November 01, 1982 12:00 PM

Bruce Jenner was higher than a kite. It was a glorious summer day and the former Olympic decathlon gold medalist was soaring through the blue skies over Malibu Canyon in his ultralight, a fragile-looking flying machine that resembles a go-cart dangling from a beach towel. Suddenly, though, Jenner’s airborne rapture was jarred by the sight of a tragedy below. A car had plummeted off the road and into the canyon. Swooping down for a closer look, he spotted the lifeless body of the car’s driver. “The auto was just 100 yards off the side of the canyon and couldn’t be seen from the road,” he recalls. “The police station was a mile away, so I flew to it and told them what I had seen.”

Of course, Jenner had not set out to become an airborne auxiliary policeman. Like most aficionados of America’s latest aviation craze, he flies his ultralight for the sheer pleasure of it. The contraptions—basically motorized hang gliders—are about the closest man has come to pure flight since the sun grounded Icarus. “I can get away from the phones and the office,” says Jenner, 33, now an NBC sports commentator. “By the time come back, I’m calm.”

Ultralights are easy to fly and are cheaper than a Volkswagen—about $5,000. Consequently, the industry is soaring on an updraft of sales that have made the infant sport the fastest growing form of flying. Since 1975, when John Moody of Milwaukee changed aviation history by mounting a 12-horsepower motor on his hang glider, some 50 manufacturers have sold over 20,000 of the colorfully plumed birds. Ultralights have been used as crop dusters in the U.S. and South America, as counterinsurgency weapons in Third World countries and as patrol vehicles by the police department of Monterey Park, Calif. Even famed test pilot Chuck Yeager flies one. “Ultralights are a way for people to share in the fun of flying,” says the man who first broke the sound barrier in 1947. “They are cheap, handy, easily repaired and don’t get damaged unless you fly straight down.”

Ultralight pilots without Yeager’s renowned quality of “the right stuff,” however, have run into some serious trouble. One ultralight flier, wearing an oxygen mask, soared to 13,000 feet over Phoenix, forcing a 727 jet to change course. He was lucky: At least 60 people died in ultralight accidents last year, according to industry statistics. Despite the danger, the Federal Aviation Administration has kept hands off the new aircraft. The agency did not specifically regulate ultralights until Oct. 4. Even then, the regulations were minimal: The midget aircraft may not exceed 254 pounds or carry more than five gallons of fuel. They cannot fly at night, or in restricted airspace, or exceed 63 miles per hour. But ultralights still do not have to be registered or inspected and their pilots are not required to be licensed or trained. Art Jones, chief of the FAA’s certification branch, observes, “We’re trying to keep it a recreational sport like mountain climbing.”

The FAA’s policy has put some ultralight fans in the bizarre position of advocating greater regulation of their sport. “I think the ultralight movement is out of control,” says Larry Newman, an Albuquerque ultralight manufacturer, who is more famous for record-setting flights across the Atlantic and Pacific in Double Eagle balloons. “It takes a particular type of training to instill safety consciousness.” Jenner agrees with Newman. “I’m in favor of putting some sort of restrictions on ultralight pilots,” he says. “If you’re going to fly, you should have some knowledge of aviation. [Jenner has a private pilot’s license.] You have to have respect for these little pieces of machinery. You can hurt yourself.”

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