Atlanta pilot Glenn Kidd passed his light-sport checkride in just 32 flight hours in a German-built Fk9 Mk IV.
In the seven years since FAA created the sport pilot/light-sport aircraft (SP/LSA) category, even with economic woes, nearly 2,000 LSA now grace America’s skies. Because of the rule, we have recreational aircraft to fly locally or cross-country, at speeds of up to 120 knots, for hundreds of miles on a single tank-up. They land under 45 knots; you can do your own light maintenance; you can build one from a kit; most of all, they’re easy and fun to fly. All you need is training.
Spot landing in vats of butterscotch pudding? Short-field takeoffs over teacups filled with baby chihuahuas for prize money? Let’s hope we never see that reality TV show. But if audiences could vicariously get a feel for the joyful dream all pilots share, aviation might well bloom again. Every pilot starts with that dream: a magical compulsion to engage the mysteries of the sky. Let’s meet a few.
John Auchincloss is a lawyer at a busy financial firm, who faced a familiar challenge: how to find time to train. “I tried to fly every weekend,” he says after earning his license in 2010. “But travel and Northeast weather stretched it out.”
Auchincloss began with a bang at Technam Echo at Lockwood Aviation in Sebring, Fla. “I flew 20 hours in one week alone: twice a day, morning and afternoon.” Then weather and work took their toll, adding 40 more hours over eight months in a Flight Design CTLS.
The busy lawyer reflects back on the biggest challenge with instructor John Lampson from Premier Flight in Hartford, Conn. “It took a lot of landings to get comfortable. Then, since we hadn’t done a lot of slow-flight or soft-field training, I struggled on the checkride...but got through it.”
One exciting moment came when the engine “sagged” 500 rpm just after liftoff.
“I was too far down the runway to abort, but had positive climb rate—I was solo—so I called the tower, went around and made a safe landing. We never found out what caused it. Perhaps it was water in the fuel, but that was sobering for a newbie. My earlier engine-out practice really helped.”
His checkride examiner was “determined to do every last thing. We had a three-hour oral and two hours for the practical. But he was a good guy who was out to teach me the right way to do it. Once I demonstrated it properly, he passed me. I learned a lot from him.”
With a brand-new CTLS coming his way soon, John Auchincloss plans to continue his training. “You’re more likely to be a safer pilot.”
A Brave New World
Ming Liu, an electronics engineer from Tallahassee, had another challenge during his training: getting comfortable with flying itself. “I was very tense,” he says. “I was afraid of every sudden move, every thermal, but I knew I had to overcome all these things.”
Liu stayed with it and got his sport pilot license in 50 hours total time. Sheer tenacity and feeling very comfortable with his instructor were big assets. “It was a good experience,” he recalls, “even with several breaks in my training: I had to drive six hours for each lesson.”
Liu was gung ho to start with a 10-day initial training stint. “But I never soloed...the weather wasn’t cooperative, and it was all too new.”
His trainer was a Tecnam Echo. “Very forgiving; I really like that plane. Landings were a challenge in the beginning. At times, I had some doubt that I could accomplish the training.”
How did his flight instructors—he worked with two throughout his training—help him through it all?
“They pushed me. We did a lot of crosswind training, too, so I really had confidence by the time I took my checkride.” If he had it to do over, Liu would take the written test right away, then do an accelerated flight program—with no breaks. Meanwhile, a local flight school expects a Cessna Skycatcher soon: No more six-hour drives for Mr. Liu!
Construction company owner Don Ihlefeld bought his Paradise P1 LSA before even beginning his sport pilot training. After three weeks, he passed his checkride with 35 hours logged.
Don Ihlefeld, a construction company owner in Rhode Island, started his sport pilot training by buying the airplane first! “I took all my lessons in my Paradise P1. My instructor flew it to Pine Island, Fla., and we’d fly all morning, break, then all afternoon. Three weeks later, more of the same. I did backslide a bit in skill during breaks.”
He soloed, signed up for his checkride and passed with a total of 35 hours under his belt.
“My instructor, Joe Crocker, really helped by spending a lot of extra time with me. My only real problem was judging final touchdown. I made a lot of bad landings, and it was driving me crazy!”
Crocker told him he wasn’t looking far enough down the runway. “I’d taken ultralight lessons 25 years ago, and got used to looking too close. Soon as I lifted my eyes toward the horizon, everything came into perspective. I could judge the runway coming up better.”
Since getting his license a few months ago, he’s wracked up 170 hours, including a recent flight to the Bahamas.
On one flight, Ihlefeld called the tower. A controller asked him in rapid-fire “tower-speak” for his airplane type.
“Repeat that please?” he radioed back, unable to understand the transmission.
“What is your airplane type?”
Ihlefeld was still confused. “Please, would you repeat that?”
“SAY TYPE!” the controller yelled.
“TYPE!” the startled pilot shouted back. A split second later he realized what he had said, and they both shared a good laugh.
Shana Gutovich, 21 years old, works at Santa Monica Flyers and is training in the company’s SportCruiser, which she likens to “a Jaguar or upscale Audi.”
Too Small To Fly? Bah!
Young Shana Gutovich, just 21, loves the idea of flight so much, she went to work for a fledgling LSA school in California...and soon became its VP! One big perk: Her boss, Charlie Thompson of Santa Monica Flyers, is teaching her to fly. She took an intro Cessna 172 flight as a teen, but was intimidated by the size of the venerable trainer.
The 5' 2" student pilot thought, “How can I work all these instruments? And it’s huge! I can’t see out the window or over the panel.”
Then she met the SportCruiser: Love at first flight! “Oh, so much more spacious. The panel seems simpler than an older Cessna. It’s a lot less intimidating, a lot easier to learn in.”
