On Having to Get There

After having told my story about aborting a flight due to unexpected weather, you may be asking yourself why I’m writing about this, too. I’m going a little deeper this time, not because I think you didn’t get what I was saying but because I read an article the other day extolling the virtues of getting an instrument rating. I don’t disagree with that; but no matter if you have an instrument rating and can use it or are flying VFR, an underlying mindset of “having to get there” is very dangerous, and it sometimes may not be so clear to you that you have it.

For instance, the author in that article stated that one of the reasons to get an instrument rating was that “being limited to VFR-only flying far too often puts you in the dilemma of having to choose between being stranded somewhere or pushing your luck”. I submit that there is a hint of “get home-itis” in that mindset. I don’t disagree that having an instrument rating and being instrument proficient does increase the utility of your airplane and, if used wisely, increases your safety; but flying with the proper perspective is the real issue. No matter what airplane you are flying or what type of flying you are doing, your Number One Priority needs to be staying alive and unhurt. Anytime you start thinking you “gotta get there”, you’re flying in the wrong direction.

As always, weighing the risk factors involved in a flight is one of the most important duties a pilot must perform, and that starts with being honest about your condition and capabilities, those of your airplane, and performing a realistic evaluation of the external conditions you’re going to have to deal with. Of course, weather is sometimes the most uncertain part; even though weather forecasting is generally accurate, it is still an art as well as a science. (The earth has a life of its own, and what it’s going to do is not always predictable by us humans.) So here’s how I look at a cross-country flight as a VFR Sport Pilot:

(1) The Sport Pilot rules are designed to keep low time pilots out of trouble and are what I must follow to remain safe and legal. I don’t always like all of them; I think that the “without visual reference to the surface” part of the rule is too restrictive for already certificated pilots (Private or above) flying under Light Sport rules. But, if I stay with them, I won’t fly inadvertently into IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) or have an emergency push me into them, even if it’s very inconvenient…and it sometimes is!

(2) In general, whenever I am planning a long VFR flight (more than 6-8 hours flight time out or stays more than two days), I pack a couple of extra days into the schedule to accommodate changes in weather. Weather forecasts more than 3 days in advance can’t really be depended on; and even inside that window, weather sometimes changes in unanticipated ways. If I must be somewhere on a tight schedule and still choose to fly VFR, I think through a backup plan to get home, even if it means retrieving my airplane later. (And I have done just that..left my airplane somewhere and retrieved it later when the weather got better. It’s not fun and can be expensive, but it’s less expensive than a wrecked airplane and a lot less costly than being dead.)

(3) If my first instinct is to divert or land, I do it! It’s always easier to sort things out on the ground when I know me, my passenger, and my airplane are safe. If I land when I didn’t really need to, so what? Better that than not landing when I did need to and then having to tell the FAA or NTSB about it…if I survived it.

(4) Despite what some of my pilot buddies have told me, I’d like to die of old age and not in an airplane.

When I was trying to fly to see my one of my sons, who was visiting the States during an Afghanistan deployment, I was badly tempted to press ahead with that flight. I initially felt I could simply override the autopilot’s malfunctioning pitch servo and thought we had it powered down, but I chose not to go because over the years I have held myself to conservative standards about what was acceptable to fly with and what wasn’t. I thought about the consequences of being wrong and aborted. I launched out the next day after working with my A&P to ensure the airplane was in a known and workable configuration. I had done what I thought was a very thorough weather check, so I couldn’t believe it when I encountered the unforecast low layer. I couldn’t believe I was running into a second setback. But I had to acknowledge to myself the situation wasn’t what I was expecting, I didn’t really know what was going on, and I needed more information. XM weather in the airplane saved me from having to call Flight Watch or flying further into bad conditions; I knew there were IFR conditions ahead that had been supposed to clear. So, I diverted to Jennings, sorted out what I could on the ground, and decided to turn around and go home before the weather trapped me where I was. While it wasn’t the first time I had ever turned around to stay out of IFR weather, I hated calling ahead and telling those waiting I wasn’t going to make it; but it was what I had to do to keep myself out of harm’s way.

