crowd at Le Bourget airport outside Paris after his long, lonely flight over the Atlantic.
We hummed along over the blue/green Pacific, keeping our eyes peeled for dolphins and Grey Whales, swooped down to check in at the Hermosa pier, and then approached King Harbor. The airspace south of the harbor is managed by the Torrance Airport control tower, but it took just a quick radio call to get clearance to fly through — we were so low, there was little chance we would interfere with Torrance air traffic. Then it was on to Palos Verdes, skimming along just a couple hundred feet above the cliffs. I pointed out where my wife and I were married, on a cliff just west of Point Vicente.
“We sometimes go all the way out to Catalina,” Henry said. “But with the sun going down in an hour or so, I think we’ll turn around and start heading back.” I had cleverly failed to wear a jacket over my official Pacific Blue Air jumpsuit, and my hands were starting to ice up in my thin gloves. Note to self: Flying in February, at 80 mph, in a completely open airplane, suggest dressing warmly. As a veteran pilot and motorcyclist, I blame myself. Next time, it’s the full winter riding gear and big, fuzzy ski gloves.
There She Blows
We did spot one whale blowing, just off the kelp line, as we circled over the Catalina Channel, shadowing a whale-watching boat out of King Harbor. But the whale sounded after that breath and disappeared from view. We tracked back north up the coast, watching seagulls pirouette beneath us. “I’ve never had a bird come too close to our planes,” Henry said. “My guess is we are going so slowly, they have plenty of time to see us coming and get out of the way.”
I had told my next-door neighbor, Kevin Barry, that I would circle over our Manhattan Beach Tree-Section street during my flight. Sure enough, I soon spotted our house, with its solar-panel array on the roof, and we took the time to spiral overhead. I couldn’t see Kevin, from our FAA-required altitude of 1,000 feet above the city, but he told me later that he had, indeed, spotted us and waved, this time from the comfort of his hot tub.
To the Batcave
After landing at Hawthorne, we quickly taxied back to Pacific Blue Air headquarters. With the engine shut off, Henry used our momentum to coast right back into the hangar. From the control tower, it looked like we had simply disappeared from view. “The controllers like to call our hangar The Bat Cave,” Henry said. “We pop in and out, right onto the taxiway, just like the Batmobile”.
Introductory LSA flight lessons, like the one I took, start at $175 for a 30-minute flight. Bring a nice warm ski parka and big, toasty gloves. For more information, visit pacificblueairla.com.