When his hopes of a career in the cockpit were dashed, Ralph Lellé obtained a private pilot license and painted a small plane in the Lufthansa colors. The airline has now made a dream of his come true at Frankfurt Airport.
If he hadn’t been “slightly shortsighted,” Ralph Lellé, 59, would probably have touched down at the world’s major airports far more often. Here, in Hangar 7 of Cargo City Süd at Frankfurt Airport, he is awaiting the arrival of an Airbus A380. Lellé, gray-haired and in overalls and sneakers, is a real airplane nut. Growing up, he soon realized he wanted to fly for Lufthansa or float weightless for NASA – something like that. At local aviation shows, he loved watching the daredevils who crossed deserts or the Alps … The first moon landing had him glued to the television; Superman was one of his favorite comics and as a kid, he was fascinated by the thought of overcoming gravity.
Unfortunately, his eyesight was too poor for him to become a commercial pilot, so Ralph Lellé turned his obsession into a hobby. By the age of 30, he held licenses for controlled visual flying, stunt flying, and night and blind flying. Lellé has flown more than two dozen different types of aircraft and taken off and landed hundreds of times. He marks the airfields with pins on a map of the world. One place he is particularly proud of landing at is the former Meigs Fieldon a peninsula in Lake Michigan, near downtown Chicago, which closed in 2003.
“All I needed was an airplane without all the professional instruments, one I could fly without interference from anyone,” he says. In 2014, Lellé discovered the prototype of a new class of aircraft that was subject to few legal requirements. Weighing just 120 kilos, it has a wingspan of nearly 8.5 meters and consists of little more than an airframe of steel tubing and plastic and detachable spar-and-rib wings with a white, blue and yellow coating of stretching lacquer. Lellé’s flying club pals call it a “paper kite,” but he proudly emblazoned the name Rebell on the wing.
The ultralight plane standing beside its owner in Frankfurt was developed by Roman Weller, who had previously built replicas of vintage Blériots and Fokkers, produced spare parts for the German Museum in Munich and supplied the controls for the record-breaking Solar Impulse. “He’s a brilliant inventor,” Lellé says.
Since March 2016, Lellé has flown more than 220 hours in his new plane. He raves about standing still in the air or even being blown backwards when a head wind is too strong. He demonstrates how he clamps the tail under his arm and simply drags the aircraft to its parking position. “If I were allowed to, I could take off here and be in the air before I got to the hangar door,” he says. Judging by his laugh, he would probably circle the inside of the hangar a few times first before flying out of the door and disappearing into the blue.
With this model, flying is once again an adventure. And wherever Lellé lands, he draws onlookers like a magnet. They pose with the plane for selfies, admire its ash wood propeller, the cables in its hollow wings and the engine, which is barely more powerful than a lawnmower engine. Best of all: the logo incorporating the initials RL – a tribute to the famous Lufthansa crane.
And now here comes the mighty A380. Lellé stands on tiptoes, leans across the wings of his own plane and squints into the sunshine. A huge shadow rolls across the tarmac and the Queen of the Skies enters. Soon the two planes stand wing to wing. Lellé looks like a delighted schoolboy, but he would never trade his plane for its big brother. “You feel every thermal, every little bump on the runway and sail alone through the clouds. Where else can you fly like that today?” And unlike Lufthansa pilots, “I don’t have to wear a tie in the cockpit!,” he exclaims.