ONE IMPORTANT LESSON. Three years of S-LSA data demonstrate that pilots need to recognize and respect the inherent differences between GA and light-sport airplanes.
Tooling 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 (www.avemco.com). Adams was on scene to present what Avemco has learned, based on three years of data, from S-LSA accidents. I wanted an expert’s overview on what’s causing LSA mishaps and where pilots and industry can improve. The old bottom line holds true, whatever schoolyard you play in: The fewer accidents, the less it costs all of us. After talking with Adams, I’m betting you’ll be as surprised at his report as I was.
“The first thing is this,” he told me by phone after the show, “all my conclusions come from Avemco’s data. We don’t have access to other companies’ data.”
The first surprise is that Avemco has lost money on LSA insurance for all three of the years from which the data was mined—and expects that trend to continue for another one to two years.
“We anticipated at least three years of loss going in,” said Adams. “We want the industry to thrive; we plan to be in it, to work with the industry and to help establish a thriving market. Part of achieving that is to let the industry know what we’re discovering from our claims so that it can address challenges and make products more viable to a broader market.”
Avemco’s data draws on 565 policy years of S-LSA insurance coverage. A policy year is one airplane insured for one year.
It’s important to note that the Avemco study looks at only S-LSA, not E-LSA, accidents. It also doesn’t cover flight instructors, dealers or FBOs. All claims paid have been to private owners flying LSA for personal pleasure.
The second surprise: Accident-wise, how well are LSA pilots stacking up against general aviation pilots? The answer is...not so well. “We’ve determined the frequency of loss in tricycle-gear LSA to be twice as bad as the general aviation fleet. Compared to Cessna 152s and 172s, Piper Cherokees, Grummans and so on, an S-LSA has the potential for an accident twice as often as a general aviation airplane.” Furthermore, Adams reported, tailwheel S-LSA models have a frequency of loss 4.5 times as bad as their GA counterparts!
“This was baffling to me,” Adams admitted. “After all, there are lots of tailwheel LSA. Two of the leaders in the market have said they build essentially carbon copies of the original Piper Cub and Super Cub. So something was different—but what?”
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!
“One LSA instructor I know,” said Adams, “claims it’s easier to train someone to be a sport pilot who doesn’t have any flight experience, rather than to transition experienced GA pilots. She believes veteran pilots have prejudices about how an airplane should fly, and the motor skills they’ve learned to apply to certain situations in those types of aircraft don’t always work in an LSA.”
An interesting side note: Europe hasn’t experienced the same accident ratio between GA and LSA flight. “I think that’s because a majority of their pilots have lots of microlight flying experience. We believe pilots who go from lighter to heavier aircraft have easier transitions than the other way around.”
Adams takes a page from his personal experience regarding crosswind landings. “If the manual says your airplane can handle up to 18 knots of crosswind, I always decrease that. My skills aren’t usually going to be up to the maximum capability of the aircraft. I’d guess that’s true for most pilots.”
Another accident gremlin turns out to be the need for good rudder work. Many GA airplanes can be flown quite adequately with your flippers flat on the floor. Not so with LSA. They can bite you if you don’t hone your rudder skills, and I don’t mean just taildraggers. Many tricycle LSA require healthy rudder input in takeoff and landing mode, especially during turbulent and crosswind conditions. I’ve flown more than one tri-gear LSA that wants as much, or more, rudder in flight than a Cub or a Kitfox, all the way down to the ground.
Mike Adams is trying to teach us this: We need to consider LSA as different aircraft. They will behave, especially in “textured” air, more like ultralights than fully loaded Bonanzas.
Said Adams, “To counter the transition training problem, we told dealers and manufacturers, ‘We want longer checkout flights: five hours minimum. And we want your instructors to sign off the pilot after a flight review.’ We had to make sure someone was verifying that the new pilot could actually fly the airplane safely. That’s what we’d been missing.”
Avemco’s new requirements became policy at the end of 2007.
[Next month, we’ll wrap up our insider’s look at LSA flight safety with Avemco’s Mike Adams.]