When you drop that idea of “having to get there” which is a variant of “Better dead than look bad”, you might get to fly at least one more day.

The Promise of Light Sport

For those of us involved in general aviation, Light Sport is one of the most promising evolutions to find its way into U.S. aviation in some time. It was intended to make it easier for people to both start and continue to fly from economics’ and requirements’ standpoints. Getting a Light Sport rating takes about half the flight time required for the private pilot certificate and eliminates the requirement to obtain medical clearance from the FAA by allowing pilots to fly using a driver’s license and self-certification. It also attempts to lower costs by providing high-tech, and lower costing new aircraft to the community, a task at which it has been mostly successful. I’ve been flying Light Sport for over three years after getting my Commercial certificate and Instrument pilot rating and recently got my Certified Flight Instructor-Light Sport certificate. I am believer in the true promise of Light Sport and what it can do for general aviation.

The term “Light Sport” applies to both a class of aircraft and a pilot rating, both of which are expanded upon in Federal Aviation Regulations. A Light Sport aircraft is defined as a single or two-place aircraft weighing less than 1320 pounds at max gross weight for a land airplane (1430 lbs seaplane), that has a fixed or ground-adjustable propeller, fixed landing gear, cruises no faster than 120 knots (135 mph) and has a stalling speed no faster than 45 knots (without the use of “lift enhancing devices” e.g., flaps). There are manufactured airplanes that fit this category (S-LSA), kit-built airplanes built to fit this category (E-LSA), and some older airplanes that fit the characteristics of the category and therefore are defacto LSA’s that can be used by Light Sport pilots. A Light Sport pilot can fly any of these airplanes and fly them in the daytime in “good weather” anywhere within the Unites States without jumping through any other hoops. The advantage to becoming a Light Sport pilot vice a Recreational pilot is you have more freedom to go where you want, and the advantage to becoming a Light Sport pilot vice a Private Pilot is that you spend less time and money getting there. The advantage to flying as a Light Sport pilot if you already are a Private pilot or higher is that you can fly using a FAA medical certificate or your driver’s license; and you can get into newer, sometimes more advanced aircraft for the same or less cost than flying much older airplanes.

The lack of a medical certificate and less flight time required easily raise questions about whether training for Light Sport is less safe than training as a Private Pilot. First, let’s talk realistically about the medical end of things. Most of us pilots feel that FAA medical requirements for flying small, single-engine airplanes are a bit overblown; while having to maintain a Third Class medical can act in the best interests of a pilot, its justification is actually to protect the public. Because it only provides a minimal “spot check” of a pilot’s medical condition at any one time, it has a very limited value in predicting a pilot’s predilection to suffer any medical incapacitation. The major control that keeps pilots from flying when they need to be on the ground is a pilot’s knowledge of his condition and his strong sense of self-presentation. Most flying in this category does not usually involve high g-forces or high-altitude flight; therefore, most people agree that if you are healthy enough to drive a car, you are healthy enough to fly a small airplane. This is the argument that was successfully used to allow Light Sport pilots to use their driver’s license to fly instead of going through the hassles and expense of getting and maintaining a FAA medical certificate. Medical incapacitations even within the FAA medical system only account for a percent or two of accidents or incidents that occur, and there has been no change in that statistic since the Driver’s license approach was adopted. Secondly, current law restricts light sport airplane flight to 10,000 feet MSL or 2000 feet above the ground, ensuring that Light Sport pilots are operating at altitudes below those where hypoxia (lack of oxygen) becomes a factor. (And even if you push the 2000 foot part of the rule to fly above the Rockies, other FAA rules about pilot use of supplemental oxygen to avoid hypoxia kick in.) Even if the FAA proved to be wrong about it all, Light Sport airplanes (LSA’s) are VERY small airplanes; hence the risk to the public posed by these airplanes is minimal, even if an accident does occur.

