Regaining the Promise of Light Sport

The upcoming changes to the Light Sport rules (assuming the changes in NPRM Docket No. FAA-2016-6142: Notice No 16-02 go through; how’s that for a mouthful?) can do a great deal to restore some of the lost promise of Light Sport. I commented to the FAA on that NPRM and said (among other things) Light Sport’s great promise and its best purpose is to serve as a gateway to getting new people involved with aviation and allowing others who would normally be excluded to participate. It may not be what actually drove the FAA to establish the rating and the category (which primarily was motivated as a way to regulate two-place ultralights), but it is the purpose it can best serve and the vision that needs to be behind it now.

Like anything new introduced into an old system, it is to some, and more often to those with no experience with it, a threat. There seems to often be an assumption that Light Sport aircraft are somehow inferior, despite the fact that many of them can and do outperform the standard trainers that have been around for decades. (My CTSW at full gross has the same power to weight ratio as a 200HP Piper Arrow.) Anyone who’s flown a Light Sport in very gusty winds or crosswinds can testify that the stick and rudder skills are no less and are often more demanding than those of many general aviation aircraft. (One old airline pilot told me the bigger an airplane is, the easier it is to fly; I add, …and it does more damage if it gets way from you.) There is also a perception that because Light Sport is considered a “recreational” rating, it is not on the stairway to a career in aviation. It needs to be considered the first step; and it usually is not, even by flight schools that have a Light Sport aircraft in their inventories.

Worse, most non-profits geared around aerospace education and that perform flight training take students to solo in standard trainers aimed at the private pilot rating and drop them one–third to half-way to there. I have no doubt that getting a student pilot to solo does encourage them to continue; but I am unconvinced it improves student pilot completion rates if that’s all that happens. For many of those kids, often low income, solo is all they can do until they become adults. How many of them will still be so interested in flying a decade later? Think about what happens if…instead of dropping them at solo…you dropped them with a pilot’s rating? A student who solos in ten hours is only one quarter of the way toward his Private Pilot rating, but he could be half way to getting his Light Sport. A student with 15 total hours would be only 5 hours away from possibly getting his own pilot rating. If you invest 5 more hours and take them to their Light Sport rating, they can probably hobble together money to fly at least occasionally….and stay in the air.

Of course, the thing inhibiting this just as much as the lack of vision is the more practical problem of low availability of good Light Sport trainers and the high costs of the ones that are out there. I’m not talking about the cost of operation (low) but the cost of “buy in”, the overhead associated with insurance, the high cost and long downtimes of repairs (which drives the high cost of commercial insurance). There are more Flight Design CT’s in the United States than almost any other Light Sport airplane; yet, when we suffered a bird strike that punched a hole in our canopy, it took ten weeks and a total cost of $10K to get the canopy replaced. ($2K of that was due to transport costs to a repair site, costs I now consider unnecessary because I listened to someone who was supposed to know about the airplane’s airworthiness instead of trusting my own engineering instincts.) Paul Shuch recently told a similar story at an EAA webinar on near mid air-collisions when his canopy was fractured during evasive maneuvers. (He wound up shipping his canopy and frame back to the aircraft manufacturer overseas and lost 12 weeks.). When I first learned how much it was going to cost to get the canopy replaced, I thought the insurance company would balk, but the agent told me it was inline with other light sports.

When Light Sport was invented, folks were looking for the movement to bring the costs of flying down to the price point of automobiles. And they did…as long as you’re looking for a racecar thoroughbred and not the family SUV. (Or don’t mind competing with the cost of your house.) Instead, most manufacturers have driven the market toward glass cockpits and fuel injected engines whose costs and utility are truly questionable for a day VFR airplane with shrinking useful loads. What will drive the market upward isn’t the fascination with high technology (though that will always drive point sales) but more utility and lower costs of both purchase and repair. There’s still a lot of market to be had for those that go after it; otherwise, Light Sport aircraft of the ilk of the CT, the Remos, the Sportstar, or the RV-12 will remain a niche market, handicapping its full development.

All this can change. If we want our children and grandchildren to have their own opportunities to soar like we can, we need to make it happen.