It’s a regulatory certainty that Light-Sport Aircraft cannot be used in commercial operations. Sure, the LSA category is fast growing. Yes, it’s permeated the marketplace well enough that LSAs can be found on fields across the land.
Admittedly, the aircraft are designed and built to a standard that is as high — if not higher — than that of many venerable classics we’ve come to know and love. But you can’t conduct commercial operations in a LSA for one very specific reason: It’s against the rules.
It’s right about here that I find it necessary to remind you that rules can be changed. Sometimes, they should be changed. This may be one of those times.
First, let’s consider what a commercial operation is. In its simplest form a commercial operation is one that generates a dollar. Money changes hands. That constitutes commercial activity. It might be for hauling a tourist aloft to see the sights. Perhaps it involves towing a banner advertising a restaurant, or a bar, or an event. It might involved pulling a glider up to an altitude where it can glide back to earth for a few minutes, or grab a thermal and stay aloft for hours. A commercial operator might carry a package from Airport A to Airport B to deliver it more rapidly than it would arrive by surface roads. Pipeline and powerline patrols are commercial operations, too. So are are agricultural flights that allow aircraft to spray crops with pesticides or herbicides.
Currently it’s not legal to perform any of those flights in a light-sport aircraft. To which I ask, why not?
Aviation is changing. The future will look very different than the aviation we grew up with. Automation is becoming smaller, lighter, less expensive, and more reliable. Drones are among us. UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have become one of the hot topics in aviation.
Hot enough, in fact, that non-aviators are talking about them, and talking about using them commercially. People who have almost no understanding of what it takes to operate UAVs are beginning to share their opinions about how those vehicles should fit into the airspace. Some have good ideas. Some are so far off-base it’s scary.
So let’s consider the future of commercial aviation in the United States. Let’s consider LSAs and UAVs.
There is room for both in the system. And that’s good because there is no reason to believe that technology, once developed, will not be deployed. That’s the way of the world.
Both UAVs and LSAs have advantages. It’s also fair and accurate to suggest that both have disadvantages. Our interest lies in their commercial use however, and it’s there that the specific advantages and disadvantages should guide us. Should both UAVs and LSAs have a place in the commercial market? Yes, I believe they should. Is it practical or even wise to use them for the same operations? Probably not.
In terms of safety, the two categories offer very different considerations. If the life or health of the pilot would be at risk, the UAV has the advantage. If the lives and health of people on the ground are a concern, the LSA has the upper hand. Simply put, the LSA includes a pilot. Having a human at the controls who can weigh options, make decisions, and feel the emotional and physical ramifications of whatever happens — well that’s priceless.
Given two extreme examples it’s obvious that both categories of aircraft have a role to play. If you’re flying a package of scientific instruments into the crater of an active volcano, it’s probably better to use a UAV. If the aircraft is lost, the instrumentation will go with it. But the data collected will be safe in a computer back at the base camp, probably not far from the pilot who is healthy, safe, and nowhere near the crash site. On the other hand, if you’re taking a tourist for a sightseeing ride along the beach, the LSA piloted by a commercial rated pilot is the better choice.
UAVs will force us to rethink how the airspace is used. They will cause us to re-imagine what roles aircraft can fill that benefit society as a whole. That’s good. Because the advance of technology has always offered human beings the opportunity to revise the way we live in ways that benefit us. From the discovery of fire to improved building techniques, the introduction of glass windows into our homes, and even electricity and plumbing – each new stride forward brings new opportunity coupled with unavoidable risk. However, when applied carefully and with forethought, risk can be mitigated while benefits can be enhanced.
As we enter into this new age of aviation, let’s make sure we consider LSAs as seriously and carefully as we consider UAVs. There is a place for both in the system. We simply have to create a regulatory system that addresses them with intelligence and creativity.
Ours is a bold new world, indeed — provided we accept it and manage it appropriately.