Local Business

The Lightness of Flight

Ultralight flight school makes flying accessible and affordable—picturesque local views included

“Ultralights have opened up the sport of recreational flying to ordinary people,” says Andreas Ruttkiewicz, coming in for a landing at the Courtenay Airpark. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

On a sunny September afternoon I had the opportunity to go for an ultralight flight with Andreas Ruttkiewicz of Airspeed High Ultralight Flight School, located at the Courtenay Airpark.

The ease of an ultralight flight is impressive—it takes surprisingly little time and effort to prepare the plane and ourselves for our flight.  And once on the runway I was a little surprised when our wheels left the ground.  Once aloft, we gained altitude quickly and soon we were flying high above the water, over Goose Spit and Little Mexico and then heading south with Denman Island to our left and the Beaufort Range to our right.

As we circled westward to fly above Cumberland and Comox Lake I was able to see familiar sights from a vantage point that was both mesmerizing and breathtaking.  Before turning back to the airpark Ruttkiewicz allowed me to take the controls.  The plane was so much fun to fly, so forgiving, capable and maneuverable.  It was an energizing and invigorating experience I was sorry to see end.   As we touched down, I realized I was entranced with ultralight flight and I began to work out how I could learn to fly one on my own.

Fortunately, Ruttkiewicz can help with that. According to Ruttkiewicz, flying one’s own ultralight is more accessible than people think.  “Most people think that flight is reserved for only those who are rich, but ultralights have opened up the sport of recreational flying to ordinary people,” he says.  “In fact, recreational flying is the only form of aviation in Canada that is growing.”

Ruttkiewicz and I flew above the Comox Valley in a 2006 Challenger II advanced ultralight manufactured by Quad City Aircraft Corporation of Moline, Illinois.  Actually, the kit was manufactured by Quad City, but the airplane itself was assembled by Ruttkiewicz.  It took Ruttkiewicz about 400 hours—or a year and a half—to build his ultralight, but he still recommends the experience to anyone.

“Building a Challenger, or any plane for that matter, is a very rewarding experience and I recommend it—so long as you are either single or have the support of your spouse.”

The basic kit for a Challenger ultralight is about $25,000 but you can find them used for less.  And ultralights are less expensive to operate than standard airplanes. “Many people might balk at the price of an ultralight, but people pay $25,000 for a snowmobile and don’t even blink.  And as far as everyday use, well, basically it’s cheaper to go for a flight in an ultralight than it is to go to see a movie with theatre snacks.”

Ruttkiewicz is very happy with his Challenger ultralight.  “This airplane is a lot of fun.  It’s proven and it’s solid,” he says.  “The Challenger is one of the safest and most popular ultralights anywhere.  There are over 600 in Canada and over 3,000 worldwide.  In fact, there are four Challengers at the Courtenay Airpark.  And it’s not a flying lawn chair like some people think.  It’s a very capable airplane.  It can land at international airports as long as it’s equipped with a transponder, and its range is impressive—3.5 hours at 70 miles an hour.  It’s even got heat so we can fly it year round.  Back east, where the winters are especially cold, they fly them all winter long.”

Andreas Ruttkieawicz’ plane is a 2006 Challenger II advanced ultralight, which he built himself. “It’s proven and it’s solid,” he says. “The Challenger is one of the safest and most popular ultralights anywhere.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Andreas Ruttkieawicz’ plane is a 2006 Challenger II advanced ultralight, which he built himself. “It’s proven and it’s solid,” he says. “The Challenger is one of the safest and most popular ultralights anywhere.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Ruttkiewicz’ Challenger is even equipped with a ballistic recovery system that can deploy a parachute for the entire aircraft to be lowered to the ground safely.

Of course, one must learn to fly the airplane, and that’s where Airspeed High comes in.  Over the years, Ruttkiewicz has been able to introduce many people to ultralight flight, as he’s ran an ultralight flight school since 2009—first in Victoria and now in the Comox Valley.

Currently, Ruttkiewicz has five students in his Courtenay Airpark location.  The average age of his students is 50, but one student is only 16.  “It costs approximately $3,500 to $5,000 to get an ultralight pilot’s licence, but compared to a private pilot’s license—which is around 17 grand—it’s quite a bit less,” Ruttkiewicz says.   Students must attend a 30-hour ground school component and most need 20 to 25 hours in the airplane to become proficient pilots.

“Besides being a lot of fun, for some students, this is the first step they take toward a career in the aviation industry,” adds Ruttkiewicz.

Ruttkiewicz has always wanted to fly.  “Flying has been in my blood since as long as I can remember,” he says. “When I was about three or four years old my parents were getting concerned that I was depressed. They asked me what was wrong, and I told them that I was now heavier than the heaviest bird that could fly and I thought that I would never be able to fly on my own.  My parents got a good chuckle out of that, but it did show that flying was in my future.”

