Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Light-Sport Chronicles: Gold Stars & Black Stars


Reviewing last year’s LSA accidents shows improvements...and shortcomings



About a year ago, I asked Mike Adams, Avemco Insurance Company’s VP of underwriting, to use his crystal ball (FAA and Avemco accident and claim statistics) to divine trends in LSA flying. Time for an update, after a synopsis of last year’s insights:

• Avemco initially anticipated three to five years of red ink from when it began covering S-LSA. Three years later, Mike predicted another one to two years before profitability on S-LSA underwriting.
• Most S-LSA accidents were caused by pilot error.
• Experienced GA pilots, not new LSA pilots, were the usual suspects.
• Most accidents happened during landings.
• Tailwheel pilots had more than twice as many accidents as tricycle-gear drivers.

The focus of cause for all this airframe crunching seemed to be S-LSA training. Most dealers weren’t insisting on sufficient transition checkouts before sending pilots home with their new airplanes. And pilot psychology, not skill, was the culprit.

In a nutshell: The more experienced the pilot, the less respect the person apparently had for S-LSA, viewing them as small versions of “real airplanes.” Such pilots didn’t think they needed additional training, even though LSA have lighter weight and wing loading—great for slow takeoff and landing speeds and terrific climb rates, but more vulnerable to crosswinds and turbulence. LSA instructors frequently complain that it’s easier to train new pilots in LSA than it is to transition experienced GA pilots to LSA.

Mike Adams understands that European sport pilots don’t experience the same accident numbers in microlight planes. The reason: They’ve cut their teeth and built hours in microlights. Avemco’s ultimate solution was to mandate five-hour checkout flights and instructor sign-offs after a flight review before agreeing to insure an S-LSA pilot.

Another downer has been the cost of repairing S-LSA. Airframes are still new and don’t have the nationwide repair and parts support that GA has built over the decades. So, how have we done in the ensuing 12 months, Mike?

The good: “Overall, it’s an improving accident picture.”

The bad: “It’s not happening as quickly as we had hoped.”

“S-LSA net losses in dollars,” says Mike, “are still between 100% to 200% higher than certificated aircraft. The other factor is the accident rate, which averages about twice that of GA. And again, experienced GA pilots transitioning to LSA flight remain the major cause factor in these accidents.”

Is there a silver lining? You betcha. “In 2006 and 2007, our loss frequency for S-LSA was about four times that of the GA fleet. Through 2008 and into 2009, that ratio improved considerably. The two times GA accident figure covers all the years we’ve insured S-LSA, so you can infer that the increased training requirements we initiated in 2007—the five-hour transition checkout and an instructor flight review—have cut landing losses.”

Mike studies FAA accident base statistics, broken down into accident types: taxi, ground, landing, en route and unknown. “And week after week, landing accidents make up 45% to 55% of all reported losses. Apparently,” he quips, “we can takeoff; we can get where we’re going safely—we just can’t land once we get there!”



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