Damage Control: Was EAA and AOPA ready to sacrifice Light Sport?

I am a member of both the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Aircraft Owner’s and Pilot’s Association. I am also a Light Sport pilot, CFI-S wannabee, and a LSA owner. In this week ‘s e-mail newsletter from AOPA was an an article entitled ” LSA Industry wary of AOPA and EAA medical proposal.” This medical proposal, which will be presented to the FAA after the first of the year, asks the FAA to exempt private pilots from the need for a third class medical if they restrict their choice of airplanes to those single-engine, fixed gear aircraft with 180 hp engines (or less), their number of passengers to one, restrict their flight conditions to day VFR only, and participate in an educational program to make them aware of the medical consequences of various conditions. They base much of their argument on medical data gathered from Light Sport operations which demonstrates no increase in the accident rate as a result of flying on driver’s license coverage only. I’m all for this proposal, but one of the things I realized early on was that this would have a negative impact on the Light Sport movement. Because of this article and my experience with EAA on this subject, I feel the need to ask the question: “Was EAA and AOPA ready to make Light Sport the sacrificial lamb to get this done?” I believe they were.

First. let’s refer back to the AOPA article. The tone of the title suggests that the Light Sport industry might oppose the exemption. There is nothing further from the truth. For those of us already certificated pilots, this proposal would expand what we can do with our LSA’s on several fronts. However, that is a different thing than realizing that this impact will also serve to diminish Light Sport sales since the older pilot segment, who has the money to buy these aircraft, will probably keep the aircraft they own rather than transition to LSA’s, even though they are newer and often better equipped. It is the sure and negative impact on the LSA industry this proposal will have that Light Sport is reacting to since it will impact LSA flight training as well as LSA sales and maintenance (i.e., the RSLM rating). When the economy is already depressed, such a blow to the LSA industry does hold potentially permanent harm. If AOPA and EAA want to say they didn’t realize this, then they didn’t do their homework before pushing this forward. And if they did realize it (and I believe they did), then it demonstrates that they were indeed ready to sacrifice Light Sport to get this done. The fact that neither organization told the LSA community this was coming is another possible indicator that their intent was not pure, no matter how much “good” for the rest of the aviation community it might do.

Secondly, I want to discuss the Governmental Relations briefing published by EAA about this issue (medical certification). When it was first released, one of the reasons the organization gave for pressing with the exemption was that the current situation was pushing pilots into unfamiliar LSA’s and potentially higher accident rates. It essentially implied that Light Sport was unsafe. What was unsafe was that briefing. Having worked in the government for decades, I knew how that could be used not only against the exemption proposal but also as an argument to revoke Light Sport privileges. I contacted EAA’s Government Relations representative and worked with him to rewrite it so that it was reworded to its current revision. (My argument to EAA was that any higher accident rate data was an argument for transition training…not this medical certification exemption.) But the fact that the original release referred specifically to LSA’s and implied there was a safety issue implies that EAA as well was willing to make Light Sport the sacrificial lamb. Either that, or the people who wrote, approved, and released the original briefing were so totally clueless about what they were doing they need to be in other jobs or, at least, re-educated before they continue in the ones they are in.

I still believe in both organizations and will remain a member in both…for now. General aviation is struggling to survive, and we cannot afford to play one part of the community off against the other. I believe those of us who care about Light Sport need to keep a keen eye on what is happening with this proposal and any other actions taken by both pilot groups to ensure that Light Sport survival is not put at risk. Apparently, what no one is thinking about, is what happens if the current proposal not only goes down the tubes but the effort behind it gives the FAA rationale it needs to take Light Sport with it.