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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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.