Crowd Looks Up to Little Planes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Powered by snowmobile engines and maneuvered by thin nylon and metal wings, the ultralight planes that opened the Camarillo Air Show on Saturday sounded like a team of lawn mowers buzzing overhead.

With top speeds of 60 mph and a flying altitude of about 500 feet, the home-built planes were a stark contrast to the sleek Yak-3A Russian fighter, the F-18 Hornet and the speedy, World War II-era F8F-2 Bearcat that zipped by soon after. But as the seven pilots from the Ventura County Ultralight Aircraft Society did their opening fly-by, there was no shortage of oohs and ahs from the several thousand people who gathered on the hot Camarillo Airport tarmac.

The ultralights were among the more than 60 aircraft that soared across cloudless skies. Now in its 21st year, the event continues today with the gates opening at 8 a.m. and flying demonstrations starting at 10 a.m.

The event, which started as a small get-together of interest mostly to pilots and hard-core aviation buffs, has grown into one of the largest and most popular air shows in Southern California, said Pat Brown, an event spokeswoman.

Visitors Saturday rode in a helicopter, toured several dozen vintage aircraft on the tarmac and shopped for everything from model airplanes to military dog tags.

For the ultralight pilots, the day meant sharing a passion that they say combines seat-of-your-pants thrills with an adrenaline release unlike anything else on the planet.

"There is an absolute freedom when I'm flying," said Kevin Nilsen, a stocky, 45-year-old general contractor from Simi Valley. "It isn't relaxing. Your senses are so heightened. You have to be aware at all times, but every time I take off, I get the same rush."

Nilsen bought his three-wheel ultralight for $13,000 about a year after his wife, Susan, was killed in a car crash in February 1999.

Whenever he is airborne, whether on a flight to Catalina Island or just above the farmlands of Ventura County, Nilsen said, Susan is in his thoughts.

"When I was thinking about buying [the plane], I thought, 'What would Susan want me to do?' " said Nilsen, wearing wrap-around sunglasses and a hat with "Flys Like a Trike" stitched on the front. "Now I think about her whenever I go up."

Before taking off, Nilsen and the other ultralight pilots went over a detailed flight plan with club founder Ken Holden.

Ultralights have wingspans of 29 to 39 feet and most weigh less than 250 pounds.

As the planes taxied, it was hard to imagine the engines--most taken from old snowmobiles--powering anything larger than a go-cart.

Most of the engines are between 28 and 50 horsepower and fueled by automotive gasoline stored in six-gallon plastic tanks.

The planes have no fuel gauges, and a pilot only knows when it's time to gas up by looking underneath the seat and eyeballing the gas level in the tank.

As the ultralight planes moved down the runway, their light wings bobbed like a bird flapping its wings.

At Camarillo Airport, the ultralight club has its own 900-foot runway less than a quarter of a mile from the main landing strip.

Holden, strapped into a small leather seat by an overhead shoulder harness, led the formation by barking instructions to the other pilots on a small two-way radio.

After traveling about 80 feet down the runway, Holden's blue-and-white plane slowly lifted off. Nilsen and the other ultralight pilots followed.

The pilots say they have no fear of crashing. When an engine cuts out, as Holden's did above Paso Robles a few years ago, the pilots just glide down to land, the Camarillo resident said.

"In 20 years of doing this, I have never said, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die,' " Holden said. "Everything you do in life has danger. We can control the danger."

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