The FAA’s new sport pilot/light-sport aircraft notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) has been released. With a 90- day comment period underway, the proposed pilot certificate and aircraft categories are on the minds of all light-aircraft producers and anyone who flies for fun. The flying machines that will fit under the proposed new aircraft categories will be called light-sport aircraft, and in this article we’ll take a look at what’s currently available|and what the future may hold.
“The FAA’s new rule is destined to globalize the light aviation industry.”
The promise is great for Americans. When the new sport pilot/light-sport aircraft NPRM changes are finalized and implemented, we will enter a new era in light aviation. People who have wanted a light aircraft to fly for fun but who didn’t have the time or skill to build it will be able to buy a ready-to-fly airplane. And, they’ll be able to learn to fly in less time and at less expense than the cost of acquiring a private pilot certificate.
Fixed-base operators will be able to rent affordable light-sport aircraft for training and for fun flying. Instructors of light-sport aircraft will be recognized for the professionals they are.
During a proposed three-year transition period, thousands of twoseat ultralights may become lightsport aircraft, if the owner so chooses. After making that transition, those pilots will be able to bring a friend, their spouse, or a child aloft with them legally. They’ll have the choice of using either a valid U.S. driver’s license or an airman medical as their medical certificate.
Cruising speeds for these fun aircraft will leap to 132 mph, and amphibious aircraft with repositionable gear will be acceptable in this category. With training, owners will continue to be able to do their own maintenance, and insurance and financing should become easier to obtain. And, with certificated pilots operating certificated aircraft, an increased number of America’s 12,000-plus airports will be more likely to welcome light-sport aircraft.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? So what will you be able to buy as a light-sport aircraft enthusiast? Which aircraft will qualify under this proposed rule? No one knows for certain which manufacturers will decide to produce the ready-to-fly aircraft that will become available under this proposed rule, but an expert can make some informed guesses. Having flown a great many of this genre’s aircraft, I will attempt to identify a group of likely players in this article.
Any review such as this will have errors and omissions. I don’t plan to discuss those aircraft certificated with a standard airworthiness certificate that may be flown with a sport pilot certificate-such as some of the Piper J-3 Cubs and Aeronca Champs. Nor have I included any gyroplanes, airships, or balloons-which are included under the proposed rules- as I have limited experience with those flying machines. In addition, I have not listed the many plans-built aircraft that will qualify as sport-pilot eligible as my familiarity with that group of aircraft is limited as well.
Though the new special lightsport aircraft category may require only modest additional work for some producers to manufacture flyaway aircraft, other companies may find the process too burdensome or too costly. No doubt some manufacturers will elect to continue producing true Part 103- legal ultralights while others will maintain their amateur-built kits and plans sales. Most industry experts predict some consolidation among light aircraft builders. It will be an exciting and interesting time as the industry and community develops and matures.
Let’s Enjoy the Sky Together!
As I sifted through my reference materials, many websites, and the buyer’s guides produced by several U.S. and international publishers, I selected 67 candidate manufacturers that I think pilots may see participating in the future of lightsport aircraft. Again, it is probably certain that I will be wrong about some of them, and I may have missed some worthy producers. This is a preliminary review, not the final effort to determine which machines will earn approval. As time marches onward, some products will fall by the side, and new designs will be added. Any compilation of lightsport aircraft is bound to be a work in process for several years to come.
I tried to be inclusive, but any company or designer who feels left out is encouraged to contact EAA or me. (E-mail Experimenter at firstname.lastname@example.org or the author at Dan@ByDanJohnson.com. Updates should be sent by manufacturers only, please; we cannot answer emails or calls from thousands of readers.)
Who Will Play the New FAA Game?
On EAA’s sport pilot website, www.sportpilot.org, 271 sport-pilot eligible models are listed in one compilation. Yet I show only 67 names. What is the difference? EAA’s list counts all the different models, including the plans-built aircraft I mentioned above, whereas I listed only manufacturers. I chose that method because models change more often than manufacturers, and new designs may emerge specifically to meet the light-sport aircraft definition.
I also used a more complex selection criteria. Other lists count all aircraft that appear to fit the weight and speed definitions of light-sport aircraft. I did similarly, but I also considered the chance that a particular manufacturer would complete all the steps necessary to qualify its aircraft as a light-sport aircraft.
Remember, manufacturers and builders still have the experimental amateur-built (51-percent) category in which to operate, and Part 103 ultralight rules remain delightfully free of regulation. Aircraft that legally fit either group today will fit those groups in the future, as the FAA is leaving those popular programs in place.
