It took more than 2 ½ years to review the more than 4,700 comments on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) 2002 proposal to simplify pilot training and make the sport more affordable and accessible. After a tremendous amount of debate, research and consideration (and a certain amount of suspense), the FAA made its announcement on September 1, 2004: The new sport-pilot license became official, and with it came an entirely new category of planes, the light-sport aircraft (LSA). Many in the flying community think that this single, new piece of legislation may change the face of general aviation forever.
One of the most important—and most debated—changes is that sport pilots will no longer be required to pass FAA medical examinations to fly an LSA. The only medical requirement is that the pilot must be healthy enough to possess a valid driver’s license. If the pilot, however, has had a medical disqualification in the past, the driver’s license will not suffice, and possible additional documentation will be needed.
Student pilots who are beginning training will find the cost of getting a license significantly less expensive. The sport pilot requires a minimum of 20 hours—half the amount required for a private-pilot’s license. According to FAA administrator Marion Blakely, the average cost for a private-pilot’s license is $9,000, while the estimated cost to become a sport pilot will be $2,600. Like private pilots, sport pilots also will be required to pass a written exam and a practical flight test with an FAA examiner or designee.
Sport pilots won’t enjoy the same privileges as private pilots, however. They’ll be restricted to day-VFR flight only. Pilots who intend to fly aircraft that will exceed 87 knots require some additional training. They must receive training and an endorsement to fly in Class B, C or D airspace, and they can’t go above 10,000 feet. There are no commercial operations allowed, and nothing can be towed behind the airplane.
The FAA’s new rules also make it easy for flight instructors to immediately begin training sport pilots. Certified flight instructors aren’t required to take any additional tests or check rides to begin teaching in sports-category aircraft. They’re only required to have at least five hours of pilot-in-command time in the type of LSA in which they intend to instruct.
These new sport-pilot license privileges will extend over a variety of aircraft, including gliders, powered parachutes, gyroplanes, weight-shift control, airships and balloons. Aircraft that qualify under the new LSA are limited to one reciprocating engine, two seats, fixed landing gear, a fixed-pitch propeller, a maximum stall speed of 45 knots and a max speed of 120 knots in level flight. Airplanes can’t exceed a gross weight of 1,320 pounds or 1,430 pounds for seaplanes.
While only a handful of currently certified aircraft can qualify as LSA (including Aeronca Chiefs and Champs, Piper Cubs, Luscombes and Taylorcraft), the new ruling is expected to bring a gaggle of new airplanes to the market. One reason is the revolutionary shift of the LSA certification process. Rather than going through the hugely expensive FAA type certification that’s required of private aircraft for a normal category airworthiness certificate, the process will now adhere to industry consensus standards as put forward by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). This will allow the LSA manufacturers to certify aircraft much quicker and with less expense.
The consensus standards were created through a continuous debate between the manufacturers, government, potential users and affiliated organizations. They addressed issues regarding design and performance, quality assurance, production acceptance and safety monitoring for LSA. Several panel members expressed that the cooperation and harmony that existed on the panel was unprecedented.
Ram Pattisapu, president of IndUS Aviation, was one of the manufacturers who was involved, and he said that “this process created a much more sensible standard than if the government alone had created it. It’s simple and compact, yet everything was addressed. And any future modifications to the rule will be much easier to handle.”
Pattisapu continues, “It’ll also enable more interplay between the U.S. and other parts of the world in terms of aircraft manufacturing that was impossible with the bureaucracy involved with the previous small aircraft rules.” IndUS Aviation holds the type certificate for the Thorpe T211 and will now manufacture parts of the aircraft in India.
Many established kit aircraft builders are jumping headfirst into certifying sport aircraft. Rans Aircraft’s S-7S is already certified, and the company has a dozen airplanes that qualify under the new rules.
“We’re making the paradigm shift from kit airplanes to the certified market,” says Randy Schlitter, the president and founder of Rans. “We think that there’s a healthy market for the sport-pilot planes and expect to sell between 300 and 600 planes a year.”
Price tags on the category of aircraft will vary, but they’ll be more in line now with the cost of an automobile. Many of the new, certified fixed-wing aircraft are expected to cost between $20,000 and $60,000.
