I fear that I may be one of the few pilots in the country who does not warmly welcome the announcement of the new Sport Pilot ruling by the FAA. My concern is not with aircraft that fall in the lighter-than-air, weight-shift, gyroplanes and powered parachutes categories. Rather, my fear resides with the proposed Sport Pilot training requirements and the capability of the fixed-wing aircraft they would be enabled to fly. Let’s first address the aspect of training.
Long before I became a pilot, someone much more intelligent than I determined that it would take a minimum of 40-50 hours to complete the training required to obtain a private pilot certificate. Whether Part 61 or Part 141, it was mandated that sufficient time be allocated to enhancing knowledge and developing the eye-hand coordination skills required to conduct safe flight. Let’s remember that flying deals in three dimensions, not two as in driving a car. There are no traffic signals and no stop signs in the air. VORs have the unique distinction of being both a useful navigational aid and a flying hazard as multiple aircraft converge on their signal. The Newberg VOR (UBG) near Newburg, Ore., is a perfect example.
Despite the fact that UBG’s zone of confusion extends beyond 10 miles at 2,000 to 10,000 msl (presumably due to poor transmitting equipment), it serves as the navigation aid of choice for both IFR and VFR arrivals and departures for at least eight public airports in a 20-mile radius. I am amazed that we have not had multiple mid-air collisions over UBG, given the number of close calls I have been told of and have personally witnessed. It was this congestion around UBG that confirmed my strategy of “defensive flying.” Much like the defensive driving that we all learned in high school driver’s ed, defensive flying assumes there’s someone out there who is bound and determined (usually through ignorance and carelessness) to kill you. So, while most pilots fly alert, if you fly near UBG, being alert is not good enough – you have to assume that you’re flying through MiG Alley where the enemy weapons are not missiles and guns, but other aircraft who are flying the wrong way, at the wrong altitude, without an operable transponder and in radio contact with no one.
The point is to raise the question of training safety. If we, as private, instrument and commercial pilots, with all of the training and hours we have, have to deal with dangerous situations like UBG, how much more dangerous will this and other geographic locations become when Sport Pilots with only 20-30 hours of flight training take to the skies?
Let’s also consider the fixed-wing aircraft they will be flying. While Sport Pilots are limited to carrying only one passenger, I do not believe this limitation will have any impact on the resulting lack of safety. In my opinion, it’s not the number of passengers they will be carrying, but the performance of the aircraft they will be flying and the conditions in which those aircraft will be flown. With a straight and level flight performance up to 120 kts, these aircraft are essentially operating at the same performance levels of Cessna 172 and Piper Archer aircraft. If you have to have a private pilot certificate to fly these, why wouldn’t it also be required to have a private pilot license to fly a SkyStar Kitfox that has the same performance?
How many times do aviation safety writers warn us of the importance of not “getting behind the aircraft?” I do not look forward to a Sport Pilot cruising around at 2,000-10,000 msl, with only 20-30 hours of training, more focused on viewing the terrain or impressing their passengers than they are obeying FAA flight rules and being responsible aviators. Crowding the skies with undertrained, fixed-wing pilots seems to be a disaster waiting to happen. I dare say that, unless the rules for Sport Pilot training are markedly enhanced, the rate of aviation accidents, as a result of the introduction of fixed-wing Sport Pilots to the general aviation ranks, will climb astronomically. And, if this occurs, all GA pilots will be at risk, both physically and legislatively as the FAA would have to react to such negative statistics.
Let me be clear. I am in favor of everyone learning to fly and enjoying the benefits of general aviation. However, just as we are regularly chastised to improve our own personal aviation safety, we must be cognizant of the dangers inherent with the potential flood of undertrained, non-medically certified, fixed-wing pilots in comparable performance aircraft flooding the skies. Each month, we read about the latest NTSB crash findings, involving pilots with many hours of training and experience. The question is: How many more people will become fatal statistics as a result of this new GA dilemma?