REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, SEPTEMBER 26, 1999
Inspired by a fancy for flight
Growing up on a farm, Homer Kolb couldn't afford to buy a plane. So he decided he
would build his own.
By F. Brinley Bruton
INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF
PHOENIXVILLE -- When he was a child growing up on his Mennonite
family's farm, Homer Kolb used to look up at the birds and imagine the exhilaration of
soaring through the air. "Always in the fields I would see birds flying
around," said Kolb, 69, whose ruddy skin, wide shoulders and rough, large hands speak
of a life of physical labor. "I knew that some day I would have to fly."
Homer and Clara Kolb.
Kolb, now an award-winning builder of ultralight airplanes,
electrified the new world of ultralight flying in 1980 when he exhibited his delicate
"Kolb Flyer." He went on to found a successful company that offered
inexpensive kits for flight-lovers such as himself. Kolb said a kind neighbor paid a
pilot to give him his first flight when he was 14, a flight over the fields of Chester
County. "The pilot let me fly a bit," said Kolb. "He took me
over my Dad's farm ... I'll never forget that."
Kolb was so taken with flying that he spent his pocket money on
expensive flying lessons at nearby Pottstown-Limerick airport -- $2.50 for 15 minutes in
the air. As was the custom among Mennonite youth of his day, Kolb had dropped out of
high school to help his father on the farm. He got his pilot's license at 17.
Kolb's religious faith and conservative traditions were never an impediment to his
flying, he said. "There were never any contradictions; I never had to battle
anything on that score," Kolb said.
His family lived on what they could eke from their 100-acre farm
and were barely able to fund his flying lessons, never mind buy him a plane. Kolb
set out to build his own. "I came up with the idea that probably an airplane
could be built that weighed less than a pilot," he said. "If that was
possible, then a farm kid could build it." He assembled several gliders and
light planes in the late 1940s and 1950s -- the first, with wings made of white pine, was
towed behind a speedboat before it took flight.
In the late 1960s, he constructed a 138-pound plane lighter than
himself, a true aeronautic innovation, he said. The plane resembled a fire-fly, its
delicate wingspan extending over a long tail that touched the ground during take-off and
landing. It was powered by four chain-saw engines, and the one small black seat
dangled completely exposed to the elements with only a thin belt to restrain the pilot.
"It was a good little airplane," he said. "I flew it a
lot." The plane and its descendants brought Kolb so much aviator's attention
that he launched his own business -- Kolb Aircraft -- and housed it in a bark-like hangar
on his 100-acre Phoenixville farm. More than 1,500 ultralight plane kits were
assembled by the company and sold for $5,000 to $8,000 throughout the United States and
about 25 countries abroad. "You really don't know what flying is like until you
fly in one of these low-altitude jobs," he said.
Kolb sold his company to his employees in 1994 and the firm was
moved to London, Ky., this year by new owners. Now Kolb designs multi-engine planes
and helicopters that he hopes will cut down on ultralight accidents, he said. An
ultralight plane for one person can weigh no more than 254 pounds empty, according to
Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. Mary Jones, editor of the Experimenter,
a magazine about homebuilt light planes, said the recreational, home-built aircraft must
have a maximum fuel capacity of five gallons, and a top speed no greater than 63 m.p.h.
Jones estimates that there are about 25,000 ultralight pilots in
the United States. There is no official count on ultralight planes, she said,
because their pilots do not have to be licensed and their aircraft do not have to be
registered. For his pioneering work and lifelong commitment to the sport of
ultralighting, Kolb was chosen in July 1999 to be inducted in the Ultralight Hall of Fame by
the Experimental Aircraft Association. He and his family will accept the award in
Oshkosh, Wis., in October. Kolb "is one of the true pioneers and actually goes
back further than people who tout themselves as pioneers of the sport," said Tom
Peghiny, owner of Flightstar Inc., an ultralight manufacturer in Ellington, Conn.
"He was flying ultralight airplanes before there were such things."
Kolb's family knew that he had a fascination with air travel from
the very beginning, said Kolb's wife Clara, 69. She repeats a story that his mother
used to tell about Kolb as a little boy: One day, the busy farmer's wife was horrified to
look out the window and see 3-year-old Homer, her middle child, standing on the very top
of the barn, 30 feet in the air. "I was watching the birds," Kolb
explained as his wife told the story. "It was nice, dreaming that I was
flying." His mother, Kolb said, was apprehensive about his flying and neighbors
"He was teased a lot about his ideas," said Clara Kolb.
She remembers being courted by Kolb as he flew a plane from Limerick airport low
over her family's nearby farm. Kolb would turn down the engine and yell "Hi,
Clara!" much to the annoyance of her older brother, she said. After he and
Clara married and had three children, money was scarce and the couple took outside jobs.
Kolb drove trucks overnight for United Parcel Service -- sleeping only four or five
hours before working his fields of wheat and corn.