And for those who re looking to save even more money, the sport-pilot rules have added a completely new airworthiness certificate for experimental LSA. These do-it-yourself kits will be even less expensive than the ready-to-fly versions.
Traditional kitplane regulations required that the owner and/or builder construct a minimum of 51% of the aircraft, which takes hundreds of hours of labor. The new sport-pilot experimental rules, on the other hand, only call for builders to participate and sign off that they have played a part in making the aircraft airworthy. Builders also need to attend formal training classes to earn repairman’s certificates for minor maintenance, but the whole process is much less time-consuming than in the past.
While enthusiasm within the aviation community for the new sport-pilot license is high, it’s not unanimous. Some wonder if the new license will go the way of the recreational-pilot’s license, which by almost all standards, enjoyed tepid success. By the end of 2003, 14 years after the inception of the recreational pilot’s license, only 310 pilots will have obtained the rating.
The less-enthused response on the new sport-pilot license also can be heard beyond the fixed-wing niche. Roy Beisswenger from Easy Flight Powered Parachutes says, “I’ve seen some mixed emotions in the ultralight community. The sport will grow, and safety may increase, but most people don’t see any benefit. The new level of bureaucracy and an increase in paperwork and standards will probably add to the cost of equipment, maintenance, training and production to the point when some ultralight businesses may not make it.”
Others aren’t so sure that the lack of a medical certificate will have such a huge consequence. “Pilots who lost their medical could’ve been flying ultralights before the sport-pilot license went into effect, so I’m not sure that it’ll have that much of a difference,” says Schlitter.
But by and large, the new sport-pilot rating has gathered more attention and excitement than practically anything else within aviation’s recent memory. A company called Sports Planes (www.sportsplanes.com), headed by Josh Foss, has already set up regional centers all over the country, preparing them for flight training, demo flights, sport-aircraft sales, maintenance and warranty services. “So far, we have 15 centers that are established, and we hope to have another 25 to 30 centers signed up by fall,” says Foss.
Many traditional flight schools and FBOs are gearing up as well. When asked whether or not sport-pilot training would be offered at Sporty’s, President Hal Shevers answers, “Absolutely yes! We’re a flight school, and this is a great opportunity to get more people into flying.”
Perhaps the most telling sign about the new sport-pilot license’s future comes from the organization that has studied it the most—the Federal Aviation Administration. Its recent report, the FAA Aerospace Forecasts Fiscal Years 2004-2015, predicts that there will be nearly 21,000 active LSA that are flying within the next nine years and probably a larger number of sport pilots.
Ed Downs, president of SkyStar Aircraft, which is a kit aircraft company that’s considering getting certified under the LSA category, says, “There are literally tens of thousands of people who have been waiting for the completion of the sport-pilot rules before they could buy an aircraft.” So, in essence, by offering inexpensive flying for people who could previously only dream of flying, the new sport-pilot rule has the potential to revolutionize general aviation.
Exploring the Medical Provision
One of the hottest topics surrounding the sport-pilot license is the medical provision, which states that an applicant can use a valid U.S. driver’s license to fly a light-sport aircraft. Many were under the impression that older pilots who could no longer qualify for a medical certificate now can use the provision to fly again by applying for the sport-pilot license. But according to the FAA’s final rule, that isn’t the case. Since the FAA is concerned that pilots whose airman medical certificates have been denied, suspended or revoked, or whose authorizations for special issuance of a medical certificate have been withdrawn would be allowed to operate light-sport aircraft under the proposed rule, it has made a few conditions to the medical provision. The proposal states that “if a person has held an airman medical certificate, that person’s most recently issued airman medical certificate [latest medical on file with the FAA] must not have been revoked or suspended. If a person has been granted an authorization, that authorization must not have been withdrawn.” In other words, pilots who can no longer fly because of a revoked or suspended medical can’t use their U.S. driver’s licenses alone as evidence that they’re medically fit to fly under the sport-pilot category.
In addition, the FAA underlines that although applicants who have never been issued a medical can use their driver’s licenses in lieu of a medical certificate, it doesn’t establish the fact that the driver’s license is medical evidence that a pilot is fit to fly. That means that pilots who know that they have a medical condition that would deem them unfit to fly can’t use their U.S. driver’s licenses as replacements for medical certificates. The bottom line for the FAA: All pilots need to be medically sound to safely fly.
Experimental Aircraft Association