Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Light-Sport Chronicles: CSI Insurance: Excogitations On LSA Crashes, Part 1

What do three years of a top LSA insurer’s data tell us about sport flight accidents?

lscTooling around the Sebring U.S. Sport Aviation Expo (check out my blog, Light-Sport Hangar Flyin’), I ran into Mike Adams, vice president of underwriting for Avemco Insurance Company ( Adams was on scene to present what Avemco has learned, based on three years of data, from S-LSA accidents.
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It turns out, after accounting for all other factors, that pilot experience is the major culprit. Here’s surprise #3: If you conclude, as I did, that new, low-time sport pilots are the ones whanging in on a regular basis, conclude again. It’s exactly the opposite: High-time pilots are the ones bending the birds out there! But how can that be?

“In studying our accident claims, we began to suspect dealer checkout flights weren’t thorough enough. We found the majority were landing accidents. And the common theme was pilot error. For example, we’ve had S-LSA destroyed on landing by a 500-hour pilot, an 1,100-hour pilot, and 3,800- and 4,400-hour pilots! Also, most accidents occurred within 10 hours of dealer checkout in the airplane. New owners were too often receiving only perfunctory checkouts. They’d fly with the instructor for an hour or two, display general competency, then the checkout instructor would release the airplane.

“And almost immediately, the pilot would run into turbulence or a stiff crosswind, discover the LSA didn’t react the way a 1.5-ton Bonanza did, and crash.”

The culprit was pilot psychology, not pilot skill. The more experience new owners have, the less they tend to view LSA as anything more than smaller, simpler versions of the big iron they’ve flown for years. LSA are lightweight aircraft by design and regulation, but they also come with lighter wing loading: A Cessna 172 has around 14 lbs./sq. ft., while a loaded Tecnam Sierra has less than 11 lbs./sq. ft.

Lighter wing loading delivers bonuses like slower takeoff and landing speeds, but takes a hit in crosswinds and vulnerability to turbulence. Bumps that don’t raise an eyebrow in all-aluminum, heavier-loaded Cessnas can wear you out in lighter-weight, nonflexing, composite LSA.

“When we asked more about the checkout flights, the typical response was: ‘Insurance requires two hours of dual, so I gave him the two hours—I didn’t say he could fly the plane perfectly.’ We said, ‘Oooookay, well now we want you to certify [that] he can fly the plane before you release it.’ We felt that would ensure competency and lower accident statistics.”

It turns out that more than a few pilot egos weren’t about to be told they needed more than an hour or two to transition into these “little planes.” They’d intimidate their instructors, who’d throw up their hands and say, “Fine, take the airplane.” All aboard! Next stop: Prangville.

One CFI I know had that exact experience with a pilot—twice! His high-time sky ace insisted an hour was plenty, refused further instruction, flew home—and crashed on his first landing. The manufacturer went the extra mile by magnanimously fixing the airplane at no charge to the pilot, who gratefully picked up the airplane, again refused further dual, flew the aircraft home—and crashed again!

The point here isn’t to knock the confidence of the pilot: He had many hundreds of accident-free hours in GA airplanes. The point is one that we’ve been sounding here a lot lately: GA airplanes are not light-sport airplanes!

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