Thursday, October 10, 2013

A different perspective: Great Falls man has been flying ultralight aircraft for 15 years

You’ve probably seen, or maybe heard, Don Beatty flying over Great Falls on his ultralight aircraft.

“This is something I’ve been enjoying for 15 years,” Beatty said.

Beatty frequently flies his powered parachute up and down the Missouri River. The brightly colored chute makes it easy to spot and the buzz of the engine often means the flying machine can be heard before it’s seen.

Beatty started flying his aircraft after his sons, with whom he used to waterski, grew up. A friend had an ultralight aircraft and offered Beatty a ride. He was hooked.

Beatty ordered a kit from Indiana and built his aircraft, which is the same one he continues to fly.

“It’s still just as good as when I got it,” he said.

The aircraft took about 35 hours to build. Learning to fly it was even easier.

Beatty, who had no previous experience as a pilot, went to a two-day flight training program in Helena, where he did some book work, ground work and then flight practice.

“My first flight was solo,” he said. “It was that simple to do.”

The aircraft is steered by foot brakes and a hand throttle controls takeoff and landing. The parachute flies at only one speed — 28 miles per hour.

No strength or agility is needed to fly the aircraft.

“If you can sit down you can fly one of these,” he said. “The beauty of it is the simplicity.”

For Beatty, flying an ultralight is just another way to spend time outside.

“I’m like a lot of people; I like Montana outdoors,” Beatty said. “This is just another outdoor activity.”

Despite the engine noise, flying is very peaceful.

Beatty often sees geese and pelicans in the air. Sometimes he can even fly with them in formation.

“It’s as close as you can be to being like a bird,” he said.

He sees animals on the ground also.

“You see tremendous herds of whitetail and mule deer,” he said.

The deer take off when they hear him coming. Cattle don’t even notice his machine, and he’s been chased by dogs.

One of the funnest things about flying over the river is seeing people on the River’s Edge Trail. Kids often wave when they spot him.

Beatty also enjoys taking aerial photos of the river.

“The view for photography is just outstanding,” he said. “It gives you a perspective that you can’t get from the ground.”

Beatty takes photos of combines and other farm equipment working in fields. He used to enter his photography at the State Fair. Now he mainly volunteers with the River’s Edge Trail and Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to take photos as needed.

“The scenery up and down the river is just beautiful,” he said.

He also jokes that he’s searching for Capt. Meriwether Lewis’ iron boat, which the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition toted upriver only to have it sink near White Bear Island just outside Great Falls.

Beatty estimates that he flies about 25 times a year, mainly from June to October. Flying is very weather dependent. Clouds, wind and thermals can all cause problems.

Beatty never flies in the middle of the day because thermals are much stronger then.

“If you get caught in a thermal, you never know where you’re going to end up,” he said.

Generally he doesn’t have much time to plan ahead before a flight. He watches the weather, and if it looks nice, he heads out in the evening.

In his 15 years of flying, he’s only had problems twice.

“One time at dusk I flew into some wires and had to be rescued,” he said.

Beatty hung in the lines for about three hours while crews worked to get him down, but he was uninjured.

Another time, the wind picked up while he was flying and he had to make an unexpected landing.

“Otherwise it’s very relaxing,” he said.

Beatty always files a flight plan before take off and stays relatively low — below 500 feet — due to air traffic in Great Falls.

Beatty frequently apologizes to people that he can’t take them along for a flight. His aircraft has only one seat. The training and licensing for an aircraft with multiple seats is much more intensive.

Others in Great Falls used to fly powered parachutes, but these days Beatty is the only one in the area who flies regularly. The fact that more people aren’t into the sport baffles him.

“It’s hard to be humble when you’re having so much fun,” he said. “You wonder why everyone in the world isn’t doing this.”

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