Likewise, let’s look at safety from a training standpoint. Even though Light Sport training can be done in half the time it takes to get a Private Pilot rating, the training for most flight phases and maneuvers is almost identical. Basic flying techniques, airplane handling maneuvers and training, and cross-country training are exactly the same. (In fact, the light weight and high performance of some LSA’s will ensure your stick and rudder skills are better than those achieved in many older standard category trainers.) Light Sport achieves its efficiencies mainly by eliminating training for night flight, which includes local and cross-country training, and by allowing for slightly shorter cross-country flights during the day. There is slightly less instrument training as well, though basic instrument control is taught for every pilot certificate. Training to fly in airspace that requires Air Traffic Control permission (Class B, C, and D) is optional for Light Sport, though…especially for flying around Houston…is highly desirable and encouraged. So, there isn’t as much difference when training between the two ratings as one might think, which may can Light Sport a good starting point for any pilot.

The initial hope was that costs for new Light Sport airplanes would come in at the cost of a high-priced car, i.e., about sixty-thousand dollars. While there are a few that do come in at that price point, the more capable planes are hitting the market at twice that. That said, many of the new Light Sport aircraft use modern materials and construction techniques and are equipped with modern avionics and navigational systems, putting them years ahead of most 1950’s era general aviation trainers. Additionally, though their cost new is higher than many people can afford, they are still only half to a third as expensive as a new general aviation airplane from a conventional manufacturer; their prices drop into the “much more affordable” range when they hit the used market, if you know what you’re doing.
Like in any other financial endeavor, you need to know what the real market worth of any LSA is before you plunk any money down, lest you get ripped off.

Our Flight Design CTSW (Composite Technology Short Wing) airplane is a good example of what I’m saying. Its structure is made from composite materials (plastic, fiberglass, aramid, and Kevlar) that give it an empty weight of seven hundred thirty six pounds. Its Rotax powerplant burns only five gallons an hour of gas but climbs it at nine hundred feet per minute (which is really 500-1000 feet per minute depending upon load and conditions) and cruises it at 112 knots (129 mph). For navigational gear and situational awareness, the airplane is equipped with a Garmin 496 moving map GPS navigational system that displays weather radar information relayed to it by satellite, all of which couples into a two-axis autopilot. New, the airplane cost a little over a hundred thousand dollars; we bought it when it was three years old for just under eighty thousand; this model can be had in the sixty thousand dollar range today. The new revised version of this airplane, called the CTLS (Composite Technology Light Sport) costs between one hundred ten to one hundred fifty thousand dollars; you can find some on the market between eighty and a hundred thousand. That said, there are new Light Sport airplanes in the sixty thousand dollar range; as always the lower cost reflects either a different or lesser capability. While older standard category small airplanes can be had for as little as twenty thousand dollars, many newer standard category general aviation aircraft start at two hundred thousand dollars and go up from there. So, Light Sport airplanes do fill in a price and capability gap that makes getting newer airplanes more affordable, even if the costs are not sometimes as low as had been initially envisioned.

The promise of Light Sport is the promise of flight for anyone who is willing to pursue it. For new pilots, it will get you off on your own (flying cross-country) in less time and with less money expended than pursuing your Private rating. For pilots already certificated, it’s a way to keep flying with less cost and hassle than otherwise staying in the system. For both groups, it can also be a way to maintain and improve stick and rudder skills, as well as provide a door into ownership of newer, capable airplanes at a lower price. That’s not to say it’s a perfect approach; there are more threats and caveats to its life than there ought to be; come back and revisit this blog to learn about those; I’ll be writing about them next. But, suffice it to say, I believe Light Sport is indeed a new door of opportunity for pilots in this country, and one that deserves to be both preserved and pursued.