Ten years ago, our FAA fathers (and mothers) brought forth upon this aviation landscape a new category and pilot's license, conceived in liberty from the runaway cost of private flying and dedicated to the proposition that all airplanes...and pilots...and flying joys...are created equal.
Personal flight has never been quite the same since. Even with the iron-hard hammerlock the big recession has clamped on consumer spending for years, and the unexpected higher cost of airframes in general, the light-sport aircraft category has yet managed to register more than 2,500 airplanes in the U.S. over the last decade. That's registrations; partially completed kits and airplanes bought but not yet delivered most likely number in the hundreds more as the personal aviation economy continues to pick up steam.
The Sebring Expo in January made that point most indelibly: in the pocketbooks of exhibitors. I talked with several friends I've known in the industry for years now; they don't indulge in "vapor" sales to me. Several of them happily claimed one or more sales at the show. I personally witnessed two different customers come to a booth with broad smiles and checks in hand. One company that had never sold an airplane at an air show sold two...and possibly three. That's a strong indicator to me of an uptrend, and a long overdue one.
Back to the creation of this phenomenon we call LSA: The light-sport category and sport-pilot rule were meant to restore lower-cost, less-hassle flying to the class of current and future pilots. It came with a bit of a trade-off in performance, weight, power supply and more, but that was the price our "little airplane" corner of the GA market had to pay to share the airspace with all that had come before.
Nonetheless, LSA's birth in 2004 brought a gale of innovation and production freedom to an increasingly moribund industry that offered products out of reach to Joe and Jane Pilot. A $350,000 Cessna 172 no longer spoke to the great unwashed the way a $6,000 Piper J-3 Cub had back in the day. LSA meant to restore that spirit.
The first S-LSA (an Evektor SportStar, a fully manufactured, ready-to-fly, low-wing lovely) debuted in April of 2005. Since that time, we've enjoyed arguably the most prodigious burst of creative and entrepreneurial energy in aviation history: a total of 134 new designs to date, in just 10 years, with more to come. Even if so many of us haven't been able to afford one, it's still been a thrilling cavalcade to watch.
We're not talking 20 variants of Piper Cherokees either, but mostly freshly minted new models of aircraft, of which the vast majority are still in production. Many of these flivvers came from existing European "ultralight" and "microlight" designs, tailored to meet the U.S. LSA specification, which neither tarnishes nor diminishes the sheer proliferation and enthusiasm of the species.
And let's not forget that 25% of all U.S. sales have been from "Cub-alike" producers, most notably CubCrafters, American Legend and Just Aircraft, among others.
I won't rehash the specifics of the LSA category and sport-pilot rule. That information is available on P&P's website, as well as through the excellent organizations at EAA, AOPA, FAA and a hangar full of private sport-pilot websites.
What's astonishing to me about the last 10 years, five or more of which were hamstrung by the terrible economic recession, isn't that only 2,500 airplanes were sold, but that 2,500 airplanes were sold!
Yes, LSA hasn't lived up to its pie-in-the-sky promise of a cheap plane for Everypilot. We saw those days come and go with hang gliders and ultralights—which still offer bargains in elemental flight.
What LSA has given us, in my view, is a new lease on personal flight itself. We have our chance again to break free from the higher/faster/more expensive "wings and ratings" mind-set. Do that many of us really need to risk our lives flying in crummy weather or at night when the world below is mostly black? Or can our purpose, speaking solely to the recreational side of things, be to find, in our flying, the simple gratitude of knowing we can do something none of our ancestors through a million years of human history could manage: to lift above the earth and feel our hearts full, knowing that we can at last soar with the birds?
I pay homage to that gift of wings as often as I can, and I thank you, my readers, for your interest and enthusiasm in personal flight and particularly in light-sport aircraft. I've started my own website, called Light Sport and Electric Flight. There, I'll report on the dazzling array of creativity that lies ahead for all of us in personal flight. In particular, keep your eyes peeled for multi-rotors, UAV technology and, of course, electric power. They're poised to change everything: Flight in 20 years will be so amazing, so different, we may very well struggle to remain connected to our traditional wings-and-tail roots.
But for me, the most compelling and worthy aspect of LSA—and ultralights before that, and hang gliders before that—has always been the people: the men and women who have put their faith, creativity, hard work, hard-earned money and their very lives into growing the concept that flying is, always has been and shall continue to be by the people, of the people and for the people. And, of course, we should all have a hell of a lot of fun in the meantime.
My friend, industry mover/shaker Dan Johnson and I had a confab on this very topic of fun and flying some years ago when I began my tenure here as LSA editor. I asked him why he liked to fly. He thought for a moment, then said, with a chuckle and big toothy smile, "Well, I just like being up there looking around." I simply nodded. He was speaking for me, too.
Sometimes, the deepest truths can be told in a very few words. Sometimes, often in fact, the most enjoyable flights are to be had with the simplest and most basic-performing of machines. Perfect example: There's at least one ultralight motorglider just on the market that will get you up to soaring altitude—on gas or electric power—and cost you less than $20,000. Given the ever-diminishing purchasing power of the dollar, that's a real bargain.
I wish all my readers magical flights. Maybe that surge of flight desire will overtake you next time there's a beautiful clear misty morning or an afternoon sky with golden puffy clouds. You'll heed the call to break free this shackle of gravity, climb aboard your eager craft and rise up, up into the air.
What a miracle flight is. We fulfilled that million-year ancestral dream only in the last five score and 11 years. May we always protect its freedoms and uphold our responsibilities thereto. And even at a few thousand feet—well below the sport-pilot ceiling—I'd implore you to look far enough toward the horizon from your lofty perch, gaze with just a little bit of your heart and behold the curvature of the earth. In that moment, may you feel the immensity, the finiteness and your own protective love for this wonderful old Earth that's our only home. I wish you all strong tailwinds and a true course to wherever your wings may take you.