A little more than a year ago, the FAA passed legislation creating a new category of airplane, light sport aircraft (LSA), and a new rating, the sport pilot license. The idea was to make flying more accessible (driver’s licenses became the new medicals), easier to complete (minimum flight hours were reduced from 40 for a private pilot to 20 for a sport pilot) and less expensive (LSA are significantly cheaper to own and operate). Despite all the kudos from aviation groups, no one really knew just how successful the new aircraft and license would ultimately be.
Sport pilot training programs are beginning to pop up just about everywhere, paralleling a frenzied attempt for students to achieve their certificate in the shortest possible amount of time. At several immersion camps, ambitious students who speak, breathe and dream LSA are flying on their own after just two weeks. But as if 14 days isn’t intense enough, Mid-Atlantic Sports Planes in Virginia ups the ante with its one-week course, best suited for go-getters. The school’s first student, Gilad Gill, earned a sport pilot ticket after 13 days (interrupted by weather), and Popular Mechanics researcher Davin Coburn, who had no prior flying experience, landed his in eight days—not quite one week, but close enough. Coburn says, “The hard work is what made it great,” but he reserves his recommendation of the full-immersion course for those who find pleasure in testing their limits. Although the compact schedule minimizes costs, Coburn admits, “the trade-off is that it’s like cramming for a huge test. If you don’t use it immediately, you’re going to lose it.” Two days after receiving his ticket, Coburn was already scouting for LSA rentals (not a particularly easy task).
Almost from the beginning, Jeff Conrad’s phone has been ringing off the hook, thanks to what he calls a “sport pilot tsunami.” As an importer for the Evektor SportStar, he receives daily inquiries from flight schools around the country. Ten aircraft were delivered in 2005, but that’s just the whitecap on the tidal wave. Evektor has created a national SportStar flight center concept that calls for more than 50 flight centers by the end of 2006; a SportStar training syllabus will be available by EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh.
St. Charles Flying Service launched its sport pilot training program in August 2005 with a SportStar, and the response quickly exceeded expectations. Although the flight school is armed with 10 LSA instructors (who met their five-hour LSA CFI requirements by flying in pairs), student demand has proven so great that owner Dennis Bampton purchased a second SportStar. Since the inception of his program, 40 sport pilot students have flown each of the planes more than 560 hours, and six have received their certificate. Students range from the young to the not-so-young; Jim Fossey successfully completed his check ride at age 75, accomplishing a lifelong dream. Today, the school has 15 active sport pilot students and an additional 12 working through Gleim and King study-at-home courses before they begin training. Bampton expects the trend to continue and is considering the purchase of a third LSA in the spring.
Fantasy Air USA in North Carolina has witnessed a similar bottleneck with many eager students trying to push their way into the smaller world of few LSA and CFIs. In fact, owner Doug Hempstead launched Fantasy Air’s LSA program one month ahead of schedule to get a head start. Today, the school trains more than 20 students in three LSA, and plans to lease a fourth aircraft to accommodate a waiting list of 14. Student Don Buckey had always assumed his lifelong dream of flying was unattainable, “but now,” he says, “there’s an opportunity to do it in less time and at half the cost. It gives me all the flexibility I need; if I want to go for my private later on, I can.” He had never before fathomed owning a plane, but after soloing the Allegro 2000 last month, the idea is coming within reach. His wife is already planning Saturday afternoon flights to Hilton Head for lunch, and Buckey wants to save time by flying to the regional football games they regularly attend.
Sport pilot waiting lists are popping up all over the country. Florida’s CubAir has ordered 12 CubCrafters Sport Cubs to be delivered to its flight academy. When the first aircraft arrives in April, two-week LSA training programs will commence; 12 participants have already signed up. Likewise, in Kentucky, Aero-Tech’s two-week program will start up this winter; currently waiting are 39 students who will fly a SportStar or Flight Design CT for four hours daily. Johnny Henley of Henley Aviation in Kinston, N.C., remarks that signing up students to train in a SportStar is “the easiest sell I’ve ever made,” even five months before his program is scheduled to begin. Many owners of flight schools that offer sport pilot training would likely agree with Henley’s assessment that LSA is “the most wonderful thing that’s come along in a very long time.”
