The Mixed Progress of Light Sport

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Light Sport experiment. While it has achieved some of the goals intended for it, its progress has been mixed. There are a lot of analysis and articles popping up about this subject now, largely by people not involved in it. I’m entering the fray as someone who has been flying Light Sport exclusively since 2009, is a Light Sport CFI and ran a small Light Sport flight school, and as an owner of a 2006 Flight Design CTSW. So you understand my background and therefore the experience behind my comments, I hold FAA Commercial and Instrument pilots ratings (ASEL) and have about 1700 hours of pilot time and another 1100 hours of flight time as a Radar Intercept Officer in F-14A Tomcats. I also worked in the space shuttle program as an astronaut and flight controller trainer for a decade and served in space shuttle program as a flight operations safety engineer for fourteen years. So, I am familiar with a wide variety of aircraft, how they fly, and what it takes to operate them.

For my wife and I, Light Sport has enabled us to stay involved in aviation when it would otherwise have been questionable. Some of that has been the “not having to maintain a medical” aspect (and I could get one if I wanted to go through the hassle), and some of it has been simple economics. Obviously, the Light Sport restriction of “Day VFR” fits the flying we do; while I always enjoyed instrument flying, my wife hates the idea. She wants to look out the window at something other than clouds, fog, and rain. We previously owned a 1976 Grumman Cheetah; and though the airplane met our needs, maintenance was a major issue, eventually causing us to sell it. My wife was only open to owning another airplane if we could get something newer. Only a lightly used Light Sport airplane fit that bill in a budget range we could afford. We chose a Flight Design CTSW because it possessed the right balance of cost, economy of operation, payload capability, cross-country range and speed, comfort, and features. In other words, we bought it to travel all over the country, not something just to hop puddles with on a Sunday afternoon.

Flying the CTSW has been both a joy and a challenge. It’s something I intend to keep flying even if the Pilot Protection Act passes. (Despite all the press about it coming from AOPA, the website, which rates the probability of any particular bill getting enacted, gives it only a 3% chance.) I don’t see Light Sport going away, and I believe in its viability.

So, why hasn’t Light Sport “saved” general aviation? Why has its progress been a mixed bag? That’s what I’m now going to discuss, starting first with what has worked.

What has worked:

(1) It has spawned new, lower cost aircraft.
(2) It has made it somewhat easier to bring new technologies into general aviation. (Experimental is still the easiest.)
(3) It has kept certified pilots involved with aviation longer than they would have otherwise been.
(4) It has lowered the financial barrier to become a pilot and an owner of a newer aircraft.
(5) It has demonstrated that the Third Class medical for this class of flying adds little or nothing when it comes to protecting the public.

What hasn’t worked:

(1) The cost of buying a new aircraft has not fallen as far as people had hoped, and especially far enough to make a difference from a “critical mass” standpoint.
(2) The cost of owning and maintaining the aircraft is less than most general aviation singles, but not significantly so.
(3) Insurance costs are still a burden to entry for a new owner and even getting insurance is a significant problem for flight schools.
(4) What is truly legal is often open to interpretation.
(5) There are not as many new pilot starts as hoped for.
(6) The Light Sport CFI rating is not as useful as it could be to the industry.

So, let’s talk about what’s not working and why it’s not working. Some of the reasons why involve the FAA, the manufacturers, and some of it lies within the pilot community itself.

(1) The cost of buying a new aircraft has not fallen as far as people had hoped, and especially far enough to make a difference from a “critical mass” standpoint.

Bringing down costs was one of the main reasons why Light Sport was pursued; everyone knows how expensive it is to get your pilot rating and how expensive it can be to own and fly an aircraft. The reasoning was, and I believe it was correct, that if you could get the cost of an aircraft down to that of a high-end car, more people would buy in. There are some Light Sport aircraft that pop out of the oven at that price range ($60,000-$70,000), but most of the most popular types of LSA’s cost more than twice that ($130,000 – $160,000), i.e., still as much as a house. Some of the cost is due to the high-tech materials and the relatively low production numbers of the higher performing LSA’s. But, disturbingly, much of the more recent cost increases have been due to the push toward “standard” higher tech gear and engines not truly necessary for this type of flying. If this part of the Light Sport equation is to hold true, manufacturers need to concentrate more on getting costs down while at least not decreasing the actual utility of their aircraft (read that as “useful load”). Overall, if costs do not come down more than they have, aviation will still stay stuck in the public mind as the playground of the elite, even though we know that’s not true.

