Like many children, Andy Snedden watched birds in the sky, imagining what it would be like to fly. Andy, a Gratiot resident, spent countless afternoons at a Newark playground that had an old fighter jet from the Korean War. While he played, he dreamt of soaring to altitudes high above the trees. Today, his ambition and imagination have led him to create one of the world’s most innovative, powerful ultralight flying machines, and he continues to perfect it each day.An ultralight is classified not as an airplane, but as a single-seat “flying vehicle,” as Andy describes it. The only requirements for this variety of aircraft are that the machine weighs 254 pounds or less, does not exceed a speed of 55 knots, and carries no more than 5 gallons of gas. Other than that, the possibilities are seemingly endless.In the 1970s, when he was in his late teens, Andy learned of a Johnstown pilot offering Sunday afternoon ultralight demonstrations, which he began attending with his father. Andy immediately began to pursue the exciting and affordable hobby. Andy went on to work for aerospace companies, took flying lessons, became a pilot and finally became an instructor himself. He is currently an organizer of the Future Flyers Ultralight Club, which unites aviators and helps promote ultralight flying as the ultimate power sport. When he designed his own flying machine in 2005, he had no idea what to expect. Andy began sketching on graph paper and using AutoCAD, an engineering software program. The next step was renting a large hangar at the Perry County Airport. Sheer mechanical ingenuity is evident in the design of the Snedden M7, the ultralight model that Andy single-handedly built from the ground up. “I call him Einstein,” says Andy’s girlfriend and biggest supporter, Laura Petersheim of Granville. “He really hates it.” However, at age 53, Andy is really just an everyday type of person. He wears a baseball hat, leather jacket, jeans and sneakers, and he possesses a sense of creativity and improvisation seen only in the most youthful imaginations. Andy thought that a four-wheeled model would be sturdier than the traditional two-wheeled model, so he used wheelbarrow tires to create the undercarriage. He installed a twist-grip throttle similar to a motorcycle’s and attached a pretzel canister to serve as a muffler and reduce noise from the carburetor. Andy also used more than 1,400 plastic zip ties to secure pieces such as the windshield to the frame, which is made of aluminum tubing.“There are certain things a person can’t be taught in a university,” Andy says about his design. “You have to have a passion, an inquisition and a curiosity from a young age.”Andy’s method of getting into the flying machine is also something that can be appreciated by even those not familiar with aviation. “I like to call it the watermelon crawl,” he laughs, as he shimmies under the bottom of the machine and snakes his body up into the pilot’s seat. Once securely strapped in, Andy proclaims that the seat in his M7 is one of the most relaxing and comfortable spots, even when he is hundreds of feet above the ground. “When I’m in here, I feel like I’m part of the aircraft,” Andy says, a slight smile appearing.Andy did not always feel quite so confident in his homemade aircraft. On Sept. 8, 2008, the Snedden M7 was ready for its first flight, with only 15 minutes of taxi experience on the ground and dozens of onlookers eagerly watching. The Snedden M7 went sailing into the sky, jerking from turbulence. It was at that point Andy realized there was a fine line between fame and death. The ride was rocky, and his aircraft did not reach an altitude high enough for him to use his parachute, which would have been able to safely guide the entire apparatus to the ground. Gripping the handles and hoping for the best, Andy and the Snedden M7 managed to glide smoothly back down to the runway.Since his first flight in the M7, Andy works to perfect the vehicle through trial and error. With each flight, he finds a way to improve a feature. Every mechanical adjustment makes a difference. Currently, he is working to attach 8-pound flotation devices to each side of the craft, giving it the ability to land on water. He hopes to install cruise control, which he believes will make his flying machine even safer. Because of Andy’s constant tweaking, the Snedden M7 rides much smoother than it did almost two years ago.Andy’s longest flight in the Snedden M7 to date lasted about 45 minutes. Because the machine can only hold 5 gallons of fuel, Laura follows him by car with a fuel can when he goes on extended trips. Andy, however, prefers to hover close to home. His favorite place to fly is in New Lexington, overlooking railroad tracks, lakes and strip-mined valleys. His ultralight model is extremely maneuverable, allowing him to fly low, zip between trees and experience the most breathtaking views. He has the ability to land almost anywhere, from farmland to hillsides, giving him a great amount of versatility. “I see the world from a whole different perspective now,” Andy says, referring to the plush, local scenery seen from a bird’s-eye view.Andy looks forward to this year’s Airventure show, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. At the 2009 air show, hosted by the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Snedden M7 caused quite a commotion. “The crowd was so big, I could barely squeeze in to give him a sandwich at lunchtime,” Laura says. Honored as being the most fun and surprising innovation at Airventure by Popular Mechanics magazine, Andy’s ultralight is undoubtedly inspiring many.Andy’s goals for the future fly even higher than the Snedden M7. New government regulations and limits on training make it harder than ever for aspiring pilots to enter the aviation scene. The older generation of pilots is beginning to retire, and there is a shortage of replacements, causing serious concern for Andy. He says he hopes his homemade aircraft and his passion for flying will motivate young pilots all over the country. Andy and his ultralight flying machine serve to encourage everyone, though. For those with a dream, his story suggests they look to the sky and never settle short of flying.