Sport pilot training doesn’t have to be in a snazzy new plane; any LSA-certified aircraft will do the job. St. Louis Sport Aviation has 20 students training in a Luscombe 8A, and the program has been so successful that what was once a part-time interest for owner Andy Mueller is quickly becoming a full-time job. For Ty Frisby of Sunrise Aviation in Southern California, “sport pilot” means fun. Like students in many other schools, his typical student is one who, in spite of an undeniable attraction to flying, has previously shied away from aviation because of financial or medical reasons. Sunrise uses a good old 95 hp Piper J-3 Cub, and takes the training a step further to include endorsements for tailwheel and classes B and C. Frisby estimates that students who receive their LSA certificate are only nine hours from obtaining a private license, using the school’s Citabria. In the meantime, continuing students can rent the Cub—a rare treat in itself, but unheard of for private-pilot students. Two of his renters are World War II fighter pilots, both more than 80 years old.
Students who believe they’ve run out of options—there’s no nearby school or they can’t (or don’t want to) devote two weeks—are wrong. Individual instructors, such as Robert Parker in Benson, N.C., are listed in EAA’s sport pilot database (see the resources “Where To Find LSA Schools” above). Use the database to look for LSA instructors in your area.
Parker teaches students in his J-3 Cub, and has recently taken delivery of American Legend’s Legend Cub. He fields questions from overzealous students about low prices, few hours and minimum knowledge requirements, but unlike flight schools, Parker doesn’t use those as selling points. “Students are misinformed and think they can learn everything really quickly. In fact, to get a sport pilot certificate, you need 95% of the same knowledge needed to get a private license.” To motivate the younger crowd, Parker hopes to sell his program to high schools, envisioning groundschool as a daytime class offered for credit. And why not? Students can fly at 16 and take along a friend at 17.
FAA records show that 644 LSA written exams were taken last year, with a 96% passing rate. Excluding private pilots who have added a sport pilot rating (those numbers aren’t available), 107 sport pilot certificates had been issued as of December 16, 2005. Although these figures are moving targets, one thing is certain: The trend is on the rise. This is refreshing news; the combined total of all other types of pilots has dropped approximately one percent in the last two years.
From this budding world also comes a new crop of instructors. Sport pilot training is well-suited for private pilots who enjoy teaching but aren’t planning on a commercial flying career. Because requirements are fewer (neither an instrument rating nor a commercial license are necessary) and less costly (only 150 hours of flight time needs to be logged), it’s easier for those who want to teach just because they love to. At Sunrise Aviation, one sport pilot CFI currently in training is a former F-4 Phantom driver; he simply wants to share his passion with others. Instructing sport pilots is a win-win situation—students have stability and instructors have fun.
Whether it takes one week or one month to earn a sport pilot certificate, the common theme is that light sport is revitalizing entry-level aviation. Those who were skittish about working toward a private because of time, finances or health have now found their place in the world of recreational flying. Typical sport pilots just want to get in the air and enjoy flying, and daytime VFR meets those needs. LSA provide privileges earlier in training and, in the end, offer more flexibility. Sport pilot time may later be applied to earn a private-pilot license. (What private-pilot student can take a friend for a ride in the middle of training?) If you aren’t quite sure how far you’ll take it, this is a unique opportunity to taste aviation before swallowing.
As rules evolve and more aircraft are certified, the lines to earn sport pilot tickets will grow. And the names that get added to the FAA’s database of certificates will represent a new audience for general aviation: The pilots that never thought they could. Light sport aviation may still be in its infancy, but it’s gaining momentum fast. Flying for the love of flying is back.