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Published: June 14, 1981


Three years ago, John Chotia decided that what America needed and wanted was a 160-pound, one-man airplane that comes in a ready-to-assemble kit, looks a little bit like a flying lawn chair and does not require a pilot's license to operate.

Although no one believed him at the time, Mr. Chotia has been proven right. His company, Weedhopper of Utah, is forecasting sales of about $17 million this year and has just purchased a 20-acre site in nearby Plain City, where he hopes to be turning out as many as 1,000 airplane kits a month.

''There are a lot of people who have always wanted to fly but can't afford it,'' said the 34-year-old executive, who began teaching himself how to build airplanes when he was a high school student in Hayward, Calif. ''I am just capitalizing on the failure of the aviation industry to provide people with a low-cost recreational airplane.''

While he has been more successful than most, Mr. Chotia is not alone in reaching that conclusion. According to a survey conducted recently by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, as many as 25 separate companies are competing in the manufacture of ultralight aircraft - one-man airplanes that are not subject to certification or inspection by the Federal Aviation Administration and do not require a pilot's license to fly.

Indeed, many of the ultralights, which have an average cost of about $4,000, are little more than modified hang gliders to which small engine-driven propellers have been added.

''A lot of people are now putting their money into ultralight airplanes instead of buying hot tubs or scuba diving gear,'' said Thomas Horne, associate editor of Pilot Magazine. ''It makes flying an affordable recreational alternative for a lot of people.'' New Rules Being Considered

It has also raised some rather serious concerns within the Federal Aviation Administration, which says it is looking into possible new rules that would require some sort of certification not only for the aircraft, but also for the people who fly them.

''Not only are the ultralights increasing in number, but they are getting into air space used by higher-performance aircraft,'' said Dennis Feldman, a spokesman for the aviation agency. ''It is becoming a matter of serious concern.''

Since they first appeared on the market in 1975, there are now about 2,500 ultralight planes in use in the United States, according to the agency. Industry sources say the number could be as high as 5,000.

Although the airplanes are simple in style and design - the pilot is usually suspended beneath the wing is some sort of open seat - they are capable of reaching an altitude of 10,000 feet, have a range of 90 miles and a cruising speed of about 30 miles an hour.

The planes are portable, and can be broken down for transport either by trailer or on the roof of a car. The Weedhopper, for example, comes in three wooden boxes and a long cardboard tube. According to the manufacturer, it requires one day to assemble. Weedhopper supplies all the parts, including the plane's 25-horsepower engine, which the company builds itself. 'A Real Sense of Freedom'

The full kit retails for about $3,800. By comparison, the least expensive standard Cessna or Piper aircraft costs about $25,000, and a pilot's license costs $2,300.

''A lot of people just can't afford to fly these days,'' said Mr. Horne. ''Not only do the ultralights change that, but flying the planes is an incredible sensory experience. You feel the wind and you can smell the grass. There is a real sense of freedom.''

Mr. Chotia concedes that there is a high risk of danger in flying the Weedhopper. A small sign on the frame directly in front of the pilot warns that ''serious injury or even death can result from any accident or any failure of this equipment.''

In the last three years, Mr. Chotia said, two persons have been killed in accidents involving the plane. Mr. Chotia said that he was now marketing the airplane through a series of trained dealers, both in the United States and Europe, who will offer flight training and safety instruction in the proper use of the plane.