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.

    A renaissance for General Aviation?


    A few years ago, actually, almost 14 years ago, I wrote a posting in one of the rec.aviation groups on the Internet that talked about a possible renaissance that could occur in general aviation (GA). I’ve often thought about the posting over the years, wondering if it would be prescient or just an embarrassing prediction that never came to fruition. Thanks to Google’s ambitious indexing efforts, I have had the chance to review what I wrote, which can be a humbling experience, especially after time has passed. Rather than summarize it, I thought I’d just lay the posting out in front of God and everyone, because for me it is a combination of deja vu and a form of ‘lost time’. You can find it yourself if you search on Google groups, but here it is, word for word:

    Lee Devlin
    Newsgroups: rec.aviation.misc
    Date: Wed, 29 Sep 1993 03:19:26 GMT
    Local: Tues, Sep 28 1993 9:19 pm
    Subject: A Renaissance for General Aviation?

    Do you think that GA is on the verge of a popularity explosion? It
    seems that the industry has been in a tailspin for the past several
    decades but I can’t help thinking that certain forces are at work which
    will allow it to undergo a sort of renaissance.

    This could be good or bad, depending on your point of view. Currently,
    aviation has many barriers to entry and attracts primarily only the true
    enthusiasts. Consequently, I feel like I have a lot in common with
    those who like to fly. Perhaps you have also noticed this rapport among
    aviators. It seems when I meet other aviators we immediately become
    good friends. Opening up aviation to the masses is bound to attract
    throngs of uncleansed infidels who have no true appreciation of the
    miracle of flight :-). However, I think it would be the lesser of evils
    since the current trend indicates that we are on the path to extinction.

    There are several reasons I think that general aviation can make a
    comeback. The primary reason is that general aviation has been
    wallowing in a sort of technological ‘dark age’ for too long. It has
    missed out on nearly every technological advance for the past 20 years.
    Now, the world is bursting with new technology that would greatly
    improve the convenience, cost, and safety of personal flying.

    Some of the advances will make a few of our skills redundant. I wonder
    how many of us old timers will still want to see the newly initiated
    demonstrate proficiency at hopelessly arcane skills like NDB navigation
    or manipulating an E6B in the cockpit. Certainly not I.

    Consider that in just the last 4 years here are a few of the significant
    changes that have occurred:


    My biggest hope is for the virtual replacement of all navigation
    equipment by GPS. A piece of equipment that gives position,
    groundspeed, groundtrack, distance, and ETE makes an ADF or even VOR
    seem silly by comparison. GPS navigation should knock off a few hours
    of training when NDBs and VOR go the way of the AN airways.


    DUAT cuts your briefing time in half and can give a much more complete
    description of the weather that you can carry with you. You won’t have
    to listen to ‘All briefers are busy ….’. I’m not saying briefers can
    be done away with, just that DUAT is definitely more convenient. And
    don’t forget to use GTE’s plain language weather translator. It’s free.

    Computerized Flight Planning Software.

    Planning cross countries using paper and pencil ranks right up there
    with getting a root canal. Then, if your flight gets canceled for any
    reason, you must start from scratch because everything you did is now
    worthless. Computerized flight planning software takes the hassle out
    of preparing for flights. If you haven’t tried the one on GTE’s DUAT,
    you’re missing out on a great product. It automatically interpolates
    the winds aloft at your altitude. It knows the correct magnetic
    variation and computes all your headings for you in seconds. Don’t
    worry about database updates, it’s already handled for you. It’s also
    free. Maybe it should be allowed on the FAA exams in place of the E6B
    calculator :-).

    Moving Maps

    These should eventually be integrated into one of the several CRTs that
    belong on the instrument panel to replace the instruments, avionics,
    gauges, etc. If things continue to proceed the way they have been,
    a GA glass cockpit is an inevitability.

    The Primary Category

    This EAA-inspired program is most promising. It’s ironic that the first
    ‘airplane’, a Quicksilver 500, to be certified under these rules looks
    more like an ultralight. There will be 3 planes certified before the
    end of this year and probably a dozen more over the next 2 years.

    There are many other advances waiting to be integrated into light aircraft
    such as inexpensive autopilots, composite construction, low-cost computers,
    digital communications, and collision avoidance to name a few.

    Yes, I think the industry is perfectly poised for a major re-birth and
    hopefully we’ll all be able to experience it firsthand.

