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What's All This About Sport Pilot/Light-Sport Aircraft?

In 2001, the FAA confirmed that it would soon propose a major addition to regulations relating to recreational flying. Called sport pilot/light-sport aircraft (LSA), the proposal is among the most complex, far-reaching changes ever to the FARs, and the objective is to simplify the requirements and reduce the cost for people who want to engage in aviation as a recreational activity.

Why would the FAA spend great amounts of time and money on recreational flying? The answer is related to a declining active pilot population in the U.S. over recent decades. That is worrisome because unlike in the past, when airlines and other commercial aviation activity drew most of its pilots from the military and from pilots trained under the GI Bill, advancement of pilots into business aviation today is more often from general aviation sources with students paying their own way.

The current high cost of training-even for the private pilot license-and the cost of remaining proficient once licensed is a major factor in the decline of general aviation flight hours compared with the 1970s and '80s.

Aircraft Picture

Sport Pilot/LSA Origins

Sport pilot/LSA began in the early 1990s when the ultralight community petitioned the FAA to liberalize the regulations to allow heavier, faster and more capable aircraft…and to allow ultralight pilots to carry a passenger. Instead of taking this route, the FAA decided to retain the ultralight rule, FAR Part 103, but to generate an entirely new category of pilot's license and a new category of aircraft they could fly.

In February 2002, the FAA released its sport pilot/light-sport aircraft notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) and asked for public comment during a 90-day period. On May 6, 2002, the public comment period closed with more than 4000 comments and suggestions logged. After the final rule is announced-expected by late 2003 or early in '04-the FAA and the light-aircraft industry expect a major increase in recreational flight resulting from thousands of new pilots and new aircraft.

LSA was defined in the NPRM as:

"A simple single-seat or two-seat aircraft with a maximum gross weight of 1320 pounds, a maximum level speed of 115 knots, a maximum stall speed of 39 knots, a maximum of one engine, and no complex systems such as in-flight variable-pitch propellers or retractable gear".

Any aircraft that meets the definition of a light-sport aircraft as called out in FAR Part 1.1 is eligible to be operated by a sport pilot. These aircraft can be certificated in any category, such as standard, experimental amateur-built, experimental exhibition, experimental light-sport aircraft (E-LSA), or special light-sport aircraft (S-LSA).

New categories of aircraft never before regulated by the FAA would be included. The types would include airplanes, gliders, weight-shift (powered trikes), lighter than air (balloons and blimps), gyroplanes and powered parachutes. Pilots would obtain a logbook signoff from an instructor for each type of aircraft to be flown.

Light-sport aircraft would come from four sources:

  • Existing certified, manufactured aircraft that meet the definition. For example, Piper J-3 Cubs and Aeronca 7AC Champions would qualify
  • Amateur-built, Experimental-category homebuilts that meet the LSA definition. There are many.
  • Light-sport Special, a new category of factory-built, ready-to-fly aircraft certified under a new concept termed consensus standards that would be adopted by the aviation community. These aircraft could be used in flight training and could be rented
  • Light-sport Experimental, which would be produced as kits by factories for assembly by customers. Unlike the amateur-built Experimental category, however, these kits could be nearly complete by the factory. They would conform to the consensus standards, but they could not be used for hire (rental).Consensus Standards?

A key to the success of the proposal is adoption of the required consensus standards by the manufacturing community and the FAA before the final rule becomes effective, now expected sometime in 2004, although details of the final rule may be announced at any time. The consensus standards requirement is a major departure (mandated by congressional legislation in 1996) from the FAA's standard mode of operation, and it is a huge task for the recreational aircraft industry.

The requirement is for industry-wide standards for design, manufacturing, testing, quality assurance, documentation and follow-up support. In early 2002, EAA proposed engaging ASTM International, an independent, nonprofit, 100+-year-old test standards organization for administering the entire consensus standards activity. ASTM does not charge for its administration and has a long track record of helping industries develop their own standards. ASTM was elected to assist, and the process of developing LSA standards began immediately. The work is conducted primarily by volunteers using e-mail.

Make/Model

The sport pilot/light sport aircraft NPRM encourages manufacturers to group together aircraft with similar handling characteristics. This will enable sport pilots to self-endorse rather than obtaining an instructor's endorsement for each make and model of aircraft. Maneuvers specified by the manufacturer in the pilot's operating handbook must be followed by the sport pilot to self-endorse prior to carrying a passenger. The Make/Model Task Group will be meeting at the Marriott Waterside on 19 Nov 2003.

FAA Definition of a Light Sport Aircraft

Light-sport aircraft means an aircraft, other than a helicopter or powered-lift that, since its original certification, has continued to meet the following:

  • A maximum takeoff weight of not more than
    • 660 pounds (300 kilograms) for lighter-than-air aircraft;
    • 1,320 pounds (600 kilograms) for aircraft not intended for operation on water; or
    • 1,430 pounds (650 kilograms) for an aircraft intended for operation on water.
  • A maximum airspeed in level flight with maximum continuous power (VH) of not more than 120 knots CAS under standard atmospheric conditions at sea level.
  • A maximum never-exceed speed (VNE) of not more than 120 knots CAS for a glider.
  • A maximum stalling speed or minimum steady flight speed without the use of lift-enhancing devices (VS1) of not more than 45 knots CAS at the aircraft's maximum certificated takeoff weight and most critical center of gravity.
  • A maximum seating capacity of no more than two persons, including the pilot.
  • A single, reciprocating engine, if powered.
  • A fixed or ground-adjustable propeller if a powered aircraft other than a powered glider.
  • A fixed or autofeathering propeller system if a powered glider.
  • A fixed-pitch, semi-rigid, teetering, two-blade rotor system, if a gyroplane.
  • A non pressurized cabin, if equipped with a cabin.
  • Fixed landing gear, except for an aircraft intended for operation on water or a glider.
  • Fixed or repositionable landing gear, or a hull, for an aircraft intended for operation on water.
  • Fixed or retractable landing gear for a glider.