As a newly minted Light Sport CFI, I often get into conversations with pilots and prospective pilots about whether they should go into or complete Private Pilot training or go into flying Light Sport. Like all types of flying, it all depends on what you really want to do and what your ultimate goals are.
If you are someone who is contemplating getting a pilot’s license in a fixed wing, single-engine aircraft for the first time, you actually have three choices. They are Light Sport, Recreational, and Private Pilot ratings. I’ll leave it up to you to go look up Recreational pilot related information (all pilot certification information can be found in the Federal Aviation Regulations in Part 61) because I personally believe the cross-country restrictions make this a not-too-useful pilot rating and I will narrow down this discussion to the choice between going after a Private Pilot or Light Sport rating.
First, consider the type of flying you want to do. If you are content to fly visually (essentially, in good weather) and in the daytime, then either Light Sport or Private Pilot will meet your needs. If you want to fly at night or in instrument conditions, then Private Pilot is your only choice. Additionally, ask yourself whether you will usually fly alone, with one or other person, or need to haul the wife and kids around, too (or anyone else who fits the more than one other person category). By definition, Light Sport aircraft can haul a pilot and a single passenger and if you get a Light Sport rating, you are restricted to flying Light Sport aircraft (which isn’t necessarily a bad deal, as I’ll discuss later). If you want to fly airplanes with more than two seats, then you need to get your Private Pilot rating.
The next thing to consider, especially for younger pilots, consider is whether you want to put yourself on the road to becoming a professional pilot or simply plan to fly for yourself. You can head down the professional road even with a beginning as a Light Sport pilot, but you’ll probably get there a little quicker if you simply jump into the Private Pilot line, assuming you have the money to get to your rating. The national average for getting the Private rating is 72 hours, even though the minimum is 40. (I got my own rating at 71.9 hours, including a training switch in the middle to a different aircraft, and that was over 40 years ago.) If oney is a big issue AND you have access to a Light Sport aircraft, then Light Sport might bethe better option for you since it gets you out on your own sooner and will ge tand keep you engaged. That said, there are a few weather restrictions for a Light Sport pilot that Private Pilots can ignore, even when flying visually or, as we say in the business, under Visual Flight Rules.
Another consideration may be the type of medical you wish to or can maintain. All pilots are required to assess their medical condition each time they fly and are expected and required to ground themselves when they have any condition that could make them unsafe to fly. However, because Light Sport aircraft are so light, performance limited, and involve risking only one other person, the medical condition required to fly them is no more demanding than that required to drive a car (even though the skills involved are more complex). You can fly Light Sport by using your driver's license as your medical certificate and are not required to have an FAA medical. (However, you cannot have had any class of previous FAA medical certificate denied, supended, or revoked. If that has been the case, your only recourse to fly is to go through the process of getting a medical certificate issued.) For the Private and Recreational ratings, you will have to obtain a Third Class medical to be able to get them, though the recent passage of ThirdClass medical refom laws will make keeping your flying status much easier.
Economically, Light Sport flying generally has the edge. This is mainly because the minimum requirements for the rating are half that of a private pilot. Aircraft rental rates may actually be higher per hour because Light Sport often involves the use of newer, better-equipped airplanes than you often find in the standard single-engine trainer. Instructor rates are generally on par for both ratings and for good reason; the training is essentially the same except Light Sport does not cover flying at night or involve as much instrument training.
The real issue with going Light Sport is the availability of aircraft which are the only types of aircraft you can fly. A Light Sport aircraft is defined, among other things, as one that is two-place, weighs less than 1320 pounds (1430 for seaplanes) at full gross weight, cannot cruise faster than 120 knots, and has fixed gear (except for seaplanes) and propeller. There are older standard category airplanes that fit those requirements (you can find a list here) but your standard Cessna 152 does not; you must be a Private (or Rec) pilot to fly it. Newer airplanes designed to fit as LSA’s are designated as such; examples are the Flight Design CT, CTSW, CTLS, and MC; the Remos G3 and GX, the Evektor Sport Star, the Piper (or Czech aircraft) Sportcruiser; the Fantasy Air Allegro 2000, and many more. Aircraft availability is one thing also to consider; it won’t do you any good to have a Light Sport rating if there are no LSA’s available to rent or fly where you are. Indeed, though there are several places in Houston where you can always find a LSA to rent and fly (and in many other cities), this might not be the case out in the middle of nowhere and that’s where you expect to spend most of your time.
That said, many Light Sport aircraft are better equipped and will outperform many standard category single-engine training aircraft. The CTSW often climbs at 900 fpm single-pilot and cruises at 112 knots (no wind) at 75% power (a standard cruise power setting), which is faster than the Cessna 152 and usually faster than a 172. It also lands with flaps at 54 knots, takes off in about 300 feet, and has a total landing roll of about 700-800 feet, making it a very good short-field airplane. It has five flap settings (including a -6 degree setting for cruise), a moving map GPS with XM satellite weather, a two axis autopilot that can track a magnetic heading or a GPS course, and a wide and comfortable cabin 49 inches across. Considering it has a 584 pound useful load, can haul 34 gallons of gas (if full) and only burns 5 gallons per hour at cruise, it can and does exceed the performance specs of somewhat larger airplanes. While this kind of performance may not match that of every LSA, such characteristics are often found. Combine that with an airplane that is only a few years old and has a Ballistic Recovery System (whole airplane emergency parachute system…like a Cirrus), and you can see why flying this LSA may be much more desirable than flying your Cessna 152 or 172, as long as you don’t need to haul both a wife and a dog! The Remos GX has roughly equivalent performance (slightly slower), less range, a faster approach speed, more docile handling (similar to a 172) but poor cabin circulation and baggage compartments that can only be accessed by removing the seats.
Lastly, keep in mind you can always get your Light Sport rating and then move on to your Private later, just like you can also get your Private and still fly Light Sport Aircraft along with your Cessna 152…
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