Sport Pilot and LSA take off — slowly

The Sport Pilot/Light Sport Aircraft rule was finalized in September 2004 and by April 2005 the first aircraft were starting to be certified in the United States. Since then, the industry has certified no less than 36 new airplanes.

But if you broach the topic of Sport Pilot/LSA with a group of wanna-be sport pilots, you will probably hear complaints about a lack of aircraft that can be used for training or a shortage of CFIs who can provide training. The complaints are not without foundation, yet not completely accurate, say key players in the fledgling movement.

“There is a perception that there is a shortage of aircraft that can be used for training and a shortage of instructors who can provide the training,” says Dan Johnson, chairman of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. “Those perceptions are not necessarily accurate.”

Johnson has been involved in the development of the movement since the late 1990s, “back before we were calling it Sport Pilot,” he noted. “Since the certificate is not quite two years old, there is still a ‘ramp up’ factor and a lack of information about the requirements for the certificate among the flying community. There is some education that needs to take place.

“What is widely misunderstood in the general aviation community is that it doesn’t take any special training to be a Light Sport CFI,” he continued. “Any CFI can do sport pilot training right now with no additional testing or training. It also can be started in a two-place Cessna, a Piper, or even a Diamond aircraft, but the certificate can’t be completed in those airplanes because they are not certified as Special Light Sport Aircraft.”

Special Light Sport Aircraft are those LSAs that have been certified for use for instruction for hire. In general they are lighter than most two-place airplanes, as the definition of LSA requires the aircraft have a maximum gross weight of 1,320 lbs. or 1,430 if it is on floats. In addition, the aircraft must have a fixed-pitch propeller, fixed landing gear, maximum stall speed of 45 knots and a maximum airspeed of 120 knots. LSA categories include airplane land/sea, weight-shift-control aircraft land/sea, powered parachutes land/sea, gyroplanes, balloons and airships.

What stops most CFIs, according to Johnson, is that they are not sure what to teach sport pilot candidates.

“That information is now available in the form of syllabi from Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc. (ASA), King Schools and can be accessed through the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA),” he said.

OUR OWN WORST ENEMIES?

The attitude toward the sport pilot certificate by others in the aviation industry also may be a factor in its slow growth, suggests Paul Hamilton, who has been flying for 30 years, mostly in the ultralight community. When the Sport Pilot/LSA rule was finalized, he was one of the first ultralight instructors to cross over and become an FAA designated pilot examiner for sport pilots. On the side he runs Adventure Productions, an online company that provides instructional DVDs, videos, books and CDs on Sport Pilot, paragliding, powered paragliding, powered parachute, ultralight and trike flying.

“When someone walks into an FBO and asks about sport pilot, sometimes they get an attitude like ‘why would you want to do that?’” he said. “Some FBOs are bad mouthing sport pilot, saying the stick and rudder skills are not the same. That’s not correct. What is required as a skill set for the sport pilot certificate is the same as what is required for a private pilot certificate. The only thing that is different is the night flying and instrument experience requirement. Also, many CFIs are mistaken in that they think that the sport pilot can only fly within 50 nautical miles of their home airport. That limitation is on the recreation pilot certificate, not sport pilot. Then there are the other FBOs that are picking up sport pilot because they realize it is a new revenue stream.”

The sport pilot certificate was ostensibly created to make the journey between Earth-bound dreamer to aviator a more affordable one. Because there is less training required — 20 hours as opposed to 40 hours minimum for a private pilot certificate in a Part 61 program — the total cost of training should, in theory anyway, be less expensive for the consumer.

ONLINE AND ACROSS THE POND

The Internet is quickly becoming the place to find out about the Sport Pilot/LSA movement. One of the larger sites is SportPilot.org, created by EAA to answer questions about Sport Pilot and Light Sport Aircraft. One of the most often visited sections contains a list of aircraft that were recently certified as LSAs or are legacy aircraft that have been grandfathered into LSA.

If you are looking for a new LSA, you may have to look to Europe.

“The problem we are facing is that most of the S-LSAs — I would say 80% of them — are imported from overseas,” said Johnson. “The suppliers didn’t know how big the U.S. market was going to be. Now they are gearing up to make more airplanes, but that takes time. Factories have to be enlarged and machines acquired and moved into place before they can start producing more aircraft. Now I would say that, for some of them, three out of every four airplanes produced are destined to come to the United States and those that are produced are getting snapped up quickly by private users.”

Johnson predicted that within a year there would be more S-LSAs in the U.S., which would allow more dealers to obtain them for demonstration flights and more flight schools to entice customers to enter into leaseback agreements.

“But for right now there is just not a ready supply of S-LSAs for flight schools,” he said.

The EAA’s Ron Wagner concurs.

“The word is getting out slowly,” he said. “Many of the flight schools and FBOs are taking a wait and see approach to this, which is too bad. They are not adding LSAs to their fleet yet.”

Wagner notes that at the schools where an LSA has been added, it has been profitable for the business.

“On average the aircraft fly about 70 hours a month, which is good for an airplane, and it doesn’t cut into the revenue generated by traditional trainers like your Skyhawks and Piper Cherokees so it is new aviation money,” he explained.

Wagner, like Johnson, suggests that wannabe sport pilots get training in smaller two place aircraft just up to pre-solo, then travel to one of the facilities in the country that combines the sport pilot certificate with a vacation package.

“The instructor at the FBO takes them through pre-solo and then the client needs to study for the written tests, then go to one of the stay-overnight schools,” he advised. “They then have a very good chance of finishing the certificate.”

FINDING AN AIRPLANE

Type Light Sport Aircraft into a search engine and you’ll get pages of links. One of those is Sportsplanes.com. The site belongs to Sports Planes, Ltd.

“Sportsplanes.com is for all things sport pilot,” explains Josh Foss, the founder. “We are setting up regional centers across America to be your one stop ship for flight training, sales, warranty service and parts for Light Sport Aircraft.”

One of Sportsplanes.com’s main functions is helping flight schools obtain aircraft so that they can train sport pilot candidates.

Like Johnson, Foss sees the LSA movement as being in its infancy, but with a bright future ahead.

“There are over 20 different types of LSAs that have been approved, but the factory production is just getting started,” he said. “Early in the LSA movement there were some false starts that hurt some of the European manufacturers. They decided to pull back and see who goes first on these things. We’re now just starting to see the inroads and the start up of the actual aircraft production. People have to be patient with the factories.”

Foss adds that more information about the sport pilot certificate needs to get out to the public.

“A lot of people still aren’t aware that it is out there,” he said.

Those people who are interested in Sport Pilot, said Johnson, already have an interest in aviation. The real challenge, he added, will be enticing that segment of the population that has an interest in adrenaline producing outdoor activities such as motorcycle riding and boating, and getting them to take up aviation.

“Instead of having airplanes at fly-ins, we should be exhibiting aircraft at outdoor shows where there are people who are interested in the outdoor sports such as motorcycle riding and boating,” he said.

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