Though Ruttkiewicz dreamed of flying when he was very young he had to wait until he was 14 to finally have his first flight.  That flight was in an ultralight and from there his love affair with flying was unstoppable.  Eventually, Ruttkiewicz entered the Canadian Airforce where he flew T33s and F18s.

He was in the Forces for seven years but while on leave in 1991, Ruttkiewicz was in a horrific motorcycle accident that left him permanently changed.  “I lost my left leg below the knee, the use of my left hand and the sight in my left eye,” he says.  “Clearly, my days of flying fighter jets were over.”

The military offered Ruttkiewicz a desk job, but he knew he wouldn’t be happy doing that.  He left the military to pursue a degree in computer sciences and he also met his future wife, Michele. Eventually, the couple bought a sailboat and spent two years cruising the Sea of Cortez, which he remembers as the best two years of his life.  But flying was still in his blood, and with time Ruttkiewicz realized he needed to become a pilot again.

“Finally in 2005, while living on the West Coast in Sooke, I decided it was time to get my wings for the second time,” he recalls. “I went to the Victoria Flying Club and learned to fly again with the physical challenges I had. As you can imagine, getting my medical was going to be interesting. After many phone calls, examinations, flight tests and persistence with Transport Canada, I finally got my category three medical and my private pilot’s licence.”

Many people are surprised to learn Ruttkiewicz has physical challenges—at first glance they are barely noticeable.   People are even more surprised when they learn that it’s possible to fly an airplane with such physical limitations.

“People with physical challenges can still fly,” he says.  “I’ve just adapted, but it’s still safe.  I even know of a paraplegic who can fly a specially-adapted airplane.  I think it’s important for everyone to know that flight is more accessible than they think and it’s possible to fly if you have physical challenges.   For those who are struggling with medical issues or other challenges, I think that flying can be a cure.”

Though Ruttkiewicz is understandably proud of his achievements, he also remembers that first flight in the ultralight when he was 14.   “I always knew I’d fly an ultralight again someday,” recalls Ruttkiewicz.  So in 2006 he and his wife traveled to Montebello, Quebec for a Challenger rendezvous where they could meet present owners and see the airplane up close.   “It didn’t take us long to decide the Challenger was the right plane for us. So we ordered the kit on the spot.”

Ruttkiewicz had a goal—he wanted to make aviation his career again.  “My goal was to build the plane, learn to fly it, get my instructor’s rating and start a flight school,” he says. “Three years later I had my first student.

“I love introducing people to flying.  And teaching something you love doesn’t really seem like a job.  Flight instructing has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.  To help someone go from not knowing what an aileron is to flying into an international airport and nailing a perfect landing is special.”

In addition to Ruttkiewicz’s experience as a military fighter jet pilot he is also a Transport Canada Authorized Person (AP), a Transport Canada Pilot Examiner (PE) and an Industry Canada Radio License Examiner.   As a result, he brings something unique to his flight school.

“Airspeed High intends to bring a more professional approach to ultralight flight training,” he says. “There’s a bit of a bad reputation surrounding ultralight pilots—I want to eradicate that.  I want to make ultralight pilots more respected. Transport Canada has its standards and I also have my own standards.  I believe my students can become capable pilots who can fly anywhere so I teach them to deal with emergencies and to make critical decisions. Where possible, I use scenario based training to keep it interesting and realistic.  I believe this keeps my students and everyone else in the air safe.  Really, flying an ultralight is statistically safer than driving your car to the airport.  There is always risk, but it can be mitigated by good training and a cautious attitude.”

Air Speed High Flight School offers up-close views of the Comox Valley, including the Comox Glacier. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Air Speed High Flight School offers up-close views of the Comox Valley, including the Comox Glacier. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Aside from the flight school, Airspeed High also offers scenic and discovery flights for those who are interested in learning to fly or who just want to spend an afternoon seeing the Comox Valley from a new vantage point.  In fact, many Valley residents have realized that an ultralight flight is a unique gift for an adventurous friend or relative.

“The scenic flights have become very popular,” Ruttkiewicz says.  “It’s a way to show people a unique view of our Valley and it’s a great opportunity to show them what ultralight flight is really like.”  A basic scenic flight is an hour long and costs $120.   The longer glacier flight is $200 but lasts for 90 minutes.

Though Ruttkiewicz has seen some challenges during his life, it is a testament to his tenacity of spirit that he has not let these challenges keep him from his lifelong passion.

“There is nothing in the world that compares to being up there alone, man and machine, amongst the clouds, the high flying birds and the endless space,” he says. “It is a powerful tonic that only a few get to taste, and it is worth all the effort that goes into becoming a pilot.”

For more information on Airspeed High call 250-218-7343 or visit www.airspeedhigh.com