(2) The cost of owning and maintaining the aircraft is less than most general aviation singles but not significantly so.

Like every aircraft, the required maintenance to maintain airworthiness is driven by the Federal Aviation Regulations. However, this was not clear to everyone in the community for a long time. Initially, all maintenance requirements (including manufacturer required training of maintainers) laid out by manufacturers were taken as law instead of questions of warranty. Rotax, in particular, seems to often outlay requirements that significantly drive up ownership costs (the 5 year change out of all rubber in the engine being one example). It’s hard to get a conditional inspection for under several thousand dollars, so added requirements just make things worse. (I know I’m not going to solve the preventative maintenance versus needed maintenance argument here, but we had a fuel hose installed due to this requirement bust a year later. We were lucky it happened on the ground.) Requiring a three day class that costs $500 to teach an owner how to change oil and plugs (something that can be learned with online videos in a lot less time and for a lot less money, even under a subscription) is an example of overkill and where, eventually, people are simply driven out of aviation because they can’t afford it.

(3) Insurance costs are still a burden to entry for a new owner and even getting insurance is a significant problem for flight schools.

When we first bought our airplane, our insurance costs us about $1500 a year. This was through Avemco and covered the airplane at the loan value (about$70K), liability, and included my wife as a student pilot. That cost held in until we decided to open a “flight school”, which consisted of our airplane and me as a Light Sport CFI. Avemco would not cover (and still won’t) a commercial policy for a Light Sport flight school. That policy cost us just under $5000. Unfortunately for us, we wound up with a claim only a few months after opening our doors. One of our renters hit a Chimney Swift that punched a three-inch hole in the canopy. That put us down for ten weeks (which will be the subject of another blog) and cost, when all expenses were totaled, almost $10,000. The insurance adjuster told me it was in line with the repair cost of other LSA’s they were covering. While I love the smooth lines and simplicity of composite structure, repair times are often long and expenses high. In the flight training business, it’s not a matter of “if” you’re going to have a claim but “when”. So, not only do you have long downtimes (which can be even longer if parts are not readily available, but that kind of expense drives insurance costs up quickly. This experience, and the personal costs of it, are why we quit renting our aircraft, something we will only consider again if we also have a second airplane.

When our policy came up for renewal, we could get coverage only with the company that initially insured us. Secondly, our personal insurance increased by a third. Our insurance broker told us that the Light Sport insurance market had “hardened” over the last year. I believe this is due to the high cost of repairs, and that’s a result of the design of the aircraft.

Light Sport accident rates are not significantly different than those of the rest of general aviation, so repair costs are the other factor driving costs up. A harder look at reparability during the design process is needed.

Until that happens, the increasing costs of LSA’s will also drive repair costs upward, resulting in an upward spiral that will hurt us all.

(4) What is truly legal is often open to interpretation.

Most FAR’s have been around for a long time, much longer than the Light Sport rules, even though they have been around for a decade. While the Light Sport rules were written to make them easier to understand, they were not well integrated into the rest of the rules. This has resulted in a conflict between what pilots and instructors used to know (i.e., Part 61 was pilot certification requirements and Part 91 was operating rules) and what is true now for Light Sport (i.e., you’ve got to know where Part 61 restrictions supersede Part 91 rules). Additionally, oversimplified explanations about Light Sport certification and requirements have left many people thinking that whatever a Light Sport manufacturer says holds, and that’s not always true. However, most publically available information (and ASTM standards are available but only at a price) is old and often out of date or based on “what’s commonly understood” instead of the actual implementation adopted by the FAA. That seems be known only to a few within AFS-610…or occasionally pops out as a letter from FAA Legal which doesn’t jive with the intent of the rules but never gets fixed. (Good luck with your local FSDO!) Light Sport issues are not on the radar at the FAA nor at the major pilot organizations, which seem content anymore to simply use Light Sport for their own ends.

(5) There are not as many new pilot starts as hoped for.

The myth about Light Sport, which I’ve seen promulgated online and heard has been spoken by official speakers at FASST presentations, is it’s mainly the already licensed guys who are involved with Light Sport. That doesn’t match up with what I saw when I had my flight school open. Most of my students were new starts, a few were student pilots who had not completed their Private, and the lowest number were already certificated pilots who wanted to transition. This shows that the interest is there to help general aviation out, but there are several things inhibiting it. They are: (1) high cost; (2) low availability of light sport airplanes (due to #1); and (3) the ignorance and attitudes of the overall aviation community toward Light Sport. (I’m not going to go into #3 now, except to say that there is a general derision of Light Sport that needs to end if we all care about general aviation’s survival; next week I’ll blog more on this.)

