Bethel man flies ultralight from Fairbanks to Bethel

Bailey McCallson of Bethel gets ready to fuel up his Ventura Ultralight aircraft before going out on a flight last week. photo by Greg Lincoln

by Greg Lincoln

Last week we were down by Lomack Beach in Bethel enjoying the nice weather when we saw a most incredible sight. It was a small plane parked and the owner, who happened to be Bethel’s own Bailey McCallson, was fueling up, getting ready to go flying.

It was amazing to hear his story. Bailey flew all the way from Fairbanks to Bethel in his Ventura Ultralight. Its inspiring to see young folks like Bailey go for their dreams, accomplishing remarkable feats, and getting stuff done. I hope you enjoy this as much as we did!

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I’m just fueling up the tank, I got a 12 gallon in here. This just runs on automotive fuel – I premix it. It’s a 2-stroke 447 Rotax, a 40hp engine. This thing only weighs 328 lbs., it’s super light. Super cool, it’s super cool.

The landing gear comes up and its amphibious. I landed on the river and I just pulled up onto land, put the gear down, pulled up. It’s just such a super versatile airplane.

It’s called a Ventura, it’s an ultralight. You don’t need a pilot’s license for it but I got mine in December. This thing is actually pretty crazy because I got it about 2 years ago and then I got my pilot’s license and then I went up in March with Ethan Ford. He went up with me, we put it together and then I flew it back down from Fairbanks.

There were areas where the wind was gusting 20-25 knots and this thing is so light, so I was just getting beat up the whole time. I’d be going and I’d get hit by a crosswind and all of the sudden the plane would go sideways and you could see the ground straight down. I’d have to give it full rudder and full aileron just to get it straight again.

There was one point I was actually flying and I hit rotoring wind off a mountaintop. When I hit, my airspeed went from about 55 to 75 mph and 80 is the never-exceed because you can cause structural damage to it. So I had to bring the nose up to slow it up and I cut the power but then I came up over the top of the rotoring wind and then my airspeed went from about 55 because I slowed it up to zero. I was just dropping and coming straight down. I had to give it full power and nose it down but before I could get any airspeed to be able to get lift again I had to catch up to the downdraft on the other side of that rotoring wind.

It’s a super fun little plane. I just went to Three Step today and went around up there. I landed on the Gweek and then it’s like an airboat as soon as you put it on the water. I was doing about 60 from the mouth of Gweek all the way down the river getting a feel for the water. Yeah, this thing is really cool.

So how long was it to fly from Fairbanks to here?

The route we took was about 600 statute miles. Yeah, it was about 600 miles and then it took 14 hours of flying in two days. My flight route was from Skyflight (airport) in Fairbanks, to Nenana, Nenana to Lake Minchumina, to Nikolai, and then McGrath, Stony River, Crooked Creek, Aniak, and then Bethel.

Were you gassing up at those waypoints?

Yup, those were all places that I gassed up. Ethan followed me. I flew to Minchumina by myself and then I camped under the wing and then he came out the next morning and brought me more gas. And then he was just carrying jerry jugs for all my fuel the whole way down, he’s my chase plane. He’s moving a lot faster because this thing is really slow. I’m cruising between 55 to 65 mph.

How high were you flying?

In the manual it says they’ll fly 13,500 feet over but that sounds ridiculous. From Aniak to Bethel I flew 3,500 over and that was high up to be in an open plane and it was cold. It was cold up there because it’s all open. Other than that it is pretty good, it streamlines the air really well.

Do you dress accordingly?

Yeah, definitely!

Can you walk me through the engine back here?

This is the 447 Rotax 2-stroke engine. It is just like a snowmachine. You premix the fuel 50 to 1. And then I just got this 3-blade carbon fiber prop, I really like it. It has a lot of bite, a lot of go. It’s only 40 hp but since it’s so light this thing just climbs like nothing, it’s really a lot of fun. It doesn’t really want to stall, it flies really well. Honestly, I want a bunch more people out here to get them because it would just be so fun to go out and mess around with everyone else out there.

Can you tell me about the skin, the fabric?

This fabric is dacron. It is really really tough stuff because you can take it and cut it and it won’t keep tearing. It’s got ripstop seams in it. It’s all tube and fabric. We put it together, three of us, about a hundred hours to reassemble it. I bought it used so then we had to reassemble it. It’s retractable, it’s a tail wheel, but it’s got retractable gear. This comes straight up and this tail comes forward and in. There’s a little pocket up inside of here. Other than that it’s a just a normal little airplane. It’s got the elevator, the rudder. Its stick and rudder.

The first time I flew this I had zero experience in tail wheel, and I had zero experience with stick and rudder and a pusher type. So the engine is a pusher type. It’s not a conventional normal plane where it (engine) sticks out the front. The reason they put it back here is so that when you’re landing on the water the props not hitting it, it’s just up and out of the way there.

How do you start it? Is it electric?

Yeah, it’s got an electric start. There’s a starter in there and then I have a master switch and a kill switch, and a push to start and my little key for it. It’s a pretty tight fit to get in there.

What was the reaction like when you landed out here?

All the kids came up, they were asking about it, “that’s so cool!” One of them said, “How much did that cost?” I was like, I think I opened three piggy banks for this one (laughing). But yeah, everyone was all excited. It is definitely a lot different to see them sitting down in the water versus just being on the ground or even on floats.

This hull is actually designed just like a float. It’s a float on wings. It’s got three little steps just like a normal float and a little step up here. When you’re getting going and you’re doing 50-60 on the water there’s only a few inches on this that’s actually in the water. You’re just kind of gliding across the top of it.

Amazing.

But it doesn’t like waves. There were tiny waves one day and I wanted to see how it felt on the waves. They were really little and I started going and it started porpoising up and down. I wasn’t even at an airspeed where I could fly but it just jumped up for like 20 feet in the air. I had to nose it down and come back down because I wasn’t flying fast enough to keep lifting. As soon as I came out of it it just started dropping again and there was a series of bouncing. I got it to slow down and stop and ended up going right into Straight Slough. It was right out of the wind, it was nice over there.

It’s pretty loud. It sounds like a snowmachine in the air. It’s like a mosquito plane (laughing).

Bailey proceeded to show me the inside mechanics of his plane. The stick, the yoke, the elevator, rudder, breaks, throttle, his radio, the gear retractors, and the 12 gallon gas tank.

I get about 3 hours on this, cruising at about 60. It’s all simple, yeah, that’s all there is to this. There’s really not too much to it. The instruments are extremely basic and it’s a whole lot of fun. My stepdad helped me put it together and Ethan. My stepdad is an AP mechanic. It’s a homebuild, you can buy kits and put them together.

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We wish you the best Bailey, and keep flying!

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