In barely over a decade, Light-Sport Aircraft have had an enormous impact on the world of aviation.
Is that too strong a statement? “Where are all these LSA,” you might ask? How on Earth can I justify writing “…had an enormous impact?”
Fair questions, all. Let me answer.
A quick summary: LSA sell around the globe; they have aided the development of Type Certified aircraft; LSA popularized new instrumentation and safety systems; and builders have introduced new concepts in powerplants.
Fortunately, they didn’t keep the good stuff to themselves — they shared it widely.
Outselling All Others
We have seen steady, but modest, growth of the LSA fleet in the USA. The American fleet is nothing to sneer at, numbering at least 4,000 aircraft (although counting them is more challenging than you might think), but it is not what some people forecast back in 2005 when the first aircraft won acceptance from the FAA.
However, my words were that the impact was on the world of aviation and that refers to sales all around the globe.
In 2015, the most recent year with good information, LSA or LSA-like aircraft outsold all Type Certified single engine piston aircraft by more than three to one. (“LSA-like” is a term describing aircraft that very much resemble America’s LSA but may not be called that because each country has its own definitions).
In less than two decades, manufacturers of light aircraft have delivered more than 65,000 flying machines around the world.
A key point is that all these new brands — more than 90 manufacturers have earned FAA approval — and all these new aircraft — more than 140 models — had to establish consumer recognition and build service networks, achievements that legacy aircraft manufacturers have had in place for more than half a century.
Numerous aviation writers have reported modern TC aircraft have become expensive, well beyond the budget of many aviators and surely enough to prevent some younger potential pilots from considering this activity. Tall fences with warning signs surrounding airports don’t help either, but that’s another story.
Over the last decade, groups led by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association strenuously lobbied the FAA to rewrite the FAR Part 23 rules for aircraft certification to make it less difficult for new designs or design features to reach the market.
These advocates report costs have gotten too high and they often mention the experience with LSA, which shows that another method can work to design safe, reliable aircraft that don’t have to be priced out of reach.
LSA “Created” the Part 23 Rewrite
Wait a minute! Am I claiming that Light-Sport Aircraft developed the standards for Type Certified aircraft in FAA’s top-to-bottom rewrite of the certification standards?
No, I am not. However, LSA pioneered the use of industry consensus standards successfully and, in so doing over 13 years, have won the FAA’s carefully chosen “acceptable” word for safe operation.
Without a doubt — ask the FAA yourself if you think I am exaggerating — LSA use of ASTM standards in lieu of government certification convincingly led to a new ASTM committee writing standards that the FAA will use in approving TC aircraft of the future.
ASTM standards are used around the world to approve fuel for both cars and airplanes. Governments in every country rely on these standards, saving them the effort of writing and keep updated certification methods for mogas and avgas. Fuel is pretty important stuff, yet ASTM standards have proven themselves over many years.
Indeed, ASTM standards and those from other such organizations enjoy broad acceptance and use around the planet.
Industry leaders and private individuals worked to create, from a clean sheet, the methods used to approve new LSA models. The FAA was an active participant in this process, but the agency received only one vote in balloting, even if several representatives sat in on the discussions. Each company also gets only one vote, making the system very egalitarian. Committee members hailed from many countries, although the U.S. had a dominant role.
What started as an American effort to give birth to the LSA sector went global and it gave credibility for the FAA to allow this same method to be used for the Cessnas, Cirruses, Pipers, and Diamonds of the future.
ASTM’s new F44 committee took lessons from the LSA F37 group and have, with surprising speed, assembled many of the standards needed by the Part 23 rewrite that was recently announced by FAA.
Back to the Future
Hang gliders of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to ultralights of the 1980s and 1990s and these segments paved the way for LSA in the new millennia. These classes of affordable aircraft have been my focus through those decades and my front row seat helps me see that these lightest aircraft with their minimal regulation have helped spur countless changes later used on larger, government-certified aircraft.
The first GPS units I ever saw were used on hang gliders. Now every aircraft has them — unless the airplanes are too old to have them installed and even those pilots use an iPad…another gizmo first used in light aircraft.
Among other developments, ultralights popularized use of whole aircraft emergency parachutes. Adroitly marketing the technology, Cirrus has sold thousands of aircraft with this equipment and today additional TC models can add them. Cirrus partly built its reputuation by being “that aircraft with the parachute.” Today, the SR-series is the best selling single engine aircraft in the world.
LSA use all-digital control panels and offer autopilots and Angle of Attack indicators for far less than on certified aircraft, precipitating an environment that has allowed STC additions of such gear to existing certified aircraft.
Today, companies like Dynon are using LSA and kit-built aircraft experience to obtain approval for installation of their digital instruments into older TC aircraft.
Heard of Electric-Powered Aircraft?
You’d have to be camped out on Mars not to have heard all the chatter about electric aircraft. From Boeing to Uber and far beyond, all the big boys are talking electric power, even for airliners of the future.
What does this have to do with LSA, which, by regulation, cannot be electric powered? Another good question.
This strange oversight happened because the FAA was originally seeking to avoid turbine LSA, so the agency specified reciprocating (or “spark”) engines only. Although an ASTM standard is completely ready, electric propulsion is delayed by the need for rulemaking to undo the implied prohibition. However, the agency may allow another path to stimulate development and to gain valuable data for use in revised regulations. Work on that initiative continues.
The point of LSA and electric is that, given current battery weight and energy densities, the propulsion method will work best on smaller, lighter, sleeker aircraft first and LSA has the right airframes today.
In fact, LSA and kit-built aircraft helped lead the way to smooth carbon fiber airframes, unencumbered as they were without a regulatory burden.
So, whether you realize it or not, LSA and the sector’s ancestors brought about a sea change in aircraft.
That alone is enough to applaud these lightest and least expensive aircraft. Heck, maybe you ought to fly one. Yet beware — the experience could positively change your outlook on flying.