Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Personal Aviation At A Crossroads

Looking back and moving forward

guest speaker
Photo by Dan Johnson
Five years ago, the first special light-sport aircraft (S-LSA) received its airworthiness certificate, opening up a new chapter in the regulation of simple personal flight. More than 1,000 of these factory-built aircraft and more than 8,000 former ultralights (experimental light-sport aircraft, E-LSA) are now flying under the sport pilot and LSA category. At the beginning, some people expressed concern that manufacturers who made a simple declaration of compliance with safety standards wouldn’t be held accountable should any problems arise. Last year, both the FAA and NTSB began studies assessing the LSA industry to see how it’s functioning after a half decade of operational experience. The results of these studies will expose any system weaknesses and will likely lead to recommendations for some changes. At stake is the delicate balance between the low cost and complexity that brings growth and innovation and the burdensome regulation that can stifle industry and turn people away from flying.

The self-declarative system isn’t new. It has been embedded in FAR Part 103 for ultralights since its inception in 1981. Twenty-three years later, the LSA rule shares a similar philosophy. Consistency between the rules can be found in the preambles where the FAA states its expectation that the industry take responsibility for developing and implementing aircraft safety standards, quality-assurance systems, maintenance requirements and a continued airworthiness process. By this, the FAA allows less expensive products to be produced for the market in a quicker time frame. (Having to go through the type-certification process is laborious and costly.) Similarly, the aircraft pilot and owner are given operating provisions that reflect the limited arena in which many casual weekend fliers partake for sport and recreation.

One of the major differences between the ultralight and light-sport rules is the required use of industry consensus standards. In the early ’80s, Larry Burke and others involved with the Powered Ultralight Manufacturers Association (PUMA) and, later, the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA) developed voluntary safety standards for ultralights. For some reason, however, the industry didn’t buy into the system and it languished with only a few manufacturers participating.


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