In line with this issue’s Learn To Fly article, I thought it might sync up nicely to give new and returning readers a look at how LSA and the sport-pilot license make earning your wings faster and more affordable than ever. No doubt you’ve heard about the light-sport aircraft (LSA) category and the sport-pilot (SP) rule. Let’s take a look to help you decide whether LSA is the right nest for you.
Light-Sport Aircraft Basics
LSA is the new category of aircraft created by the FAA in 2004 to provide an easy-to-fly, lower-cost, recreational-themed alternative to traditional civilian flight.
• There are two types of light-sport aircraft: S-LSA and E-LSA. S-LSA (special light-sport aircraft) are ASTM-certified, ready-to-fly aircraft for personal flight and flight training. E-LSA (Experimental Light Sport Aircraft) are built from kits (which must conform strictly to the manufacturer’s certified S-LSA model).
• LSA carry a maximum of two occupants in two seats
• LSA are heavier-than-air (propeller driven) or lighter-than-air. Helicopters aren’t included.
• Types of LSA: conventional wing/tail, gliders, powered parachutes, gyroplanes, weight-shift control (motorized “trikes”), free balloons/airships
• Maximum takeoff weight (MTOW): 1,320 pounds
• MTOW exception: 1,430 for float planes and amphibians
• Maximum full power, straight and level cruise speed: 120 knots
• Maximum stall speed, no flaps: 45 knots
• Must-haves: fixed landing gear, a single, reciprocating engine and fixed or ground-adjustable propeller
• Current FAA-certified and experimental aircraft that fall within the specs also can be flown by sport pilots, as well as private, recreational or higher-pilot-certificate holders. Examples: Ercoupe, Piper Cub J-3, Taylorcraft.
• LSA are not FAA certified in the traditional manner. Comprehensive structural and flight testing is performed by manufacturers in conformity with consensus standards established by the ASTM International Committee F37 standards organization. FAA does oversee and audit manufacturers to make sure they remain in compliance with ASTM. More info here: www.astm.org.
• Since 2004, 133 models have been certified as S-LSA; the great majority is still in production.
• LSA have less-restrictive maintenance requirements. Some maintenance and inspection tasks are possible for pilots and/or owners, providing they’ve received appropriate training, such as the “repairman: light-sport” certificate.
Sport-Pilot License (SPL) Basics
Here’s something I’ve learned from several flight instructors who teach for the sport- pilot ticket: LSA pilots tend to be better at pure flying. Primary reason: lighter-weight LSA are generally easy to fly but are more sensitive to gusts, winds and turbulence. LSA pilots learn quickly to develop sharp stick-and-rudder skills.
The sport-pilot certificate, advanced and developed for years by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), debuted in 2004.
• Purpose: to simplify pilot training, allow rated pilots with potential (not existing) disqualifying medical issues to maintain flight privileges, and offer less-costly aircraft, training, and operating costs and maintenance.
• VFR, daylight-only recreational flight was the primary motive for LSA and the SPL.
SPL is achievable.
• An FAA medical certificate isn’t required. SPL holders must have a valid, current driver’s license. Caveat: Sport pilots must not have been medically disqualified to fly under any other FAA license. This causes confusion, but here’s how it works: Most rated private and above pilots, concerned they may lose their medicals, get their SPL before they fail an FAA medical exam.
• Having failed an FAA medical prohibits flying as a sport pilot. However, once the medical issue is resolved satisfactorily with FAA, an SPL is achievable.
• Qualifications for applicants: 17 years old (16 for glider or balloon), speak/read/ write/understand English.
• Flight requirements: a minimum of 20 hours
• Flight-hours include: 15 hours dual instruction with a qualified flight instructor; two hours dual cross-country; five hours solo for 75 or more nm to two different destinations with a full-stop landing (one leg must exceed 25 nm).
• Pass the FAA written Knowledge test
• Pass the oral and flight Practical (“checkride”) test
• Flight restrictions: Sport pilots can’t fly at night (beyond 30 minutes after legal twilight); higher than 10,000 MSL or 2,000 AGL (i.e. over mountainous terrain), carry more than one passenger; for commercial purposes (i.e. banner tow); or in any airspace requiring radio communication (Class B, C, or D) unless they’ve received additional instruction and an instructor endorsement.
• Hours logged training with a CFI or CFI-SP towards the SPL can be applied toward higher ratings.
As humans—and especially pilots—are wont to do, there has been no end of quibbling over minutiae regarding interpretation of the regs. Some confusions or complaints led to rule modifications, such as allowing a 2,000 AGL maximum altitude (which can legally occur above 10,000 MSL) over high terrain to provide safe altitude for gliding to land after an engine-out emergency.
Why Fly LSA?
First, let’s consider the aircraft themselves. More than 80% of LSA are powered by the fuel-sipping Rotax family of four-stroke liquid-cooled engines. Some highly refined airframes, such as Pipistrel’s Sinus motorglider, squeeze incredible performance out of the 80 hp Rotax 912 UL2: 110-knot cruise @75% power and 3.1 gph fuel burn; 650 nm range (under 16 gallons total fuel!); 1,280 fpm climb rate; service ceiling of 29,000; landing speed 36 knots without flaps. And with the engine switched off, the Sinus gets a 30:1 glide ratio and 202 fpm sink rate…and that’s with fixed gear hanging down in the breeze!
The takeaway: LSA can be highly sophisticated and are generally easy, fun and economical to fly. They burn premium gas, further reducing hourly costs. Engine and airframe maintenance are less costly. And Rotax and many other engines come with 2,000-hour TBO.
A low-cost “volksplane” was the initial dream of early LSA promoters. Economic realities put the kibosh on that notion: Many top-tier LSA cost more than $125,000.
But if first-cabin fitments and comfort aren’t that important to you, many quality LSA sell in the $40,000-$50,000 price range. Find a club, or a couple of co-owner partners, and you’re airborne for less than a monthly car payment, which can include maintenance, insurance, hangaring and repairs.
Check out used LSA, too: After nine years, the listings are expanding.
a single fill-up.
LSA offer many more enticements: roomy cockpits often wider than 42 inches; excellent visibility; neighbor-friendly noise levels.
One remarkable bonus: the sheer bounty and diversity of 133 certified LSA models. This is a dynamic industry that thrives on innovation.
LSA are no slouches in the cross-country department, either. Many have ranges of 1,000 miles and more on a single fill- up. One adventurous couple flew coast-to-coast (Florida to California) in a record-setting 19 hours. Others have flown around the world without engine failure or major mishap.
Safety hasn’t been compromised by the faster, less-costly ASTM certification process. LSA enjoy a safety record on par with the rest of piston-powered GA.
The LSA category allows owners to do their own annual condition inspections, with a 16-hour, one-weekend course. A month-long full maintenance course lets you do more with your LSA.
Many LSA can carry 50 or more pounds cargo with full fuel and two passengers.
New and transitioning pilots have learned that light-sport aircraft can put the joy back in flying. It certainly has for me and every LSA pilot I’ve met.