One of the controversies surrounding Light-Sport Aircraft has to do with that first word in that term: “Light.”
Early on, one LSA importer lobbied to remove the word as it was negatively viewed, he believed.
Indeed, outside of the LSA community, many pilots I’ve spoken to often say these aircraft are too lightly built to withstand the rigors of flight training, one of the more demanding of all aviation activities.
“Yes, an experienced pilot may love a LSA,” they may concede, “but these aircraft cannot hold up to regular flight instruction duty.”
Enthusiasts may be biased in favor of LSA, but what would an actual flight school operator say?
To get it straight from a reliable source with direct experience, I talked to the officials at Sunrise Aviation. This flight school has operated out of the very busy John Wayne Airport (KSNA) in Orange County, California, for more than 40 years. It previously relied on — and still uses — Cessnas for primary flight instruction.
Sunrise owner and founder Michael Church hesitantly entered the LSA space with a single Evektor SportStar in 2009. Ten years later how does Sunrise view the results?
Flight School Owner
A recognized national flight training expert, Church was honored by the FAA as Safety Counselor of the Year and has been recognized as a Master Flight Instructor and Master Aerobatic Flight Instructor. He has logged more than 11,000 hours of flight instruction given. What does he have to say about his experience with LSA?
“It was obvious that LSA was going to potentially revolutionize flight training by reducing expense,” he said.
He acquired his first Evektor just four years after LSA gained FAA acceptance. Sunrise trains to all pilot certification levels, including tailwheel and aerobatics. Pilots that start in LSA may transition to other aircraft later.
Church wondered how Sunrise students would proceed after primary training in LSA and afterward moving to heavier aircraft.
“The SportStar is perfect,” he said. “It is a great training vehicle and the transition to larger aircraft seems to be very straightforward.”
“Flight instructors like it because it is really a great training airplane,” Church amplified. “The best trainers are light, small, maneuverable, frisky. The quicker the airplane makes the student aware of a problem, the quicker the student will recognize a maneuver that didn’t look right, the easier it is to get the student involved with fixing the problem. From the flight instructor’s view, it simply makes the job easier.”
Experience — Then and Now
Any flight school owner might be jazzed about an airplane they recently acquired. The excitement of a new purchase can overwhelm the pragmatic aspects of longer-term ownership. Here are Church’s thoughts six years ago, in 2013. Afterward, we’ll update his perceptions.
“Cost of operation has proven to be the single biggest value,” he said then.
That was very important to this businessman. He specified that fuel use was much lower than his school’s Cessna 150s and 172s. Since Sunrise’s establishment in 1978, avgas has only gotten more expensive.
Lower fuel cost may seem obvious, yet what about the strength of the airframe that some GA pilots question?
“Apparently the low inertia and light weight means they don’t break very much,” Church observed.
In just four years, he reported reaching engine overhaul in two airplanes, logging more than 2,000 hours in each.
“We had very few problems,” he said.
Shortly after purchasing the Evektor aircraft, Church stated, “This is the training airplane to which Sunrise is now committed.”
What about the Rotax engine those models use? For those who may not know, Rotax 9-series engines operate at around 5,000 rpm, use liquid cooling and a gearbox — all very different than legacy aircraft engines.
Church noted that his earlier airframes went through four overhauls of their Lycoming engines. He had become very confident with them. In 2013, Sunrise was still acquiring time with Rotax and Church considered the trial ongoing but added, “to date, the Rotax engines have been remarkably trouble free.”
And now? In the six years since those remarks, he has become an even bigger advocate of Rotax powerplants. By January 2019, Church reported, “We now have a fleet of five Evektor — both SportStar and Harmony models — and we have accumulated more than 18,000 hours of experience on the airframes and engines.”
“I can say now with great assurance that the Rotax has proven to be a remarkable piece of machinery,” observed Church. “Low cost of operation. Low cost of maintenance. I’m a fan!”
Moving from Rotax to other engines means students must learn some new tasks, such as operating mixture control (not needed on the Rotax powerplants), but he concluded, “This is relatively simple stuff to teach.”
What about Mechanics?
A flight school owner might be expected to be positive about a purchase he made. What happens when Sunrise mechanics are asked about their views of Evektor airframes and Rotax engines?
“I’ve never worked with an airplane that demanded so little maintenance,” said Matt Wilderman, an A&P with Inspection Authorization. “It’s mostly been tires and brakes. We’ve had no major airframe issues and very minor engine issues.”
“If you keep on top of them, they’ve been fantastically reliable, more so than any other airplane I’ve worked on,” he enthusiastically added.
How does Wilderman feel about Rotax?
“They’ve also been fantastic,” he said. “I’ve never worked with a better aircraft engine.”
To clarify, he added, “We change the spark plugs, the oil, and the filters every 50 hours. Even running avgas we’ve had no problems with leading that some people have reported. In 2,000 hours we replaced one small spring on the sprague clutch, that’s it.”
“We’ve had no lubrication issues, no ignition issues. I had questions at first, but despite hard use by students, the engines have held up exceptionally well,” he said. “Most squawks that I’ve received have been about panel indicators. It always seemed to be the sensor, but today even those problems appear to be resolved.”
“The airframes are so light that you don’t see a lot of wear,” Wilderman continued, turning the “light” problem upside down to become a positive. “They just haven’t been breaking. I have nothing but praise for the whole LSA program.”
What Do Instructors Think?
Here’s a sampling of what various Sunrise instructors say:
- “SportStar is excellent for training. It has nice control responses.”
- “My students love flying this Evektor. It’s so easy to fly.” They add the students are comfortable in the airplane.
- “Visibility is absolutely unrestricted” and their students like that. “The view is amazing.”
- “The climb performance that Evektor provides us is incredible.”
Evektor has proven very cost effective, which both instructors and students appreciate.
“You only spend about $20 on fuel,” said another CFI, referring to the cost of providing a flight lesson.
When a Master CFI and owner/operator of a Part 141 flight school — and his mechanics and instructors — speak this way after a decade of experience, it would seem to carry more heft than your average private pilot.
After building 18,000 hours of total time on a fleet of five Evektor LSA over 10 years, Sunrise Aviation remains committed to Evektor Light-Sport Aircraft for primary flight training.
Dan’s Interview With Mike Church
Listen to Sunrise Aviation owner, Mike Church tell you in his own words about his experience with Light-Sport Aircraft as training aircraft in his busy flight school.