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Ultralight pilot discovers NM’s secrets from a high-flying perspective

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A few years back, Jeff Gilkey discovered the most astonishing thing.

Out on Laguna Pueblo land, in Rio Puerco country south and west of Albuquerque, on the tops of two islands of rock 100 feet high, Gilkey found the ruins of old Indian structures.

“They were two sister cities, about a half mile apart,” Gilkey said. “I just has no idea they were there. There are a lot of places in New Mexico, thousands of weird, little spires; secret pools; hidden canyons and ruins that people don’t even know about.”

But Gilkey knows about, has seen and photographed a lot of them.

Of course it helps to find these natural and archaeological treasures if, as is the case with Gilkey, you fly thousands of feet above the ground in an ultralight trike with a 30-foot wingspan and an 80-horsepower motor. That’s how he discovered those ruins on the Laguna land; incredible gaps in rock formations on the Mount Taylor plateau; gaping, almost perfectly round vents or holes on Zia Pueblo; remnants of volcanic chimneys up and down the Rio Puerco.

“Most of these places you can’t get to on foot,” Gilkey said. “They are on Indian land, or there are chains across the gates. But you can fly over these places. Trespassing doesn’t apply to flying.”

Jumping off cliffs

Since he started flying ultralights in 2004, Gilkey, 61, has logged more than 1,600 hours in his Aerotrike Cobra, soaring over most of New Mexico and into Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Texas. He uses both video and point-and-shoot still cameras to record the fascinating things he finds as he flies.

His photographs and video have provided the jaw-dropping core of several presentations he has done at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. His fifth such presentation, “Secrets of New Mexico: Views From An Ultralight Pilot,” will take place at the museum’s five-story Dynatheater screen from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday. This program will focus on those hidden places and obscure ruins Gilkey prizes so much.

Ultralight pilot and aerial photographer Jeff Gilkey approaches Shiprock. (Courtesy of Jeff Gilkey)

“The museum (programs are) great fun because a lot of people come and are just amazed, and the kids get excited and want to learn to fly,” Gilkey said.

For Gilkey, whose childlike enthusiasm, easy smile and quick laugh make him seem much younger than he is, all this started because he wanted to learn how to fly.

He grew up in El Paso, earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1978 and was introduced to New Mexico during a summer internship at Sandia National Laboratories. He got his first taste of flying when he took up hang gliding while doing graduate work at Stanford University.

After earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1979 and a doctorate in the same field in 1984, both from Stanford, Gilkey started a career at Sandia Labs.

“I was a control engineer for a bunch of rocket projects,” he said. “The rockets all have computers on them that need to be programmed.”

The move to Albuquerque also meant hang gliding out of the Sandia Mountains for about eight years, experience he said proved useful years later when he turned to ultralights.

“Hang gliding is a lot like flying the trike without the gas pedals,” he said. “You are learning to turn and read the thermals over the mountains. The difference with the trike is that you are taking off from an airport instead of jumping off a cliff. And with the trike, I can fly forever and land on wheels instead of on my feet.”

Very memorable

Gilkey retired last year after more than 30 years at Sandia Labs. He and his wife, Amy, live in a Northeast Heights home with three dogs, including Holly, a 12-year-old golden retriever who snored contentedly at his feet as Gilkey used a Google Earth computer program to show a visitor routes he has flown in his ultralight over the years. He keeps extensive written and video accounts of his high-flying adventures, which can be found at

Ultralight pilot Jeff Gilkey flies over the Manzano Mountains at sunset. (Courtesy of Jeff Gilkey)

Gilkey and his wife are the parents of two daughters, both adults now. When the girls were little, however, he gave up hang gliding to spend more time with them. His kids were in high school when Gilkey, during a vacation in Hawaii, saw a man giving tours in an ultralight and thought, “Hey, I can do this.”

He spent a year with an Albuquerque ultralight club learning about the aircraft that would become his passion. He has a sport pilot license that permits him to fly at an altitude of 10,000 feet or 2,000 feet above the terrain.

“If I were flying over the Sandias, which are 10,000 feet, I could fly at 12,000 feet,” he said.

Gilkey said his ultralight is capable of flying at speeds between 40 and 75 mph, but seems happiest at about 55 mph. He can get more than  350 miles or seven hours in the air with the ultralight’s 21-gallon fuel tank. His longest flight to date, 6 hours and 10 minutes, happened just two weeks ago when he flew from Bluff, Utah, to the Belen Municipal Airport, where he keeps the ultralight.

Gilkey said ultralights are exceptionally stable, but if you were to get blindsided by a fierce thermal the aircraft could go into a bad stall and drop 500 feet.

“Usually, they recover within 100 feet, but you don’t want to do any stalls down low,” he said. “In November 2011, I was flying on the backside of Mount Taylor and dropped for a couple of hundred feet. My stomach was up in my throat. It was very memorable.”

No Charles Lindbergh

Gilkey has come to understand that what started for him as the thrill of flying has evolved over the years into the excitement of exploration.

“All my trips now are focused on what I am going to see,” he said. And what he is going to show others at his museum programs or on his website.

“I’d thought I was going to fly around the world,” he said. “But I’m no Charles Lindbergh. I just got started in this country. I’ll just fly around the U.S. in my trike and have enough adventures to fill out my life.”