AN LSA PIONEER. Larry Burke, a semi-retired founder of LAMA who still serves as chairman emeritus, helped build the LSA movement.
Ever had a neighbor who watered your roses if you forgot to? Or loaned you his tools, though you didn’t know him very well?
Larry Burke is one of those people who looks out for others—lots of them. His gentleness and soft-spoken baritone beguile you, then the eyes, sparkling with keen intelligence, tell you, “Here’s one smart cookie!”
I first met Larry one sunny day at Sun ’n Fun years ago. Before long, he was proudly showing me the ultralight he had designed and built himself.
An engineer by instinct and education, he hoped to produce the shoulder-wing single-seater for the exploding ultralight market.
Not long after, ABC broadcast its infamous 20/20 “expose” on ultralights, skillfully manipulating the public’s deepest fears about flying. The industry suffered a crippling blow from which it never fully recovered, and Larry never produced his airplane.
Meanwhile, he worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a high-octane, super-secret scientific research think tank tasked with national and global security technology. Heady stuff!
We’ll never know how the ultralight boom might have evolved without ABC’s backstab, but most agree the LSA movement arose from the ashes of those Wild West, free-flying days.
Without Larry Burke, the category itself might never have come to pass. His persistent vision of a thriving sport aviation sector helped bridge the two movements by providing them with standards for safe flight.
Like so many of us, Larry built models as a kid: “In high school, an uncle who owned a slaughterhouse gave me reams of butcher paper to cover my own design: a single-place, wooden airplane. I never got it off the ground, which is why I’m probably still here to talk to you!”
In college, engineering studies kept him too busy to fly. Licensed at last in 1978, it was full throttle to multi-engine and instrument ratings. In college, he helped another student cover an old Aeronca. He attended graduate school courses in aeronautical design and stress analysis.
“Then I worked for RCA and got married,” he remembers. “Once I moved back to California, I could finally renew my two passions: motorcycle racing and building airplanes.”
In time, after burning out on the bikes, “my brother and I went to Oshkosh. I renewed my acquaintance with Paul Poberezny and we had a good time up there.”
He had met Poberezny in the ’50s, after seeing a Popular Mechanics article on a homebuilt the EAA founder had designed. (Larry still has his four-digit EAA membership number.)
During that time, adventurous folks began bolting chainsaw motors onto hang gliders, and the ultralight aircraft was born.
“I got the airplane bug again, went to every single air show I could, then Dennis Shattuck hired me to freelance for Kitplanes magazine,” says Larry. He also wrote for Ultralight Aircraft magazine, but like most big thinkers, many irons glowed in his creative mind. “I flew lots of ultralights and designed and built three different models. I’m even listed in Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft!”
One day Bill Sadler, creator of the Vampire ultralight, approached him with the idea of forming an ultralight manufacturer’s association. Both men agreed something had to be done about “all the scatterbrained, badly constructed ultralights out there that had no engineering acumen. Many of them just copied each other!” The rash of fatalities, many in nonairworthy aircraft, was disturbing and threatened the burgeoning ultralight movement.
The vitally important Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA), so crucial to the creation of the LSA category, was born from that conversation. Sadler eventually lost interest, but Larry “kept the flag up the pole.” Ultimately, as the first executive director of LAMA, his diverse education—multiple degrees in engineering, business management and quality assurance—brought order to the chaotic ultralight industry, and LAMA got a consensus standard through FAA. “Chris Heinz and I also created what became the standard for microlight aircraft in Canada,” says Larry.
He also served on the FAA’s ARAC (Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee), and helped create the rules that defined Part 103—Ultralight Vehicles. Later came the ASTM standards approach to LSA certification, and Larry Burke was right in the middle of it all...like that neighbor who’s got your back.
“By 2000, we were turning out standards, working with aerodynamicists and trained engineers,” he asserts. At ASTM, “our charter was to create a standard for a simple two-place airplane. Earl Lawrence was elected chairman of the F37 committee, I was elected secretary, the number-two position in the hierarchy, and we had a great time. The overseas manufacturers got involved once they envisioned expanding their markets, so now we have LAMA meetings overseas, too.”
Evolving standards remains a principal activity of LAMA. Larry gives an example: “We worried about ongoing airworthiness. What if a manufacturer folds? Who’ll implement necessary changes to their aircraft, or monitor its flight activities? So we added a paragraph that stipulated any manufacturer, before going out of business, was required to name another entity to take over those responsibilities, or the airworthiness certificates for the models they produced would be revoked.”
Larry recalls the early days of crafting rules and standards while part of ARAC as among his favorite times: “It was exciting doing work that would have such a major impact on the growth of the light aircraft industry.”
Does he have a favorite LSA?
“I’ve put the most hours into an Evektor Sportstar. They all fly pretty similarly. They’re not GA aircraft—more like ultralights, but twitchy. They take off right away like an ultralight; the ailerons are within the range of sensitivity I was used to, but pitch and rudder are more responsive than on spam cans.
“I’m not saying they’re unflyable: You get used to it; you learn to make smaller movements. That troubled me a bit in the beginning, the thought of putting a student through that, but everybody I talk to tells me it’s not a problem—they quickly catch on.
“At the same time, manufacturers will tell you it takes five solid hours of transition training for a GA or commercial pilot. LSA are a different animal.”
Larry’s semi-retired now, but still sits on the board of LAMA as founder and chairman emeritus.
And it’s no hyperbole at all to say that each and every one of us who flies LSA these days is the direct beneficiary of the tireless work of Larry Burke.
He has had our backs, quietly but with unwavering regard for the greater good—our greater good—all these years.