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Remembering Ultralight Pioneer Larry Newman

By Dan Grunloh, Editor, Light Plane World

Larry Newman

February 3, 2011 — Adventurer and ultralight pioneer Larry Newman lost his 3-year battle with pancreatic cancer in December 2010. A “Celebration of Life” was held Saturday, January 29, 2011, at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, Arizona. Larry achieved wide public acclaim for crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean in a balloon, but it was his hang glider and ultralight manufacturing businesses that had a significant impact on the world of light aviation. Fortunately, he left behind a video account of his aviation adventures.

Larry first soloed unofficially at the age of 12 in an Ercoupe. He became a glider pilot at 14, and by age 17 was a flight instructor. He got his first job as a commercial corporate pilot in 1966 at age 18 using the money to go to college. Within several years he was logging 150 hours per month flying Learjets.

He discovered hang gliders in 1973 while vacationing in California and became so enthralled that he soon quit his job flying Learjets to become a hang gliding instructor and manufacturer. He was a champion hang glider pilot and by 1978 his company, Electra Flyer Corporation, was the world’s largest producer of hang gliders. At its peak the company had 125 employees and sold 4,000 hang gliders in a single year. That same year he was part of the Double Eagle II balloon crew that became the first to cross the Atlantic.

Larry had been in a hot-air balloon for only 15 minutes prior to departing for the transatlantic flight. They crossed the ocean with a hang glider tied under the balloon. He intended to release the glider and land it in France but it had to be cut loose to shed weight. Larry and fellow pilots Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress. Three years later Newman and two other people flew Double Eagle V in the first-ever balloon crossing over the Pacific.

In 1979 Newman introduced the Eagle ultralight, a high-wing canard design. It was slow, very docile, and stall-proof, making it ideal for a time when ultralight instruction was unavailable and pilots were teaching themselves to fly. He was good at promoting his products and in 1980 organized the Budweiser Eagle flight team with Bryan Allen of Gossamer Condor fame. He and Bryan flew their Budweiser Eagle ultralights at fly-ins and public events, providing good publicity for the emerging sport of ultralight flying. By 1981 his company, American Ultralights Inc., was running full-page advertisements for the Eagle ultralight with endorsements by aviation celebrities such as Dick Rutan.

In 1982 he revealed the first prototype of a new design, the fully enclosed aluminum and composite Falcon, a futuristic canard ultralight. It was a huge leap forward at a time when many ultralights could be described as powered kites. It was the Grand Champion Ultralight at the 1983 Sun ’n Fun Fly-in. The single-seat Falcon and the two-seat Falcon XP still retain their futuristic looks today and are still being flown.

In 1985 Larry sold his business to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming an airline pilot. He was a Boeing 757 Captain for America West for 10 years. A quarter-century after his ultralight exploits, most enthusiasts had lost track of Larry, but his impact on the sport was very significant. His life was filled with amazing achievements and adventures. We are lucky that before his passing, he recorded a lengthy and fascinating EAA Timeless Voices video describing his experiences with details never before revealed. Watch the interview here.

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