(6) The Light Sport CFI rating is not as useful as it could be to the industry.

As I mentioned in #4, the Light Sport rules were not as well written or integrated into the rest of the FAR’s as they needed to be. This had the unintended result of setting up the CFI-S (via an interpretation of the rules from the FAA Legal Office) so none of the dual given in an LSA, which can take more skill to fly than your standard trainer, counts toward the private pilot rating. This minimizes the CFI-S rating and Light Sport flying and needs to be fixed. The intent when the rules were written was that CFI-S dual time would count toward higher ratings, and thereby provide an easier to enter door to being a pilot, no matter what his/her eventual level. Why would we not it want it any other way?

Yet, the common advice is not to consider the Light Sport rating if your goal is to be a commercial pilot (i.e, ATP). While I understand that approach, the aviation community may be shooting itself in the foot instead of getting people in the door to stay. Better to have a Light Sport pilot flying on his own and staying (and then moving up) than a Private student who quits or is forced out by life before he gets there.

Especially when LSA access is as limited as it is…and though my first hope would be to see that improve, it is more likely to be known and flown by a Light Sport CFI. They need to be given the tools they need to hand the student off, and let subpart H CFI’s take over from there.

The future of general aviation is in our hands, and it will not survive without a fight. If you don’t think so, you’ve never attended a public meeting where angry homeowners are trying to shut down your airport or keep it from expanding. You’re not looking at the FAA’s rush to allow unmanned aerial vehicles to share the sky with you, and requiring less of them than they do of you. You’re not looking at your own pocketbook and what it costs to keep flying. (It’s all about money, folks!) We need every tool at our disposal to ensure our children can, too, enjoy personal freedom in the skies. Light Sport is one of them. Let’s not throw it away.

In Praise of Controllers!

It was time for my CT’s conditional inspection. This year, because a 600 hour check of the Rotax’s overload clutch was due, I decided to fly her up to US Aviation in Denton, TX. They are Flight Design and Rotax approved; I could have had the conditional done at home, but I’m still a bit nervous about letting any A&P who hasn’t been to formal Rotax training tear into the engine, and none of our local guys fit that bill.

I have made the trip up and back to Denton several times, and there has been something fun and interesting on every trip. This time was no exception.

My wife wanted to go with me; she got her PhD in Nursing at Texas Woman’s University in Denton and wanted to see the area, as well as the rest of Dallas/Fort Worth, from the seat of a small airplane. So, we piled into the CTSW on a Saturday morning and couldn’t have picked a better day. It was a bit cooler than usual, the skies were perfectly clear; and the winds were calm, though a warm front blowing in from the west was forecasted to stir them up in Denton before we landed. I set up a Go Pro Hero 3 camera in the cockpit to record the trip, though I was uncertain if it would have enough battery life to record the whole thing. I always planned the route…and input it into the airplane’s Garmin 496 GPS…as if I would not be allowed to fly through the Dallas Class B, even though I always had been. Coming up from the south, the route swung west of the Class B airspace before tucking under it to make a northeasterly line to Denton. I preferred that to the shorter but possibly ragged route made by flying over or around the Class D airspaces surrounding Fort Worth or the most direct route underneath a DFW 2000 foot floor. I could stay at my cruising altitude longer, make better time, be out of the way of most of the traffic, and not talk to anyone but Denton tower.

I had talked to various pilot friends who had flown to Denton and Dallas and had heard the Dallas controllers weren’t terribly friendly to general aviation. I decided to grease the skids by asking for flight following just after departure from Pearland, figuring it might make their lives easier and less grumpy if they knew I was coming. Houston’s approach controllers have not always let me into the Class B, but they mostly do and often go out of their way to be helpful. In the Dallas area, I had worked with Fort Worth Center while on the way to Missouri or Tulsa but never with Regional Approach. I didn’t know what to expect the first time I made the trip up to Denton. I’m not sure what happened to the guy who told me that Regional Approach controllers weren’t friendly to G.A, but nothing has been or could have been further from the truth. I switched over to them as I approached Cleburne Regional from its southeast; at 4500 feet, I was told to descend to 3500 and immediately cleared to the Fort Worth Alliance airport and into the Class B. Just short of the airport, I was switched to my final controller, cleared direct to Denton and down to 2500, and asked: “Have you ever been here before?”

