Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Light-Sport Chronicles: The LSA Decade

An appreciation for a brave new category

Ten years ago, our FAA fathers (and mothers) brought forth upon this aviation landscape a new category and pilot's license, conceived in liberty from the runaway cost of private flying and dedicated to the proposition that all airplanes...and pilots...and flying joys...are created equal.

Personal flight has never been quite the same since. Even with the iron-hard hammerlock the big recession has clamped on consumer spending for years, and the unexpected higher cost of airframes in general, the light-sport aircraft category has yet managed to register more than 2,500 airplanes in the U.S. over the last decade. That's registrations; partially completed kits and airplanes bought but not yet delivered most likely number in the hundreds more as the personal aviation economy continues to pick up steam.

The Sebring Expo in January made that point most indelibly: in the pocketbooks of exhibitors. I talked with several friends I've known in the industry for years now; they don't indulge in "vapor" sales to me. Several of them happily claimed one or more sales at the show. I personally witnessed two different customers come to a booth with broad smiles and checks in hand. One company that had never sold an airplane at an air show sold two...and possibly three. That's a strong indicator to me of an uptrend, and a long overdue one.

Back to the creation of this phenomenon we call LSA: The light-sport category and sport-pilot rule were meant to restore lower-cost, less-hassle flying to the class of current and future pilots. It came with a bit of a trade-off in performance, weight, power supply and more, but that was the price our "little airplane" corner of the GA market had to pay to share the airspace with all that had come before.

Nonetheless, LSA's birth in 2004 brought a gale of innovation and production freedom to an increasingly moribund industry that offered products out of reach to Joe and Jane Pilot. A $350,000 Cessna 172 no longer spoke to the great unwashed the way a $6,000 Piper J-3 Cub had back in the day. LSA meant to restore that spirit.

The first S-LSA (an Evektor SportStar, a fully manufactured, ready-to-fly, low-wing lovely) debuted in April of 2005. Since that time, we've enjoyed arguably the most prodigious burst of creative and entrepreneurial energy in aviation history: a total of 134 new designs to date, in just 10 years, with more to come. Even if so many of us haven't been able to afford one, it's still been a thrilling cavalcade to watch.

We're not talking 20 variants of Piper Cherokees either, but mostly freshly minted new models of aircraft, of which the vast majority are still in production. Many of these flivvers came from existing European "ultralight" and "microlight" designs, tailored to meet the U.S. LSA specification, which neither tarnishes nor diminishes the sheer proliferation and enthusiasm of the species.

And let's not forget that 25% of all U.S. sales have been from "Cub-alike" producers, most notably CubCrafters, American Legend and Just Aircraft, among others.

I won't rehash the specifics of the LSA category and sport-pilot rule. That information is available on P&P's website, as well as through the excellent organizations at EAA, AOPA, FAA and a hangar full of private sport-pilot websites.

What's astonishing to me about the last 10 years, five or more of which were hamstrung by the terrible economic recession, isn't that only 2,500 airplanes were sold, but that 2,500 airplanes were sold!


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