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The Cessna of the Ultralight Industry:

The world’s largest general aviation manufacturer

by Dan Johnson

Once upon a time, when the ultralight industry wasn’t even an industry, Quicksilver sold more aircraft in one year than Cessna, Piper, and Beechcraft combined! Yes, you read it right. Quicksilver sold more of its simple little aircraft than all three giants of the general aviation (GA) industry.

This was partly circumstantial; the GA industry was in a serious funk, building hardly any airplanes by normal measurements. Cessna and others licked their collective liability wounds and turned their attention to building bizjets. Shortly after (1986), market leader Cessna ceased all building of single-engine aircraft. Meanwhile, Quicksilver sold well over 2,000 aircraft in a year’s time. It was 1982, a year when you might say ultralight aviation’s sign was on the rise.

Then the aviation landscape began to change. Congress granted the GA industry’s request for a liability limit, and manufacturers began to build more aircraft. The Quicksilver of today is smaller than the big GA producers when measured by aircraft delivered or the number of dollars generated by these sales. In fact, the Southern California company went through its own gut-wrenching changes of management, ownership, location, and even flood damage. Yet no one can deny that Quicksilver is truly one of the all-time successful airplane building companies. Best reports place the number of Quicksilver aircraft manufactured and sold at better than 20,000, a great many of which are still flying successfully.

Its Quicksilver’s MX II Sprint and MXL II Sport models are unquestionably the number one training ultralights in America today, a fact regularly confirmed through surveys of instructors. In the early ’90s, the GT series set a new benchmark for well-engineered and thoroughly documented aircraft. And even with tens of thousands of Quicksilvers flying, the brand possesses a sparkling safety record. Sure, some accidents have happened. But the brand compares well with any aircraft ever flown, and the number of fatalities is surprisingly low (though, admittedly, precise statistics are not available). Ask anyone who’s been around ultralights very long, and that person will confirm that the Quicksilver MX series has one of the best sales and safety records in aviation.

First Came Eipper Formance

Today it is either a seriously under informed ultralight enthusiast or someone who just hasn’t paid attention to the ultralight movement who does not instantly recognise Quicksilver as a major light (powered) aircraft company. So ubiquitous is the brand that many accept the basic Quicksilver MX series as THE definition of an ultralight. As one example, Ultralight Flying! magazine’s logo incorporates a generic shape that is clearly based on a Quicksilver. To many outside of ultralight aviation, this is the "Piper Cub" of ultralights. The comparison hardly represents all ultralights today, but the analogy works in the same way the Cub image has worked for all light GA aircraft.

Johnson In the beginning of its colourful history, Quicksilver was a hang gliding company. First called Eipper Formance, the trademark was a play on words that joined the name of its principal founder, Dick Eipper, with the words "high performance." During the 1970s, Eipper (pronounced EYE-per) made thousands of hang gliders including such memorable models as the contest-winning Flexi III and the first truncated tip glider, the Cumulus V.

One other model Eipper manufactured was Bob Lovejoy’s Quicksilver rigid wing glider. While most hang gliders were tailless, delta-wing-shaped aircraft that folded up into long tubes that could easily be carried on a car roof, Quicksilver was different. Its wings were a more conventional Hershey bar shape, and it had a conventional tail. The control system was based on supplemental weight shift and was eminently simple.

In its day, the Quicksilver hang glider developed a following among so-called "rigid wing" enthusiasts (a delta-wing hang glider is referred to as a "flex wing"). Some of those buying a Quicksilver liked the greater performance it offered in those days. Others felt more secure with its tail. Still more preferred to sit (rather than lie in a prone position) and control the aircraft more conventionally than by pure weight shift—though all you did was weight shift in the first Quicks.

However, delta-wing hang gliders slowly developed improved performance and handling, and the lead Eipper Formance’s Quicksilver enjoyed began to erode. The company was slipping behind in the development of new flex-wing hang glider designs, and the owners of the successful operation read the writing on the wall and chose to add power to the Quicksilver.

Powered Hang Gliders

Powerplants began showing up on hang gliders in the mid to late 70s, but conventional, tailless hang gliders did not prove to be the best platform for auxiliary power. The trike had yet to be invented, and those who contemplated adding an engine saw the Quicksilver hang glider as a better combination.

As landing gear had yet to be devised, early experimenters literally ran their powered Quicksilvers into the air boosted by tiny engines. The first Eipper Formance setup employed small Chrysler powerplants, sometimes two of them in line, swinging one prop, plus a basic tricycle landing gear. Later the Eipper company selected the Yamaha 15-horse engine that offered enough power and reliability to gain new inertia for the idea of powering hang gliders.

