Flying a mile high in an ultralight aircraft

By Dr Kavan Ratnatunga

One of my most cherished memories is from October 1991, when I visited Bangalore, to give a talk on Astrophysics, at the Raman Research Institute. Prof Venkataraman Radhakrishnan (known by his friends as Rad) was the director of RRI, and invited me for dinner. After the lunch time Seminar, I walked into Rad's office to ask him what time I was expected at his home. Rad quietly asked me, if I would like to come flying with him. I did not fully understand what Rad was suggesting, but as his guest, I agreed without any hesitation. It was only after we arrived at the hanger in the Indian Institute of Science, did I realise to what I had agreed. Looking back, I am so glad I didn't chicken out, and miss an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience.

Rad's powered hang glider (trike) was an unique ultralight. It had a delta-shaped Para Wing made of Dacron fabric. Suspended below the wing was a three-wheeled undercarriage, carrying the pilot, passenger and propeller, powered by a 350cc Yamaha motor cycle engine. After getting flight clearance from the Bangalore Airport, the take off was like a high speed ride on a motor cycle. As usual I was in sandals and I still remember the over-grown grass blades on the private airstrip, whipping my exposed feet. We climbed to about 5000 feet above Bangalore, and with the engine switched off, Rad, in the drivers seat, was then getting his evenings exercise. Flight was controlled like a hang glider. The attitude of the wing was changed by pushing, pulling, and turning the control bar that is rigidly attached to the wing, which causes a corresponding shift in the trike's center of gravity.

Strapped into the rear seat, I was enjoying the unobstructed view of Bangalore from the Air. I was trying to record the experience, by taking some photographs without dropping the camera. Latter that evening at dinner, Rad said that I was the 80th novice he had taken up. Subsequently Rad had developed few other trikes, included a wide bodied twin-seater (Double Trouble) for use as a trainer, where instructor and student can sit side-by-side. Over the years he took up about 400 persons, about half of whom Rad said were female.

Preparation of Trike for flight. Propeller, powered by a 350cc Yamaha motor cycle engine in rear.

The open seating of trike. Only part of rear seat visible

The trike on the runway before takeoff. Indian Institute of Science in Background

The takeoff of trike riding through the overgrown grass

Flying above Bangalore

Coming into land the trike

Prof Radhakrishnan has been associated with the field of radio astronomy practically from the beginning of its phenomenal post- World War II growth in the 1950's. Rad returned to India and became director of the Raman Research Institute after demise in 1970 of his father, Nobel laureate Physicist Sir C. V. Raman. During Rad's tenure as the Director from 1972 to 1994, he built up an Institute, with an international reputation for work in the areas of pulsar astronomy, and liquid crystals. Rad received the 2005 M. P. Birla Memorial Award for his contribution to Astrophysics and also for his design and fabrication of ultralight aircrafts and sailboats. Rad has been greatly inspired by the sailors in eminent scientists like Einstein, Lord Rayleigh and F. W. Lanchester.

Rad now in Sri Lanka, is doing repairs to his experimental catamaran style sailing craft named the Eldermer, which is currently docked in the Galle Habour. In the cabin, a sleek control panel, has all modern navigation electronics run on Solar and Wind Power. The Eldermer, is 15 meters long, eight meters wide had a 15 meter-high sail to enable a smooth and speedy travel. Sailing in a strong wind, the Eldermer lost it's mast and sail on route from Cochin to Galle in September. Rad was on his way to Langkawi in Malaysia and a few months of sailing in the Indian Ocean around the Andaman Nicobar Islands. At age 78, Rad is still sailing the deep ocean, on which he has so far logged over 19,000 kms.

The Eldermer before the catamaran lost it's sail

Prof Radhakrishnan at navigation console of Eldermer

Prof Radhakrishnan is giving a guest lecture on "Nautics and Aeronautics" and the 63rd Annual sessions of Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science being held next week at the Open University of Sri Lanka, Nawala Road, Nugegoda. The one hour Lecture will start at 3:20 PM on Friday 7th December 2007 at Auditorium (Block 7B) and open to the public.

Rarely is Sri Lanka visited by a Scientist of Rad's eminence, and anyone interested in Nautics, Aeronautics or Astrophysics should not miss this opportunity to hear him talk on the subject.

This text is a copy of Flying a mile high By Dr Kavan Ratnatunga which appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2007 December 2nd. The printed copy unfortunately had only one of the illustrations.