Even as we come to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Sport Pilot/Light-Sport Aircraft rule in 2014, many general aviation pilots have only recently become fully aware of this large and growing fleet of more than 134 designs.
Let me repeat: That is 134 new aircraft models in less than 10 years, a pace of more than one new aircraft model every single month for 10 straight years. I doubt anyone can show an example of more breathtaking development in all of aviation history, worldwide.
So those newly LSA-aware general aviation pilots might be surprised to note that another unforeseen wave is coming, and by that I do not mean a batch of more than 20 new LSA seaplanes that are also about to flow into the aviation airways.
What I am discussing here are the new four-seat aircraft coming from LSA manufacturers. I refer to five at the end of this article and I am aware of at least three more designs, about which I have agreed to stay quiet for the time being.
Why Is This Happening?
The answer is simple: Cost. With the price of the benchmark Cessna 172 Skyhawk passing $400,000, a broad chasm has opened between even the highest end LSA and the lowest end of basic general aviation Type Certified designs. The stratospheric cost to develop a new model or even the expense of updating an old one has robbed GA of ample fresh innovation.
An example: The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) complained that the cost to add an Angle of Attack indicator amounts to $8,000 for an FAA Type Certified airplane while it only cost $800 for a homebuilt aircraft. This is for essentially the same hardware, yet old-style certification creates 10 times the cost. GAMA’s complaint is intended to focus the FAA on the urgent need for a simpler regulation that allows safety and other design changes without budget-busting cost. Most experts agree that an AoA is relatively simple device and $8,000 is an unnecessarily large sum.
Fortunately, GAMA and other complainants were heard. The FAA has embarked on a plan to allow an ASTM industry committee populated with many deeply experienced engineers to write the standards to which TC aircraft of the future will be evaluated. In this step, FAA is relying on the positive experience with Light-Sport Aircraft “certified” to ASTM standards. (In truth, LSA aren’t “certified.” They are accepted by the FAA when they can demonstrate fully meeting ASTM standards plus best practices of manufacturing.)
Thanks to GAMA’s persuasiveness, paired with the logic of the situation, the FAA has encouraged ASTM to establish a committee with the bland name of F44 to update and streamline those certification specifications previously established by the FAA. Costs of certification should plummet, potentially triggering more innovation than we’ve seen in the lifetime of most pilots flying today. Using ASTM standards, LSA have multiplied time and again. I can see no reason why the same could not happen for the four seaters of tomorrow.
FAA’s mantra in all this is “double the safety at half the cost.” That sounds like a 4X order of magnitude to me and such a dramatic forward step seems well worth the effort — especially when industry experts will pay their own way to meetings to write the standards that the FAA will later accept.
By the way, that sometimes-$8,000 or sometimes-$800 AoA indicator comes as standard equipment on the Dynon SkyView digital instrument system installed in a majority of LSA and many experimental amateur-built aircraft. The added cost of a SkyView AoA is just $200 for some pitot tube plumbing — the rest is software on a computer screen — proving that LSA are indeed some of most cost-efficient airplanes in the fleet. An AoA on a LSA cost just 2.5% of the same functionality on a Type Certified aircraft.
An added (giant) bonus: The ASTM standards used to gain FAA approval for LSA are being accepted in a growing number of countries, so the method is traveling around the planet, making aircraft more affordable. In an age of declining pilot populations, any method that produces modern, well performing, fuel-efficient, fully equipped and safe aircraft is something to be embraced.
Bring on the new four seaters approved via industry consensus standards. They should offer significantly lower price tags with better performance, and state-of-the-art features.
Here are some brand names to learn, with more to follow: Evektor, Tecnam, Flight Design, Pipistrel, and The Airplane Factory. If you don’t know them now, you will in the future.