GA renaissance and Light Sport Aircraft


In looking over my posting of 14 years ago mentioned in my previous blog entry, I don’t find my predictions too embarrassing because most of the things that I cited turned out to have had an important effect on general aviation. The arrival of GPS and moving maps has ushered in the biggest change to the way people fly airplanes, greatly enhancing their convenience and safety. The glass panels I alluded to have also had a major impact on the design of aircraft instrument panels, although with the advent of color LCD displays, we don’t call them CRTs anymore. The DUAT (direct user access terminal) has been enhanced with web-based weather, complete with graphical weather maps. Flight planning is something you do by keying in a few waypoints to your GPS/moving map.

On the other hand, the primary category never took off, with only 2 aircraft ever being approved in that category. However, one can argue its successor, the Light Sport Aircraft initiative, is gaining a lot of traction. The primary category sought to reduce the complexity of getting an aircraft certified by the FAA and would have allowed the owner to perform more of the routine maintenance. Aircraft maintenance is very expensive because shop rates are in typically in excess of $75/hour and you need to have an annual inspection done once per year. The annual inspection typically requires a minimum of 8 hours of labor and could easily escalate into thousands of dollars if something is wrong with the plane or if a new Airworthiness Directive has been issued against the plane or engine.

The Light Sport Aircraft category carries the concept of the primary category further and shares some features with the experimental category when it comes to maintenance. If you take an approved maintenance class, you can get a ‘repairman certificate’ for the airplane which means you can maintain it yourself, similar to an experimental airplane. But, unlike the experimental category, you don’t have to build it yourself, unless you want to, of course. You can purchase it fully assembled and still qualify for the repairman certificate.

Light Sport Aircraft have the following features/restrictions:

  • Maximum gross takeoff weight of 1320 lbs. (or 1430 pounds for seaplanes)
  • Maximum stall speed of 51 mph
  • Maximum speed in level flight at max power of 138 mph.
  • 2-seat maximum
  • fixed landing gear
  • single engine
  • fixed propeller
  • unpressurized cabin
  • The last 3 restrictions aren’t really necessary because the alternatives wouldn’t be practical on an aircraft that met the first 3 restrictions.

    There are a number of ‘old school’ tube and fabric aircraft that meet these conditions such as the venerable Piper Cub and Aeronca Champ. Those are very simple, low and slow flying aircraft, made with 70 year-old technology. There is also a newer category of modern planes designed explicitly for the LSA category with sophisticated technology and modern construction materials. That class of LSA aircraft is the most interesting to me. A few examples include the Evektor SportStar and the Flight Design CTSW. In addition, over the past year, well established, reputable aircraft companies like Cessna, Cirrus, and Van’s Aircraft have all introduced new aircraft targeted specifically at the LSA category.

    In addition to the LSA aircraft, a new type of pilot certificate has become available called the ‘Sport Pilot’ that is a match for these new aircraft. It should be much less expensive to get a Sport Pilot certificate because there is less training required. Only 20 hours of training is required vs. 40 hours for a Private Pilot Certificate. I should mention that the minimum hour requirements are not realistic for everyone so you may need to double them before you’re ready for a check ride with an examiner.

    Here are the privileges/restrictions for the Sport Pilot certificate:

  • Visual Flight Rules (VFR) only (this means no flying inside or on top of clouds)
  • Daytime flying only
  • No flying above 10,000 feet
  • Can carry one passenger
  • Solo flight is restricted to the LSA category of aircraft
  • No flying into controlled airspace unless trained to do so (with a logbook endorsement)
  • No business/commercial flying
  • No periodic medical exam required
  • The last issue is the big one. I’m sure that many pilots would consider restricting their flying to LSA aircraft if they had a medical condition that didn’t hamper their piloting abilities, yet jeopardized their ability to get an FAA medical certificate.

    There are plenty of ways a pilot can lose his medical certificate. For example, my friend takes a sleep medication that is on a list of ‘cannot fly if taking this medication’ because it’s also used to treat people who have seizures. He’s actually safer taking the medication because it makes him feel more rested. Although he has never had any seizures, if he tried to get a medical and reported that he was taking that medication, he would be denied his medical and might never be able to fly again. The Sport Pilot certificate has a kind of catch-22 in that regard. If you’ve ever been denied an FAA medical certificate, you cannot get a Sport Pilot certificate. However, if you simply let your medical certificate lapse when you have a medical condition that could get you denied, then you can automatically become a Sport Pilot.

    Of all the people who start to learn to fly nearly 70% quit, primarily because of the amount of time and money required to get a pilot’s certificate. Of those who do finish, many stop flying for cost reasons since owning or renting aircraft can be quite expensive.

    So perhaps the GA renaissance has merely been delayed, or at least that is my hope. I will revisit this posting in the future and see if the LSA category for aircraft and the sport pilot certificate has reversed the downward trend in the number of people holding pilot certificates. In the 1980s, we had over 800,000 pilots in the U.S. and now it’s just slightly under 600,000. Judging by the age of the average pilot, reversing that trend is going to be quite a challenge but reducing the cost and time to obtain an entry level pilot certificate is a step in the right direction.

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    1. Pingback: Learning to fly | Lee Devlin's Website

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