While the proposed consensus standard compliance that will apply to the design and manufacture of light-sport aircraft is much less restrictive from a regulation standpoint-compared to Part 23 certification rules-participating will still demand a good deal of effort, money, and time. Not everyone will want to do the work. (See “Consensus Standards-Why, What and How” on page 25 of this issue.)
Many manufacturers, however, will see the potential of light-sport aircraft. When selecting my 67 aircraft producers, I made a series of judgment calls. I’m guessing that the names included in my chart will be the most likely builders to rise to the challenge so they can reap the rewards. However, I don’t think that light-sport aircraft will be limited only to faster, larger, more costly airplanes.
Broad Group of Aircraft
Because a light-sport aircraft (LSA) can weigh 1,232 pounds at gross doesn’t mean that every aircraft offered will weigh that much. For example, many foreign-built trikes may be among the earliest approved aircraft in the new class. British trikes have already been operating under a comprehensive certification system. If the United Kingdom’s BCAR-S rule is accepted as part of the design consensus standard-as it might well be from what we know now-then a Pegasus trike could win approval as a LSA in a short time. Standards in Germany, Australia, and Canada may also find quick reciprocal approval.
Trikes are not particularly fast, and powered parachutes are even slower. So the proposed rule’s top speed of 132 mph is not by itself a certain definition of all light-sport aircraft. Some probably won’t even have the two seats allowed, I predict. The proposed sport pilot rule changes also may affect the way designers view Part 103 ultralights. While many engineers feel a 254- pound empty weight limit restricts what they can do, human ingenuity can never be ruled out. Some smaller builders will continue to produce these simpler machines with their basic rules and no need for certification (or pilot certificate) of any kind. In fact, new designs may appear.
Because Part 103 is being left intact, some aircraft will not have to qualify under sport pilot. Hang gliders, powered paragliders, light trikes, and light powered parachutes can still operate under the milder Part 103 rule, which also allows builders to sell ready-to-fly aircraft. While some industry experts predict the demise of Part 103 aircraft, they may be wrong. In fact, some manufacturers have already told me they intend to make at least one model that will continue to qualify under Part 103.
America leads the world in kit aircraft production with hundreds of models offered. Some buyers will likely opt for the light-sport aircraft category and its benefits, but others will be content to work within the experimental amateur-built regulations. Sport pilots will be able to fly both. What a country!
Aircraft in this report come from the ultralight, microlight, and light homebuilt communities, including many that Europe, Australia, and Canada call ultralights.
Have It Your Way
Those manufacturers who choose to fill the expected demand for lightsport aircraft can offer flying machines in several ways. They can continue to make kits as they have in the past, or they can create new ones. These new LSA kits will not have to follow the 51-percent rule and can be 10- or 90-percent completed by the factory, depending on what the market demands. However, only ready-to-fly special light-sport aircraft models will be able to be used for compensated activities like instruction or rental.
Fully built, ready-to-fly aircraft will be certificated as special light-sport aircraft, while kit models will be experimental light-sport aircraft. A sport pilot certificate will suffice for either variation, and those with”higher” certificates like private, commercial, or ATP can fly any lightsport aircraft in the category in which they are rated without further requirements.
Not all current kits that exist in the lightplane world will qualify as light-sport aircraft. For example, it makes little sense to deliberately slow designs that cruise faster than 132 mph, and twin-engine aircraft, like the Air Cam and the A-26 Vulcan, do not qualify as light-sport aircraft. Helicopters are not included in the sport pilot proposal either.
American products have long led the parade of kit-built airplanes. U.S. kit suppliers already have proven instruction methods and parts packaging. Many imported brands- now sold in many countries as readyto- fly aircraft-may not yet have detailed building plans/instructions (in good English) and subassemblies for American homebuilders to use in creating finished airplanes.
Europe enjoys a large lead in ready-to-fly lightplanes. Aircraft produced in eastern European countries can be built at lower labor costs, so the FAA’s new rule is destined to globalize the light aviation industry.
My guess is that European airframe makers will drive the ready-to-fly market early on, given their longer experience in this demanding task. U.S. suppliers won’t be left out, but they may be left behind for a short time. Gearing up to build flyaway aircraft with well-paid American workers will require efficiencies that nearly all U.S. builders must still develop. Bringing computer-driven tooling to the task takes time and money. Even then, the costs may be too high to compete successfully with aircraft assembled in the Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, or Russia where workers are happy to have jobs that pay $100 to $200 per month. Once again, Yankee ingenuity will have to find other ways to compete for the fully built market.
Kits can hold down the purchase cost for builders, and another idea can also emerge. Manufacturers of already-certificated light-sport aircraft may also train selected dealers to assemble aircraft. As a side point to such an effort, these dealers might then become approved repair stations. Owners will be able to maintain aircraft given various levels of training, but many pilots will prefer to have an experienced professional build and maintain their light-sport aircraft.