Throughout this development, the four partners of Eipper including Dick Eipper, Steve Wilson, Dave Cronk, and Dave Muehl worked to make their company look more attractive to potential buyers. About this time, I visited the factory and saw—but did not fly—the first powered Quicksilvers. My timing was interesting, as within a few weeks a group led by Lyle Byrum bought Eipper Formance and renamed it, using Quicksilver as their corporate logo.

Those first Quicks were all single-seaters and all powered by Yamaha engines. Two-seaters were still years away. Quicksilvers used supplemental weight shift, which moved the rudder by linking it via control lines to the swing seat holding the pilot. This seat moved freely in all directions. As you moved fore and aft, you controlled pitch. As you moved to either side, your weight movement had a minor effect, but most lateral control came from moving the rudder as you shifted your weight right or left. Throttles were spring-loaded levers on one downtube of the triangular-shaped control bar in front of the seat. Remember, this was a hang glider first, powered to attract hang glider pilots. At the time, no one called themselves an ultralight pilot, and no other market existed.

For about $3,995 you could buy a whole powered airplane capable of delivering hours of enjoyable flights. A market began to develop quickly, and Quicksilvers led the race. Others built similar designs, but they weren’t perceived as the original, and most of them dropped out of sight.

While the designs were still supplemental weight shift, more powerful engines arrived on the scene. The Cuyuna 430 added an extra dimension to Quicksilver flying and opened the door to new models.

Hang Glider Becomes an Ultralight

Given a general aviation background, Lyle Byrum (and partners) wished to modify the Quicksilver with conventional controls. They also added two-seat models for training. The greater horsepower available enabled such decisions. Combined with regular three-axis handling, the theory was that more folks would want to buy these good flying, low-cost ultralights.

The first three-axis Quicksilver became known as the MX series, standing for Multiple aXis, which meant that it had more conventional controls. I say "more conventional" because they still weren’t identical to a Cessna or Piper.

That first Quicksilver MX had a control yoke that moved surfaces on the wing and the tail, but not like today’s Quicksilvers. When you turned the wheel for left and right maneuvers, you moved the rudder. Fore and aft movements operated the elevator conventionally, but when you pushed the rudder pedals, you raised spoilers on the appropriate wing. It sounds confusing, but it functioned much like regular controls. This is not unusual in that slow flying ultralights have long been rudder dominated. Had the yoke operated the spoilers for lateral movement, pilots would not have found it as effective.

I had a chance to fly that very first Quicksilver MX in late 1981. The occasion was the evening before some 50 dealers descended on Quicksilver Aircraft to be introduced to this new model. In those days, the California-based Quicksilver factory was located by an open patch of land that they used for test flying. It was adequately large, but no one told me about a ditch that ran across the "runway" that I chose for landing. The ditch was camouflaged by weeds and happened to be right where I chose to touch down. The nosewheel passed the ditch but both mains hit the far side of the ditch quite firmly. Darn! It had been a good approach into a short field, and I’d been pleased at my early evening performance until the ditch changed things.

It wasn’t readily apparent, but I’d hit hard enough that the load had been transmitted through the landing gear downtubes and up to the king post, all of which now had undesirable curves in them. With all their dealers coming the next day, I scrambled with John Lasko until midnight to remove and replace the damaged parts so that everyone would see a proper example of the company’s proud new model. This was near the start of my flying career, and luckily, it wasn’t the end of it.

The rest is well-known history. Dealers and the flying community embraced the MX model, and Quicksilver went on to become a huge success. Throughout the years, despite new entries by many companies, the Quicksilver MX remained heavily responsible for the company’s excellent sales performance.

Later the MX dropped the spoilers—which weren’t particularly effective—and added ailerons, making the handling very close to general aviation convention. Engines moved from under the wing to on top of the wing to back under but further aft. Tubing sizes enlarged to better brace the wing and allow larger props. Many changes along the years have significantly improved Quicksilver models without altering its basic shape or appeal.

In the latest iteration of this long evolution, the Quicksilver Sport 2S added struts in yet another bid to interest those who believe struts are better than cable bracing (though lots of reasons still exist to use cable over struts, most notably, they are lighter and have less drag).

Millennium Quicksilvers

Today, Quicksilver Manufacturing is the latest in a string of names based on the company’s leading Quicksilver MX models. Led by new owners Carl Von Hirsch and Manuel Perez who purchased the company in 1999, Quicksilver’s mainstays continue to be the seven models that had been previously established. These include the single-place Sprint and Sport, the extremely popular Sprint II and Sport II two-seaters, and the newest model in the series called Sport 2S (for struts). In all cases these "original" Quicksilver aircraft include the identifier "MX" as part of their official model names. Eventually, the single-place GT 400 and the two-place, certificated GT 500 rounded out the line. The latter distinguished itself by being the first sportplane certificated in 1993 under the simplified Primary Category certification scheme.

