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Light Sport Aircraft Could Open Flight To Many

by Charlie Spence, Aviation Writer

Sportair StingSport
The Sportair StingSport has a 360' panoramic view one piece canopy for
excellent visibility. The roomy cockpit seats two in comfort. It is one of
three dozen aircraft in the LSA categor. Photo courtesy Sportair-USA

Two new categories of aircraft are coming to the market and each is expected to have significant impacts on all of aviation.

The first of these are Very Light Jets (VLJ), which are making available the comfort, speed, and security of business jet aircraft but at a fraction of the cost. This discussion can wait for a future time.

At the other end of the aircraft scale, Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) are coming to the market with a bang. These aircraft are the modern day versions of the basic training vehicles in which so many pilots learned to fly in the glory-growth days of aviation more than a half century ago. Many expect the LSA program to renew that bustling period as it gains momentum.

Light sport aircraft had their beginnings more than 25 years ago as flying became more and more expensive to learn and to pursue. The cyclical nature of general aviation takes individual flight through periods of growth followed by decline: growth came immediately after World War I; then following Lindbergh's epic flight to Paris; then in the late 1950s and early 1960s with help from military training in the war and the GI bill to encourage training. Decline followed each period of growth. New improved vehicles marked each period.

Again, in the late 1970s, the number of pilots began to decline. Manufacturers of standard general aviation aircraft, faced with potential liability law suits over aircraft scores of years old, and realizing a greater market in larger corporate aircraft, reduced their production of single-engine personal and sport aircraft. Just as problems bunched, so, too, did solutions. When flight began to lag, hang gliders started to evolve into ultralight aircraft; Congress passed legislation placing reins on aircraft product liability lawsuits; after favorable legislation, manufacturers again began looking at the personal and sport market. The ultralight community petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to liberalize regulations and permit heavier, faster, more powerful aircraft and the carriage of one passenger; the FAA recognized the problems a slim pilot population might bring to all air travel. Instead of acting on the ultralight community's petition to expand that activity, the agency generated an entirely new category - the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA).

Simultaneously, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) had also been working with the (FAA) to expand the home-built activity. As the swing to the Light Sport Aircraft began to take shape, EAA President Tom Poberezny and key members of his staff frequently met with FAA. Finally, in September 2004, the FAA issued a sport pilot/light sport aircraft rule. This was not the end; it was the beginning. The rule set forth the basic parameters. From this beginning, the government, the manufacturers, the associations, the schools, the instructors, and the airports all had to begin making the new category work.

And working it is!

New manufacturers are introducing new products; others are taking older models of craft that fit the criteria and modernizing them. Schools are starting to spring up. Instructors are getting certified.

The basic differences between the new LSA pilot and a private pilot with a third-class medical certificate are:

Sport Pilot Private Pilot
Minimum flight training 40 hours
Aircraft restrictions LSA only LSA, Standard, Utility, Aerobatic
Passenger Restrictions Pilot plus one passenger No restrictions
Altitude Limits 10,000 feet MSL 18,000 feet MSL
Airport Limits With training-most airports All airports
Operations Day only Day and night
Distance Unlimited in the U.S. only Unlimited
Medical Valid driver license or FAA 3rd-class medical FAA 3rd-class medical
Average cost to obtain License $2000 - $4000 $6000 - $8000
The Aircraft
Aircraft Maximum Weight Less than 1,320 lbs MGW Seaplanes 1.430 MGW Under and over 1,320 MGW
Aircraft Maximum Speed 120 knots, full power, level Unlimited
Airworthiness ASTM Consensus standard FAA Certification
Required Maintenance Owner with training or certified mechanic FAA certified mechanic

According to the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, 38 models had been approved in the first 16 months existence of the new category. Some of these have familiar names such as Taylorcraft, Aeronca, Cub; others are from companies that have been in the ultralight field; some are from foreign manufacturers. A major manufacturer of standard aircraft - Cessna - introduced its LSA concept design at the 2006 EAA Airventure in Oshkosh. The company says it has not made a final decision about production of the plane but most observers expect the company that has produced more airplanes than any other company in the world to join in the competition for the LSA market. A basic belief of Cessna over the years is that pilots who train in a particular company's product usually stay with that product as they advance.

Prices of the different models are as varied as are the models themselves, ranging from $55,000 to $125,000. Because flight is limited to day VFR, instrumentation is far less than required in current standard planes. Clubs or joint ownership by several persons can make the initial investment within reach of many flight enthusiasts. For example, six persons can join together to purchase a $60,000 LSA and put about 20% down, or $2,000 for each person.

Any flight instructor may give lessons for a LSA certificate. (Any holder of an FAA pilot certificate can get an LSA certificate by getting a flight review and making three takeoffs and landings before taking a passenger. A valid driver's license is required and the individual must not have had a medical certificate denied.) Beginning training can be given in any airplane, but before solo, a LSA vehicle will be needed.

Approval by the FAA of aircraft fitting the LSA requirements has been swift. Also, deliveries are moving ahead well despite the normal difficulties of getting businesses started. Industry leaders expect some 1,000 LSAs to be delivered this year with 1,500 to 2,000 reaching customers next year.

This new category of flight is giving renewed opportunities to older pilots looking to renew their interests in the joys of flight but who have little or no reason to seek distant destinations. It is providing a relatively less expensive, less complex way for non-pilots to experience the enjoyments of flight and the opportunity to share that pleasure with a passenger. And, it is providing a lower threshold for entering the realm of flight to move ahead with piloting as a career or an efficient, enjoyable means of personal or business travel.

The LSA can be aviation's first cyclical growth of the 21st century.