Sport pilots will pick from two speed limits: 87 knots (100 mph) or 115 knots (132 mph). Students will fit naturally into the former, while the speedier choice comes after an instructor endorsement in your logbook. The same certificate still applies; the logbook endorsement is the record. Regardless of top speed, all models must meet a 39- knot (45-mph) minimum stall with flaps or lift devices deployed, or 44 knots (51 mph) clean.
In this aspect of light-sport aircraft-special or experimental- American builders have a lead. They are accustomed to building slower flying machines and may be able to optimize the genre faster. Many European-designed aircraft trying to fill the need for affordable, economical transportation have pushed for higher speeds (for example, Germany’s Fascination and Italy’s P-92RG). While it’s true you might slow these machines with smaller engines and specially pitched props, they weren’t designed with lower speed limits in mind.
Because only fixed-pitch or ground-adjustable props are allowed, designers must correctly fit the engine and prop to their design. So some aircraft will have powerful engines, climb props, and large wings to bring breathtaking climb performance without breaking the speed limit. Others will use fuel-efficient engines, cruise props, and small wings to reach maximum speeds while meagerly sipping fuel.
Not all light-sport aircraft will maximize the 132-mph limit. The joy of simpler machines that cruise at 60, 80, or 100 mph may also prove more affordable than powerful, deluxe models. As the cars folks have been saying for years: “Speed costs money. How much are you willing to pay to go fast?”
Among all possible participants in the light-sport aircraft category, we have several groups: U.S.- developed ultralights intended for slower flying, lighter homebuilt models that aren’t aimed at high speed transport, and speedy composite designs (often European) modified for flight under this new rule.
As the FAA wisely prefers it, the marketplace will dictate what is built and sold. In the case of lightsport aircraft in the 21st century, the winners could come from anywhere.
Seaplanes are popular today, and the proposed sport pilot rule will only enhance this. The proposal allows aircraft to have repositionable landing gear so that these aircraft can become amphibious. The FAA did not include retractable gear on landbased aircraft (though this remains possible in Part 103 machines), yet they saw the need to allow seaplanes to work on land or water.
Angels in the Details
Differences among light-sport aircraft will not be dictated by performance alone. Though we can only guess where this rule may lead engineers, I can speculate on some of the configuration details that might evolve.
Instrument panels and the equipment mounted to them will vary widely. Sport pilots may not fly at night or in IFR conditions, so panels will probably not have many attitude gauges. Because sport pilots can fly cross-country, navigation instruments and radios may be quite common. Emergency parachutes have proven quite popular, with more than 50 percent of United States ultralights so fitted. All German ultralights must have a ballistic parachute, and these uses will translate well into light-sport aircraft where fliers may like that added safety insurance.
Another area of keen interest involves maintenance. Today’s ultralight/sport pilots sometimes do their own maintenance, while others hire rofessionals to do the work. Under the sport pilot proposal, owners of experimental light-sport kit aircraft will be able to do their own maintenance on their privately owned aircraft after receiving some training (a 16-hour course). But special light-sport aircraft must be maintained by someone holding a repairman’s maintenance rating (received after attending an 80-hour course specific to a category of aircraft). Accordingly, commercial repair stations will surely step up to perform the work for hire when the FAA proposed rule legitimizes work on these machines.
Fortunately, the FAA recognizes that many years of flying and teaching in ultralights has value. So, current U.S. ultralight pilots and instructors who are registered with a recognized ultralight program (EAA, ASC, or USUA) will be given an “upgrade path,” to borrow a phrase from the computer world. Ultralights pilots who are not currently registered with one of those programs but who do register within 24 months of the implementation of the final rule will also be able to take their knowledge and experience with them into the sport pilot world. Then, hours logged as a sport pilot can be logged toward higher FAA certificates.
As time goes on, associations and publications will disseminate more information on the proposed rule and how it will affect recreational flying in the United States. The FAA expects passage of the rule in about a year. Once codified into law, the rule has twoand three-year phase-in periods to transition pilots and existing aircraft into the new framework. In the meantime, it should be an interesting ride with new or modified flying machines emerging regularly.
Twenty Years Later
It is somewhat fitting that precisely two decades have passed since the FAA enacted Part 103. Since then, an entire industry has developed. Over that time designs have changed and evolved. Ultralights under Part 103 are now better machines than ever before. Other aircraft have gone far beyond what rule makers envisioned in 1982. And that is exactly why sport pilot should be a success; it fills a gap. In writing this rule, FAA leaves many of the details up to the industry to develop and to the market to define. Ready or not, here comes the sport pilot certificate and light-sport aircraft. Let the games begin!
24 APRIL 2002
More at www.sportpilot.org