One might say that Quicksilver’s line therefore comprises the MX series and the GT series. The latter has not sold as voluminously as the former, but both account for hundreds and hundreds of aircraft.

Quicksilver has also enjoyed wide international success, and this continues even until today when, for example, the European market has tended to move into ultralights that are more kit-built aircraft than true ultralights. In countries around the globe, Quicksilver models satisfy the interest of fly-for-fun enthusiasts.

The two Sprint models are very simple yet sturdy open cockpit aircraft that fly very slowly. In my flights in a single-place Sprint, I once recorded a stall of only 18 mph using two different airspeed indicators to attempt some measure of accuracy (difficult at such slow speeds). While many light aircraft enthusiasts yearn for higher cruise speeds, many others like myself thoroughly enjoy slow speed flight. Sprint models cost less partly by virtue of their single-surface wing—which is also the main reason these models fly so slowly. However, single-surface wings that excel at slow speed flight due to their effective undercambering also tend to handle more lightly. The single-place Sprint sells for $8,995, certainly a modest amount for an aircraft that comes complete and has an excellent record of safety, performance, and handling. The two-seat model, widely used for training, sells for $12,995.

The Quicksilver Sport series changes the equation by making the wing double-surfaced. Many GA pilots barely understand the difference, having never seen a wing that was not double-surfaced. Yet this is a standard difference among slow-flying aircraft. Many hang gliders are single surface, and in that sport they are usually referred to as "recreational" models, whereas double-surface gliders are sold for cross-country or contest flying.

In the case of the Quicksilver Sport models, the double-surface wing (meaning a complete under and lower surface with the wing structure hidden inside) also produces somewhat faster speeds and therefore somewhat crisper handling. A single-seat Sport retails for $9,995, while the two-seat model goes for $13,495. The latter is probably the world’s single most popular training ultralight.

In a clear nod to the general aviation pilot, the newest Sport—the 2S model—has struts and a beefier landing cage construction. It looks somewhat more conventional, and indeed its handling is even closer to the Cessna or Piper standards. However, it gains 100 pounds of weight to bring this look and feel to pilots who believe cable bracing is old-fashioned. (Note: The use of the 582 Rotax engine accounts for some of the additional weight, as the non-strutted models come with the 503.) The Quicksilver Sport 2S sells for $15,995.

In the mid 1980s, Quicksilver engineers Tom Price and Dave Cronk—the brain trust of Quicksilver R&D—created the GT 400 model. This was a tip-to-tip, nose-to-tail new design that significantly broadened the appeal of the Quicksilver brand name.

The GT 400 is, to this day, considered one of the world’s "best" ultralights, as defined by its ability to do everything quite well and to have virtually no evil qualities. I cannot think of anyone who has flown the 400 and not admired how it flew. Other designs may do more in specific areas, but few ultralights possess such wonderfully well-rounded qualities. It has sold around 1,000 units and is priced at $12,995 for the lightest edition and close to $15,000 for a deluxe model that features a larger nose pod and a windscreen that sweeps gracefully up to the wing’s leading edge.

Perhaps the company’s crowning achievement is the GT 500, a two-seat version of the GT 400 single-seater. Launched in the late 1980s, the 500 won FAA approval as the first aircraft to be certificated under FAA’s then-new sportplane program. The agency flew the aircraft and reviewed documents in a highly compressed six-week period leading up to the 1993 EAA convention at Oshkosh, where the Type Certificate was awarded to Quicksilver. As part of the fast-track approval, FAA also certified the Rotax 582 engine that came with the GT 500. That engine had never been certified previously and represented quite a victory for the California company.

While Quicksilver has sometimes been faulted for not developing newer (read: much different) models, the MX series continues to be a success story in ultralight and very light aviation. The GT series has enjoyed less market success, but has generated intensely loyal customers, some of whom buy new 400s or 500s to replace their old one.

In today’s jam-packed ultralight and light aviation market where dozens of interesting designs compete for market share, Quicksilver remains one of the market leaders. The company may never sell 2,000 aircraft in a single year again, but they are likely to remain in front of the ultralight parade.

.............................................................................................................................................Quicksilver AIrcraft Australia is the home of Quicksilver Aircraft (or Ultralights) for Australia, South Pacific and New Zealand, for aircraft,accessories and spare parts. We supply ultralight aircraft kits or factory built ultralights. We are the factory approved dealer of Quicksilver Manufacturing Inc USA. If you are looking for an ultralight aircraft with an impeccable safety record and an ultralight that is easy to fly, then Quicksilver Aircraft Australia is place to come to for your ultralight aircraft experience. If you would like to fly in a Quicksilver ultralight aircraft then give me a call.

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