    Lee Devlin | HP Little Falls Site | phone: (302) 633-8697
    Piper Colt N4986Z | 2850 Centerville Rd. | email:
    “Spirit of rec.aviation”| Wilmington, DE 19808 | dev…


    As you can see, this was a kinder, gentler Internet where you not only provided your contact details, but your employer’s name, mailing address, phone number, etc.. How times have changed! I still am as forthright as I’ve ever been about my identity on the Internet, and I’m probably in the minority in that regard. At the time I was still flying the Colt with probably 250 hours of flying under my belt. Now that I’ve had 14 years to contemplate my predictions, I have to wonder if I was wrong, or simply ahead of my time. Maybe a new posting to further explain and elaborate on my predictions would be in order…

    Aviation handheld radios


    At Oshkosh this year, one of the things on my ‘to do’ list was to replace my aviation handheld radio. I had loaned my Vertex Standard (AKA Yaesu) Pilot VXA-210 handheld radio to a friend who subsequently passed away and couldn’t imagine a way to broach the subject about getting the radio back.

    I have long been a fan of Yaesu ham radios and own quite a few of them. I’m the keeper of the FAQ for the Yaesu FT100 which is one of my most frequently visited web sites. I had my heart set on getting the VXA-700 aviation/ham handheld radio, something I’ve wanted for a long time because it could serve double duty in the cockpit. It’s a lot of fun to talk with fellow hams on the ground when one is flying around overhead. However, I was shocked to find that the ham radio (2-meter) functionality had been removed from the VXA-710, which is the follow-on radio to the VXA-700. Details about why it was removed were sketchy, but a few competitors said that the FCC had intervened and fined Yaesu for some reason. That left the choice up to the VXA300 since I wasn’t about to step down to a COMM-only radio when the radio I previously owned had also had a NAV feature.

    I don’t know why Yaesu has decided to dilute its well-known brand name by using the name ‘Vertex Standard’ for its aviation and marine radios. They’d have been much better off sticking with something that can leverage their strength in the ham radio market.

    Vertex Standard has 4 aviation hand held radios in the line-up that have no consistent naming convention. For example, they have the following aviation products:

  • Pro V aka VXA-150 (simple COMM-only radio)
  • Pro VI aka VXA-220 (a COMM-only radio with a bigger display)
  • Pilot III aka VXA-300 (NAV/COMM)
  • Spirit aka VXA-710 (NAV/COMM with business radio receive (?!) + FM receive)
  • The 4 radios look dissimilar enough that they might have been designed by 4 different companies. I don’t know what they are thinking at Yaesu, but giving products two different numbering schemes and using another brand name without the name recognition of Yaesu isn’t really helping them in any way.

    When it comes to aviation handhelds, it would be better to have a high end model and a low end model with similar user interfaces and accessories that are common. In addition, it would help if the people who staffed the Yaesu trade show booth actually knew something about the products. This has been an issue for the past several years. The guys are neither hams nor pilots and they don’t provide any staff to the larger vendor booths. I began feeling so dismayed by this inept marketing approach that I started looking more seriously at the competition, namely ICOM.

    ICOM made a big splash this year with a new panel mount radio called the A210 which, unfortunately, appears to cost about twice what their current A200 radio and doesn’t really do much more. ICOM had been the price/performance leader in aviation panel mount radios for many years with the A200. It costs approximately half of what the competition charges for a similar radio.

    The venerable A200

    I don’t know why the components that can be sold in a handheld radio need to cost 8 times as much when they are wrapped in a few more dollars of aluminum and have fewer features, but that is the case with nearly all panel-mount aviation radios.

    ICOM currently produces only 2 aviation handhelds, the A6 and A24, which look identical. The only difference is that the A24 has the NAV feature, and the A6 does not. In talking with their reps, they claimed that they designed the radios using focus groups with real pilots and found that the 3 most requested features from pilots were:

  • ease of use
  • easy-to-read display and keys
  • long battery life
  • Ease of use for this kind of radio is important since it’s a backup radio used infrequently and you don’t want to have to refer to its manual during an emergency like a complete electrical system failure. The backlit LCD display is easy to read as are its backlit keys.

    The battery takes up more than half the mass of the radio giving its battery life an advantage over attempting to make the radio as small as possible and compromising battery life in the process.

    After mulling this over for a while and considering the discounted show price and a $40 rebate, I decided to switch camps. I bought the A24 and so now I’m an ICOM owner again, something that I haven’t been for more than 25 years.

    Adaptive Interfaces