One of his planes, weighing only 138 pounds, was made of aircraft
aluminum and bolts, steel tubes and chain-saw engines. "At that time, there were
almost no airplanes like this," Kolb said. He began attending conventions of
flying enthusiasts such as AirVenture in Oshkosh. AirVenture, billed as the world's
largest aviation event, drew about 800,000 people last summer, Jones said. First
Kolb went to AirVenture to learn from experienced engineers and builders. Later he
attended to teach. "I used to be the guy sitting under those tents, then I was
the guy giving the talks," Kolb said.
END OF ARTICLE
The first ultralight marketed by Kolb, the Kolb Flyer, was actually
designed and built in the late 1960s and flown in 1970. This was at least five years
before John Moody made his first powered flights in his Easy Riser hang glider.
The Kolb Flyer, after gathering dust for several
years, was cleaned up and marketed as a kit in 1980 as Kolbs first
was one of the first ultralights that was actually a lightened and scaled down airplane,
which happened to fit the FAA definition of an ultralight -- rather than starting with a
hang glider and adding an engine. The Kolb Flyer was a 3-axis control, twin engine
ultralight; it was powered first with 2 Chrysler West Bend engines, then later with 2 Solo
In 1982, the UltraStar was introduced which was
marketed until 1985. The UltraStar was designed to utilize the new Cuyuna engine which was
just coming on the market. With the UltraStar, Kolb introduced a new method of wing
construction -- using one large diameter tubular aluminum main spar which carries the lift
and torsion loads of the wing.
Former Ultrastar owner Tom Wruble..
He won EAA AirVenture Grand Champion Light Plane in
This method has been so successful that it has become our
standard way of building wings, having been used on every model airplane since the
UltraStar. In 1985, the UltraStar was revamped, redesigned and enclosed -- resulting in
the very successful FireStar series of aircraft.
The Kolb FireStar has been in production since 1985;
it was an instant success and it still is! The major changes from the UltraStar were
the placement of the engine on top of the wing allowing for a much larger diameter
propeller; the addition of a nose fairing and short windshield (with provision for a full
enclosure); and spring landing gear.
In 1990, some minor styling changes were introduced resulting in the KX
series. The rear cage on the original FireStar was covered completely right up to the
wing; on the KX series the covering only goes about half way up -- the rest being left
open for 360 degree visibility. The KX series may still be fully enclosed by the use of
clear lexan windows around the rear cage, which still allows for 360 degree visibility.
The cockpit sides were lowered on the KX series to make entry easier,
and the windshield is full length up to the wing. The KXP was the KX with a stronger wing
to accommodate the more powerful Rotax 503 engine: the KXP had 7 ribs (vs 5 ribs for the
KX) per wing panel and a stronger drag strut arrangement. These additional items added
only about 5-1/2 pounds to the FireStar KXP wings.
The TwinStar series of two place airplane was
introduced in 1984. First came the completely open TwinStar; later the TwinStar was
enclosed and named the TwinStar Mark-II. Then in 1990, after the FAA allowed for heavier
2-place ultralights, the same basic design was strengthened (main spars increased from
5 to 6 dia.) to carry the more powerful Rotax 582 engine and also to increase
the gross weight to 1000 lb. resulting in the TwinStar Mark-III. In 1993, the Mark-III
lite was introduced. The lite version was discontinued in 1994 as most people wanted the
flaps which the Lite version did not have.
was introduced at Sun-N-Fun in the spring of 1996. The
Slingshot was designed as a 2-place ultralight with a small
wing and high cruise speed for the installed power, capable of
delivering speeds comparable to a general aviation aircraft
without the associated cost or complexity.
the company was purchased by a group of investors in London,
Kentucky and became The New Kolb Aircraft Company. Under the
management of this group, The New Kolb Aircraft Co. introduced
the Mark III Xtra and Kolbra.
In the spring of 2000, The New
Kolb Aircraft Company introduced the Mark III Xtra by
increasing the width of the front end for aerodynamic reasons
and moved the rudder pedals apart for better pilot comfort.
Then moved the instrument panel closer to the pilot for easier
access and better visibility. Upon introduction of the Mark
III Xtra, the TwinStar Mark III was renamed the Mark III
Later in 2000, the Kolbra
was introduced. It is a fore-and-aft 2 seater, a larger
version of the Slingshot. Upon development, two versions were
introduced. Magazines referred to them as King Kolbra and its
little brother. The difference in the two were higher cage
size. The larger version won out and that is the version on
the market today.
Since its inception, more
than 8,000 airplanes have been delivered world wide.
2010, The New Kolb Aircraft Co. sold to long time aviation
enthusiast and builder, Bryan Melborn who has removed
"The New" from the company name as it caused
problems with finding the company easily in directory
listings. Now, Kolb Aircraft Co. is located in London, Kentucky, and produces a line of
light sport and ultralight aircrafts. The company, started over 30 years
Homer Kolb, is one on the oldest kit manufacturers of experimental light aircraft
in the world. For more information, please contact Kolb Aircraft Co. in London,
Kentucky at 606-862-9692.
NOTE: Throughout the body of this document and also our other
literature, we use the term ultralight to refer to lightweight aircraft in
general. When we wish to refer to a legal FAR PART 103 aircraft, we call it a legal