It’s been official since September 1, 2004, and it’s working: the sport-pilot rule is a reality; light-sport aircraft (LSA) and flight training are available; and maintenance facilities are catching on. So, how does one get that sport-pilot certificate? What does it take, and how much does it cost?
The sport-pilot rule was designed to promote aviation, to bring new pilots into the fray, to make flying more affordable and to make it simpler.
The FAA asserts that the rule is intended to close some gaps in ultralight training and ultralight-trainer performance; to encourage manufacturers of small, light and safe aircraft; and to clean up some misconceptions surrounding light-aircraft maintenance and procedures.
Said the FAA, “The rule is designed to allow individuals to experience sport and recreational aviation in a manner that’s safe for the intended operations, but not overly burdensome [to the pilot].”
And veteran pilots are important in the grand scheme, too. As existing pilots age and shy away from taking medical exams, they drop out of the pilot population. The sport-pilot rule doesn’t require an FAA medical; only a state driver’s license—and the pilot’s self-appraisal of fitness to fly—are required.
Sport-pilot aircraft (airplanes, weight-shift aircraft, gyroplanes, powered parachutes, balloons and gliders) are primarily designed for recreational and training purposes. That doesn’t mean some can’t go cross-country, but it does mean that they’re not optioned-up or overly expensive.
Relatively simple airplanes are relatively inexpensive, and sport-pilot aircraft include a number of classics (which are inexpensive because of their age) and new designs. These single-engine, fixed-gear, two-seaters (maximum) need to meet a few basic criteria involving weight, maximum and minimum speeds, and complexity, but many an LSA will fit the needs of most new pilots and plenty of veterans."
What Makes It So Accessible?
“Cheap” and “easy” are the bywords. Since the aircraft are simpler, and since the operating limitations keep them in more-open airspace, training requirements for a sport-pilot certificate, the official word for license, are simpler than for a private-pilot license. Bottom line: a talented and dedicated student can get a license in as few as 20 hours of instruction, while a private ticket takes a minimum of 40. Fewer hours of required instruction saves considerable money and time.
With simpler aircraft and fewer requirements for radio work and, frequently, navigation, sport pilots can enjoy flight sooner, in “easier” airspace, in easier-to-fly aircraft. Further, a sport pilot isn’t allowed to fly at night or in instrument conditions, so a lot of additional risks are eliminated.
What Does It Take?
We know that it’s easier to get a sport-pilot ticket than to get a private-pilot certificate, but aviation is serious business; the training isn’t merely a formality. Flight instructors and the FAA are focused on the idea of safe flight, and safe flight requires knowledge and attention.
There are two tests for a new pilot: the knowledge, or written test, and the flight test. Learn the material to pass the FAA’s knowledge test—rules, regulations and basic airmanship—and score at least 70%. This isn’t too hard, as there are many ground schools you can attend (if you can’t find a specific sport-pilot course nearby, a private-pilot ground school will tell you more than you need to know). ASA, Gleim and King Schools, among others, have good courses available.
It’s probably best to find a school that specializes in LSA training; there are more opening every month, and they’re not hard to find. Organizations (EAA, LAMA, AOPA) have online directories, but the best source for up-to-the-minute information often comes from the LSA manufacturers or importers themselves. Because they know their customers, and they know their own delivery schedules, they’ll know where you can fly their aircraft.
You must be conversant in English, and have a valid state-issued driver’s license. Anyone can study for the LSA certificate, but a pilot needs to be at least 16 (or 14 to fly an LSA glider or balloon).
What Are The Restrictions?
A sport pilot may not operate under sport-pilot rules at night; officially, that’s between one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise. A sport pilot may not fly more than 10,000 feet above mean sea level (MSL). A sport pilot may not fly near big airports (Classes B, C and D) unless he or she is signed off after special training and the aircraft is equipped to enter that kind of airspace. Check with the manufacturer for the equipment list.
These flight restrictions on sport pilots usually don’t cause problems, unless you want to clear some big mountains. The aircraft isn’t restricted, except by the manufacturer, so when you get your private certificate, the aircraft may already be able to keep up with your expanded ability.
In the meantime, if you plan to cross high passes in a capable LSA, bring your private-pilot friend along, and have the friend fly the mountain pass. Build time in the LSA and upgrade your license to private when you have enough time. If you have a night-equipped LSA, you’ll also be able to get a night-flying sign-off with a private ticket.
Since familiarity with any given aircraft makes a better pilot, a sport pilot must be trained to fly each different type, make and model of aircraft he or she wants to fly. (Otherwise, one might reach for a light switch and turn off the engine!) A SportCruiser pilot, for instance, can’t fly a SportStar until he or she has a checkout flight and sign-off by an instructor. The sign-off is good for life, though, so don’t fret too much about what particular model the local school uses. (When you get your private ticket, this restriction virtually disappears.)
Occasionally, a manufacturer will offer full-ticket training if you buy a new factory-assembled LSA. That could be a great deal, especially if you’re thinking of buying an LSA anyway. Nearly all will be happy to give you your checkout, if you buy their aircraft.
What Does It Cost?
This is a tough question, a lot like, “How much is a car?” Unlike cars, though, you probably shouldn’t be looking for a junker, no matter how cheap it seems. LSA flight training is a lot less expensive than private-pilot training, because (1) you need half as many hours and (2) the aircraft are less expensive to operate. The basic flight regimen currently ranges from about $3,000 to $4,000, depending on geography and how much training you need. A private-pilot certificate, for reference, will cost a newcomer somewhere between $5,500 and $7,000. With your sport-pilot license, though, you can build flight time inexpensively, as you take additional ground training for your private, and LSA time counts toward air-time requirements for most advanced certificates.
The sport-pilot certificate is the best invitation to fly since the introduction of ultralights more than a quarter-century ago; furthermore, the aircraft are more practical, faster and safer. Simply stated, sport-pilot certification is the gateway to general aviation, and the gates are open right now.
Aviation Supplies and Academics (ASA):
Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA):
Sport Pilot Rule (official):