Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Learning To Fly 2.0: Cooler, Safer And More Fun Than Ever

Big changes in technology, manufacturing and design have changed the way we learn to fly

Imagine it: You’re training for night cross-country flying. The evening is moonless VFR. Your weather briefing says your route is clear. The synthetic vision feature of your glass instrument panel displays everything—including the runway centerline—as if illuminated on a clear day. You lift off into the inky twilight, and your instructor has you engage the autopilot coupled to the GPS to activate the flight plan you programmed earlier. A quick check of real-time satellite weather confirms the positive forecast. As you climb, you scan the skies for conflicting traffic and verify with a quick look at the traffic overlay on your PFD. You tap the secondary display screen to bring up a destination airport diagram and discuss it with your instructor over the quiet hum of your ANR headsets.

The aforementioned scenario now is an everyday occurrence, but it would have been pure fiction in the GA world of the past. Aviation has changed so much in the last 10 years that it barely resembles what most people imagine when they think “general aviation.” In fact, most contemporary airliners lack the capabilities that many newer GA airplanes have.

Flight training, too, has changed dramatically along the way. From the airplanes themselves to the way we’re taught, becoming a pilot has never been more interesting or exciting.

The Airplanes: Not Your Grandfather’s Cessna
Like a word-association test, mention learning to fly, and most people automatically think of “Cessna” or “Piper.” Those two names conjure up images of angular, brown-striped airframes with a zillion gauges, faded tan upholstery and a crackly radio. But today, there’s so much more to be excited about.

In 2005, when the FAA created the light-sport aircraft (LSA) category, it uncorked a genie. LSA represent both a classification of light aircraft and a new kind of pilot certificate: the sport pilot certificate. Both are huge developments in an industry that has remained largely unchanged since the 1940s.

LSA are limited to two seats, a max takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds and a max level-flight airspeed of 120 knots (140 mph), which make them perfect platforms for learning to fly. For the past two decades, the Cessna 172 has dominated the training arena. Before that, the Cessna 150/152 and the Piper Cherokee series of aircraft held court. Each represents decades-old design.

By contrast, different manufacturing requirements for LSA have opened the field to smaller, more innovative airplane manufacturers. Suddenly, small companies with unique designs were able to compete with the “big boys.” The result has been a multicultural crop of nimble, reliable aircraft that share little with their ancestors. Even venerable Cessna has introduced its own LSA: the sporty, gull-wing-doored 162 Skycatcher.

LSA have less-restrictive maintenance requirements, allowing flight schools to operate them relatively inexpensively. The buy-in cost usually is much less than that of a typical standard-category airplane. Those savings are passed on to customers. While a Cessna 172SP might rent for $130 to $180 hourly, a brand-new LSA can rent for $90 to $120 hourly. Most LSA use less fuel, fly faster and have comfort and safety features older airplanes lack.

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