While an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune died this week in the crash of a small aircraft, there are thousands of those “ultra-lights” flying today over Iowa, and a professional in the field says they’re largely safe. Bob Ellefson sells them at Aircraft Supermarket in De Soto, and says he flies an ultralight himself. The beautiful part is, you can land and take off anywhere you want to. He explains unlike regular small planes they don’t fly at several thousand feet above the ground, but are very close to the ground — and going slow. “The worst thing that can happen is the engineer stop, and you just land the darn thing.” Ellefson says the ultralight craft can land almost anywhere once the operator’s had some training. In fact, its small size and one-man operation are unsettling to some pilots of traditional “small” planes. Getting used to flying that low, he explains, and in a craft so open it’s “a little bit like a flying lawn chair.” He quotes one private pilot who told him “I see way more than I want to see.” John Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, had been a certified pilot for at least three decades before he was killed when an ultralight he’d purchased in West Virginia went down this week near Walton’s home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Ellefson says they’ll surprise some, which he guesses may have happened in Walton’s case. He says, “You do need an hour or two of training even if you’re a longtime pilot.” For example, he says it’ll get off the ground so quickly even an experience pilot of other craft can be startled. Still, he says an ultralight doesn’t have any more accidents than any other motorized vehicle. Ellefson says we hear about every plane crash or mishap and may tend to think they’re more dangerous than the dozens of car crashes that happen every day. But ultralight aircraft are a fact of everyday life for thousands of Iowans. He’s sold a lot of them to farm families. “They will check their crops with it, locate cattle — we’ve been asked many times to locate livestock just flying out of here, for those that don’t have ultralights,” he notes. Ellefson estimates there are more than 4000 ultralights flying in Iowa today. In Bloomfield, he says there’s farmer who uses an ultralight rigged with equipment to spray his trees and crops, and can do about 110 acres an hour. Photographers also find ultralights valuable because they’re open all around and give a clear shot for the camera. The De Soto operation makes ultralights and has sold around six-thousand of the small aircraft in its two decades in business.
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