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Fly on a `Go-Cart With Wings'

With a new emphasis on safety and standards, ultralights outdistance their `unsafe' label

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WITH my heart in my mouth and white knuckles wrapped around a wing strut, I watch the ground fall away beneath my seat. The only thing between me and the earth several hundred feet below is a simple seat and two foot pedals. I feel like I'm flying in a go-cart with wings. Kelly Kikkert, president of the California Ultralight Flyers Association and my pilot for the afternoon, grins and gives me a ``thumbs up,'' then banks tightly and points to the waterskiers far below who are waving up at us.

Gradually, I trade my apprehension for the thrill of riding the air currents in an ultralight plane, designed to fulfill one of man's fondest dreams - the freedom of flight. I'm hooked, but still find myself wondering how safe this sport really is.

Ultralight planes have had a bad reputation for safety: According to ultralight pilots, from 1980 to '84 several hundred ultralight accidents were reported, a high proportion of them fatal.

But today, according to the United States Ultralight Association (USUA), with standardization and an emphasis on safety, accident rates have dropped dramatically. Ultralight accidents are about as frequent as they are with more conventional light planes.

Participation in this sport, meanwhile, continues to increase at a steady rate, with a 30 percent increase in 1990 alone, says Tom Gunnarson, director of the Airman Registration Program for the USUA.

``Flying an ultralight is safer and more fun than ever before,'' says Mr. Kikkert. ``Professional instruction, detailed and quality manufacturing, reputable parts suppliers, and organization by the USUA have legitimized the sport.''

Upon casual inspection, ultralight planes are as unique as their owner's imagination. Some are replicas of World War I biplanes, others consist of colorful wings atop simple metal tubing and a seat. A few cross the line between conventional planes and experimental creations.

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