A dozen years ago, at the beginning of September 2004, FAA’s newest regulation became “effective” as the agency terms it. That regulation gave birth to Sport Pilot and Light-Sport Aircraft. The former is a new pilot certificate and the latter is a fresh breed of aircraft that gained acceptance in a completely new way.
How is it going on the 12th birthday of the new category?
Accepted Not Certified
Regarding the airplane side of the new regulations, the change was major in that FAA does not “certify” these factory-manufactured airplanes, altering a procedure in place for many decades. Pilots and even the manufacturers are so used to employing that word that many today say their new LSA was certified when, to be precise, it was not.
The ASTM industry consensus standards to which a new aircraft must show compliance has been “accepted” by the FAA and an individual airplane is inspected by an FAA or a civilian designee (most often the latter) after which it receives a “Special Airworthiness” certificate.
Each new aircraft is inspected — they are not approved when they leave the factory as with a new Cessna or Cirrus.
With the inspector blessing, a newly minted LSA can be used by an owner according to the regulation, with activities including recreational use, flight instruction for compensation, rental, and leaseback.
The pilot certificate remains one that is given by FAA exactly like private, commercial, and higher levels.
However, Sport Pilot has new parameters. Only 20 hours are needed for simple LSA flown in simple airspace. In some LSA models, such as powered parachute, only 12 hours are required to get a pilot certificate. A few more hours are commonly needed to prepare for flight into Class B airspace or to add functions like higher speeds, amphibious landing gear, and other possibilities. No matter how you evaluate it, though, the cost of a Sport Pilot certificate is one half to one third that required for the private pilot certificate.
Incidentally, since drones (or unmanned aerial systems or remotely piloted aircraft, whichever you prefer), burst on the scene, a pilot certificate is required for commercial operation. With the lowest investment required, a good many drone operators are opting for a Sport Pilot certificate issued after training in powered parachutes.”
By The Numbers
The big number is 140 new models. Over 12 years, 144 months — virtually every month for a dozen years — a new LSA model has come to market.
In truth, these were bunched toward the first few years, but it has been a steady progression and several new models are still in the design or production process.
This furious pace of development is not over and the pilot consumer community enjoys a huge array of choices. Prices, equipment, construction materials, and mission capabilities vary, as does the configuration of aircraft, to include fixed-wing three-axis airplanes, weight shift aircraft, powered parachutes, gyroplanes, and motorgliders.
The category also counts lighter-than-air, though we have yet to see an entrant under this label.
Sport Pilot certificate holders now number approximately 6,000. In a dozen years this may not seem impressive, however, two facts must be considered.
First, most of the early buyers of LSA were existing pilots using their current, higher-level certificate while pursuing the privileges of Sport Pilot with a driver’s license in lieu of a medical.
Secondly, this new industry was busy meeting new standards, establishing new businesses, and creating a whole new industry so also solving the aviation-wide problem of bringing in new pilots was not even the goal.
Yet as the dozen years have passed, more existing flight schools have begun using LSA as a cost-efficient way to offer training in new aircraft with the latest equipment. That most LSA burn far less fuel and can use auto gas is an additional benefit.
Offsetting that are somewhat higher insurance costs as that industry takes time to acquire good risk data.
New flight schools have also sprung up using LSA exclusively, so over time, new would-be pilots will have more choices and that seems a good thing to any customer.
LSA deliveries in the USA number about 3,600 when you include all types. Of course, things slowed considerably after the global economic meltdown of 2008 and the following recession, yet LSA production has roughly mirrored that of the Type Certified manufacturers.
LSA manufacturers build approximately one in four of the new aircraft taking to American skies.
Overseas is a ripe market for all builders, with LSA-like aircraft numbering well over 60,000 — all in the last dozen years or so. (Disclaimer: Data is subject to some interpretation as each country counts and registers aircraft in different ways.)
What the next dozen years may hold in LSA production is anyone’s guess, but most experts agree that the reformed medical rules in the USA will have only a small effect on future deliveries as that development has already been absorbed by most aircraft buyers.
Meanwhile, a growing fleet of used LSAs is offering even more choices while the GA fleet continues to age.
The ASTM committee that formulated the standards that all LSA meet has become a worldwide methodology. More and more countries are using ASTM standards and the FAA’s guidance to allow these lighter aircraft to fly over their territories. That means a producer has more markets to spread their sales. Yet the ASTM process has taken on a far wider scope.
Most readers are probably aware of what FAA informally calls the Part 23 rewrite project. The standards used to certify — using the word correctly in this case— new four seaters and larger aircraft has become so onerous and costly that new models are not arriving very fast. Those that do spend the many millions to navigate through the process are not changed very quickly as the procedure is cumbersome and time consuming.
For the past four years, a new ASTM committee is working to create industry consensus standards for Type Certified aircraft. The effort is nearing a major milestone and FAA officials, plus their counterparts in Europe’s EASA, have told me in the last few months that the necessary structures could be ready by year end. It may not be functional by that date, but the pace has moved at lightning speed compared to the more ponderous actions of past decades.
Those working on these new methods of gaining approval for four and six seater (and larger) aircraft point to the pioneering work of the LSA group as offering good guidance about how to proceed. FAA and EASA officials echo this appreciation.
So, happy birthday, LSA and Sport Pilot… and congratulations! These changes have made it easier and far more affordable for a new pilot to enter aviation and that by itself is a great reason to celebrate this new aviation sector.