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Preparing for Your Sport Pilot Rating

by Charlie Spence, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Obtaining your sport pilot certificate should be a faster and less expensive way to move into aviation than going the full route of earning a private certificate. That, at least, was the expectation as the Federal Aviation Administration and aviation groups developed this new certification.

The sport pilot certificate and the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) categories are the second attempt to simplify the process. A recreational pilot certificate has been available for several years. However, by the end of 2005, only 278 recreational certificates were held and the sport pilot class had already garnered 134 applicants. (Data for 2006 is not yet available.) The FAA developed the recreational pilot certificate pretty much on its own. The sport pilot certificate is an advancement because the FAA included participation by the National Association of Flight Instructors, Experimental Aircraft Association, and others interested in opening the pleasures and productivity of flight to more persons.

Just how much easier and less expensive the sport pilot class will be won't be known until the FAA, instructors, insurance companies, manufacturers and just about everything else associated with this activity gets some knowledge upon which to base decisions. Right now, there just isn't enough experience. This insight comes from Harry Kraemer, a flight instructor and aircraft salesperson at Frederick Aviation in Frederick, Maryland, who has a deep involvement in different levels of flight training and aircraft sales. Kraemer was asked by the National Association of Flight Instructors to look over the proposed new category and to make comments before the FAA made it official.

To become a sport pilot, an individual must be at least 16 years of age (14 for balloons and gliders) and be able to read, speak and understand the English language. The applicant must possess a valid automobile driver's license or a FAA medical certificate. (The sport pilot certificate applies also to ultralight aircraft, balloons, gliders, weight-shift-control aircraft, and powered parachutes, but references in this article are aimed principally at requirements for operating fixed wing aircraft.)

The written test for the sport pilot certificate covers almost as much material as that for the private certificate, according to Kraemer. Only a few sections of the private test are eliminated. The sport exam covers such areas as:

  • Federal aviation regulations
  • Chart reading and understanding
  • Weather
  • Decision making
  • Accident reporting
  • Aeronautical charts
  • Density altitude
  • Principles of aerodynamics
  • Weight and balance
  • And similar subjects relating to aeronautical knowledge.

Ground school classes are available but usually reading course books can provide the knowledge needed, which can keep the costs down and, in most cases, speed up the certificate process. Several sources are available. Kraemer has written Sport Pilot's Knowledge Test for the Gleim series of aviation publications, available from the Gleim website and aviation bookstores. Other study publications are available online, at various aviation bookstores, and at some airports. A good reference manual for the FAA's specific wording is the Aeronautical Information Manual/ Federal Aviation Regulations (AIM/FAR) published by McGraw- Hill.

Actual flight training prepares the applicant for safe flight. Light Sport Aircraft are both tail wheel and tricycle gear models. Many of the older aircraft that meet the LSA requirements are 'tail draggers' like certain Piper Cubs, Aeroncas, and similar makes. Newer models usually have the tricycle gear which, according to Kraemer, should be easier for the student to master. In this area, too, Kraemer has written material for the Gleim series. The book Sport Pilot Flight Maneuvers describes the why and how of various maneuvers needed for passing the flight test and for safe flying.

Training for a private pilot license requires a minimum of 40 hours experience, of which at least 20 must be with a certificated flight instructor. However, most student pilots today require in excess of 60 hours before being ready to be tested for a private certificate.

By contrast, a person seeking a sport pilot certificate is required to have at least 20 hours of flight time, with at least 15 from an instructor. This must include at least 10 takeoffs and landings to a full stop, two hours of cross-country training, one solo cross-country flight of at least 75 nautical miles total distance, and three hours of training in the maneuvers on which the testing will be done. Although there is not yet enough experience to determine how much training will be needed to prepare applicants for flight tests, Kraemer believes most sport pilot applicants will require more hours than the minimum of 20 required by the regulations, just as do the applicants for a private certificate.

In the practical test, the applicant can expect to be examined on these and other flight areas:

  • Preflight preparation
  • Takeoffs, landings, go-arounds
  • Performance maneuvers
  • Navigation
  • Slow flight
  • Ground reference
  • Stalls
  • Emergency procedures
  • And other pilot performance areas that the examiner might find pertinent.

Certificated pilots holding a private or higher rating may act as a sport pilot with only a driver's license instead of a medical certificate so long as the medical certificate has not been denied. If the pilot merely let the medical certificate expire, the flight privileges of a sport pilot may be taken. The pilot must meet all requirements such as recency of experience, bi-enniel flight review, and abide by the limitations of the sport pilot rating.