Ultralights on Winnipesaukee
Story and photos by Barbara Neville Wilson
According to Laconia’s Timothy Lacey, on days you see Rick Pierce flying over Lake Winnipesaukee, you know “everything is all right with the world.” Rick only flies when the weather is perfect, so when you see him, “you know it’s a good day.”
Timothy and Rick have a unique friendship. They see each other via Facebook almost daily when the weather is good and Rick is flying. They recognize each other’s faces and are in touch by written word and hand wave. They both know where the other lives on the lake, yet they’ve never met each other. It’s friendship borne out of a “ ‘spiderweb’ of connections,” Timothy says.
I first meet Rick face-to-face on the dock of the Wolfeboro Corinthian Yacht Club in Wolfeboro, where my young friend Joel Chick and I climb into his boat for the short ride to Barndoor Island. Like Timothy, I’ve never met Rick before, but recognize him instantly from his Facebook page. We start a conversation almost mid-stream because I feel like we’ve already met through information he has posted online. He is very active on Facebook and there are dozens of videos on his YouTube channel. Folks post pictures and videos of him on their pages and lake interest groups. He’s the subject of conversation on forums and “I Boat on Lake Winnipesaukee.”
As a matter of fact, although you may not already know Rick, it’s likely you’ve already met him—from the bottom up.
Yes, you read that right.
If you have spent any amount of time in the Lakes Region in the past dozen years, you’ve probably seen a red Air Creation Float Trike flying along the shoreline, across the Broads, or beside the rail line at Weirs Beach. Perhaps you did a double take when you saw two fly low by Albee Beach or Crescent Lake. Since 1999, Rick and his Ultralight, When Pigs Fly! have been a fixture here, logging 80-100 hours in the air each summer.
He’s often accompanied by his friend, Spencer Joyner, in his near-identical Trike, and you’ll see them flying in formation, a self-taught skill, says Rick. His friendship with Spencer is a long one, built on shared flying experience, and a love of Ultralights.
Rick comes from a Winnipesaukee summer family. For as long as he can remember, summer has meant Winnipesaukee. The family enjoyed various cottages through the years, but the one constant was always the water, and for his father, an amphibious plane. Following his dad’s footsteps, Rick became interested in flying at a young age. His first scenic flight was taken at Wolfeboro Airport. At the age of 16 he started flying lessons, and he earned his pilot’s license at 22.
For a few years, he flew his own plane, a Cherokee 6. He enjoyed time in the air and as he grew older, the time it gave him away from his successful—but pressure-filled—construction business. But one day, he sat down and calculated the true cost of owning that Cherokee. He realized he had effectively paid $265/hour to own the plane, do maintenance, rent airport space, and pay insurance–even before he paid for fuel. In contrast, he could have rented the same plane, fully fueled, for $90/hour. Discouraged, he sold the plane. Ten years later, he spied his first Ultralight on Winnipesaukee.
And so did Spencer Joyner.
In the summer of 1999, they both saw Kit Clews of Sleeper Island flying his Ultralight. Both men were experienced pilots, and Rick reports he knew immediately he wanted one. It was just such a beautiful concept: an aircraft with full, clear views, uninhibited by strict flight rules. It was a lithe machine, easy to maneuver and could be kept dockside at one’s home. He had to have one, and immediately started educating himself on everything Ultralight.
By FAA rules, an Ultralight pilot seeking his Light Sport License must meet certain requirements and accumulate a minimum of 20 hours of flight time. After that, the prospective pilot can be tested and take a flight exam by a qualified instructor. Rick already had 250 hours of experience as an airplane pilot and still had a lot to learn as a new Ultralight pilot. He’s serious when he advises that new Ultralight pilots need substantially more than 20 hours of flight time to fully understand the complexities of flying an Ultralight. Safety is of paramount importance always, and pilots need to learn to prepare for the unexpected. Having experienced three engine outs himself, he shares this wisdom: it’s just a matter of time, he says, before every pilot will experience a potentially dangerous situation and need to execute an emergency landing. He advises pilots to get as much flight time as possible before thinking about taking out passengers. “You can’t outrun statistics. It’s not a question of IF, but a question of WHEN,” he says; you want to be well prepared.
On this day, I am invited to don a red flight suit and matching red helmet equipped with headphones and microphone, and walk carefully across the When Pigs Fly! float. I climb into a seat behind Rick and wave “so long” to the rapidly picture-taking Joel. We back gently out of the sleekly engineered lift system and taxi on the water for just a few hundred feet before rising into the air for the most breathtaking views of Winnipesaukee imaginable. They far outrank any view from land, water, Mount Major or Red Hill. We climb high and see endlessly, then drop down and fly low next to a flock of ducks just lifting from the water surface. Small figures in boats raise hands, and a tourist snaps our photo as we wing by Ellacoya Beach.
For minutes on end, we sweep and turn, swoop and lift as we spy out cottage neighborhoods and an estate, look for action at Timothy Lacey’s dock and peek at Kit Crew’s old place. Rick calls Spencer on the radio, hoping to fly with his friend, but Spencer’s engine needs a little work and he’s still on land. Under the bright-colored wings, I feel the warmth of sun, the cool breeze of air, and just wish we could fly forever.
As we drop altitude and start circling for landing, Rick stops the engine to simulate an engine-out and we glide silently into a smooth landing right in front of his house. It’s hard to find words to full explain the experience. Almost apologetically, I thank Rick—again—for inviting me to fly with him, and he replies in amazement, “It’s like a childhood dream…it’s just the coolest thing in the world. It just never gets old. Why wouldn’t I want to share it with everyone?”
Our day with Rick Pierce piques 17 year-old Joel’s interest in Ultralight flight. A cadet in the Civil Air Patrol and student pilot, he says that before meeting Rick, “I never really thought about flying Ultralights before.” Rick suggests that Joel or anyone interested in flying contact him on Facebook, @rpierce1956 to discuss ways to start their journey. The most important advice he gives, though, is to fly as much as you can, as often as you can.
To view footage from Rick’s flights, subscribe to his YouTube channel, RickPierce1.