Though she needs a seat cushion, reaching the rudder pedals and seeing over the low-profile glare shield is no problem. Flying the airplane as a petite newbie is a breeze. “It’s so intuitive and ultraresponsive to control movements. I don’t have to fight it.” She likens the sleek, low-wing LSA to “a Jaguar or upscale Audi: Tap the gas and it flies; tap the brakes and it stops.”
Scheduling flight time is the challenge: The company is so busy with students, she has to book well in advance. Her biggest in-flight challenge so far? The infamous L.A. basin air traffic and noise-abatement requirements at SMO. “It’s...kind of crazy!”
Her advice to potential students: “LSA is a great thing to check out. It’s cheaper, takes less time...and it’s so much easier to see out the window.”
“Break A Leg!”
Not every student pilot gets to test the structural strength of a new LSA, but for Glenn Kidd of Atlanta, it was a revelatory experience. As sales manager for a major aerospace company, Kidd travels a lot, so training took eight months to complete. Even so, he passed the checkride with only 32 flight hours.
Training in the German-built Fk9 Mk IV composite high-wing was so enjoyable, he bought Fk’s latest model, the Sparrow. “I wondered how safe it would be, compared to a Cessna 172. The weight of the airplane isn’t much more than me and my instructor!”
His worries were quickly put to rest once in the air. “I also flew the Flight Design CT line. Both are great airplanes, and so easy to control.”
As is true of many students, landings were his biggest challenge. “I bet it took 50 tries to land by myself! Call it a glass ceiling or mental roadblock, but the sensitivity to hand movements compared to a 172 was a challenge. In ground effect, I would pull back too much and flare early. I did lots of go-arounds.”
Once his flight instructor realized the problem, they drilled for three straight days. “Getting comfortable slowing the aircraft down to a nice soft touchdown was the key.”
Early in his training, he inadvertently tested the Fk’s structural integrity. “I stalled it from 10 feet up. It dropped straight down and broke both mains! My instructor did everything perfectly: He hit the gas, we went around and, with the wheels dangling from shredded fiberglass legs, he landed it on grass, so slow I could have run beside the airplane.”
Hansen Air Group, the Fk dealer, came right out, jacked up the airplane, replaced the gear, and off they went.
By The Numbers
Finding the right instructor en route to a successful checkride is vital. Todd Westhuis, office director for New York State’s DOT, is an engineer but also a former Army cavalry officer.
“Learning to fly was a lifelong dream of mine. My instructor was also former military, which helped me get over the trickier parts.”
Both went at the task with rigorous discipline. “We pressed hard. I put in many hours studying and scheduled two blocks of flight a week.”
An early hurdle was realizing the need to “fly” the 2007 Evektor SportStar on the ground after landing. “The touchiness of the controls in transition from flare to landing to rollout was a hump for me. LSA are so light.”
“But my instructor coaxed me, talking me through it until I was ready.” In just 30 hours, he had passed the written, soloed and taken his checkride.
“Making the performance characteristics of LSA second nature was helped a lot by my instructor’s structured program. I always knew ahead of time what we’d be practicing. I’d study up and be ready to go.”
One early goal during their training was to have fun. Todd rented a SportStar from South Albany Airport (4B0) to fly to an EAA pancake breakfast at idyllic Kline Kill Field (NY1). “Making the short jaunt to that 4,000-foot grass strip was my finish line during training: I love doing soft-field landings on the grass there. I’ve even gone back a couple times to practice.”
Westhuis’ next goal is the private pilot license. His advice to student pilots? “LSA is a great way to get into aviation. To be successful, you just have to study. Lots of practice—that’s the key.”
|• Sport pilots may fly single-engine LSA, gliders, airships/balloons, gyroplanes, powered parachutes or weight-shift control aircraft (i.e. “trikes”), with appropriate training and sign-offs.
• Pilots must meet medical requirements with either:
—a third-class or higher medical.
—a valid U.S. state driver’s license. (Pilots using the driver’s-license qualification “self-certify” medical fitness to fly. This means they must not know of or suspect medical conditions making it unsafe to operate an LSA. The well-discussed catch: The driver’s license is valid only if the pilot has never failed an FAA medical exam, or if a medical problem was cleared and the medical reinstated.)
• Sport pilots may fly in Class E and Class G airspace.
• Class B, C and D airspace are legal with additional training and CFI endorsement.
• Key restrictions:
—No night flying, roughly 20 to 25 minutes after sunset. Flight during civil twilight requires lights on the aircraft.
—No IFR flight; day VFR only.
—No flight above 10,000 feet MSL. Exception: Pilots may fly above 10K to maintain a safe buffer of no more than 2,000 AGL over high terrain.
• Basic requirements:
—18 years old.
—Flight time counts toward higher ratings (unless the instructor is a CFI-S—sport pilot-only instructor).
—Can only act as pilot in command with one other person aboard.
—Some vintage production aircraft qualify as LSA, e.g., Piper Cubs and Aeronca.
Basic LSA Definition:
|• Single or two-seat aircraft only.
• Maximum takeoff weight: 1,320 pounds (1,430 pounds for seaplanes).
• Max stall (clean): 45 kts.
• Max continuous power speed: 120 kts.
• Airframe limitations:
—single reciprocating engine.
—mdash;fixed, ground-adjustable pitch or feathering prop.
—fixed landing gear (or retractable for glider, or “repositionable” for water ops)
• Can be S-LSA (manufactured ready to fly) or E-LSA (kit or plans-built airplane). All LSA must meet ASTM consensus standards
• Owners can do light maintenance.