“Negative,” I replied.

“At your nine o’clock is the Texas Motor Speedway…” the controller informed me.

I couldn’t believe…and was thrilled to be receiving…a guided tour!

I was handed off a few minutes later to Denton Tower who deftly guided me into a right downwind for Runway 18 behind a Cessna I did not at first see.

When I came back home, the controllers were just as helpful.

When we launched out on our Saturday sojourn, I departed from Pearland on Runway 14, turning west and climbing. I leveled off at 1500 feet, five hundred below the Class B floor, and called Houston Approach. A pleasant young woman answered. I made a request to get flight-following to Denton, to which she responded by asking what my requested altitude and heading would be. I relayed those to her; and she gave me a “squawk” and asked me to “IDENT”, which I did, and she quickly cleared me to “use own navigation and climb to your requested altitude” and cleared me into the Class B. I read back her instructions while shoving the throttle to full and pitching the nose up slightly to climb.

She switched us up to the next sector controller who asked me what heading I wanted (since I was still drilling straight ahead) and then told me “passing three thousand, turn to three zero zero”. That was fine with me; we were well inside the course I had plotted on the GPS and that heading would let me intercept it south of my first checkpoint. Later, we picked up my previously plotted GPS course just south of Brenham, level at forty-five hundred, and talked to Houston Approach only when necessary to answer a call about traffic. We plugged steadily north-northwest, aiming for Hillsboro just south of the Dallas. We were switched up to Waco Approach but said little after checking in and, on getting to Hillsboro, made a slight turn more northwest toward Cleburne Regional. As we neared that airport, Waco handed us off to Regional Approach.

The Regional Approach controller was busier than one-armed paper-hanger. His voice peppered the airwaves, giving directions or traffic calls. I waited for an interlude and gave him a call during a moment of silence; but despite his traffic load, he answered right away! I quickly stated we were level at 4500 heading for Denton; he came back with a descent to 3500, a clearance to Alliance, and a clearance into the Class B, right before peppering us with traffic calls for airplanes on both sides of us. But what got our attention right away was not only how responsive he was, but the tone in his voice. This man LOVED what he was doing! He was almost singing in joy, and as I turned us toward Fort Worth Alliance, I couldn’t help but admire his style. This guy had one of the most stressful and demanding jobs in the world, but here he was, HAPPY at it!

Wow, what an example!

He handed us off to our final approach controller just before we reached Fort Worth Alliance. The controller gave us a “heads up” that a T-38 was launching toward us and would be crossing close at 3000 feet. Make sure, he said, we were at least at 3500. I never saw the T-38 launch, but my wife saw him coming from her side of the airplane; I saw him level like a bullet about a quarter to a half-mile in front of us as he emerged from behind our nose and five hundred feet below.

The controller then called traffic at two o’clock at eighteen hundred feet. I was descending from 3500 and saw a Cessna pacing in front of us and below and called the traffic in sight. We followed him for a bit; and when switched up to Denton Tower, we learned the Cessna was also headed to Denton for landing. The tower controller told the Cessna we were behind and above him and asked him to keep his speed up, and I responded by telling the controller I’d slow down a bit and did, helping to open up the interval. We followed the Cessna in as he followed another airplane on a right downwind to runway one-eight while the tower also juggled an arrival from the east on a left downwind. The tower controller called my base turn and I wheeled the CT around, leaving the flaps up to allow for a higher approach speed and better handling in the winds, which were now blowing almost down the runway at sixteen knots. We touched down without a problem, cleared the runway and called Ground, got our taxi clearance, and then made our way to the FBO hangar where we shut down.

I snatched the GO Pro out of the airplane and brought it home; I hoped to have audio of the happy controller; but unfortunately, the camera had run out of battery power just before we got assigned to him, and it had shut down. All we had to remember the encounter was a happy memory, but it was something I’ll never forget!

I will never know who the guy was, just like I will probably never know most of the air traffic controllers I work the skies with. But to them I say “thank you”: thanks for taking on a stressful job I would never want to do, all for the sake of keeping us pilots and passengers safe and speeding us on our way. Today’s flying would not be the same without you!