Regaining the Promise of Light Sport

The upcoming changes to the Light Sport rules (assuming the changes in NPRM Docket No. FAA-2016-6142: Notice No 16-02 go through; how’s that for a mouthful?) can do a great deal to restore some of the lost promise of Light Sport. I commented to the FAA on that NPRM and said (among other things) Light Sport’s great promise and its best purpose is to serve as a gateway to getting new people involved with aviation and allowing others who would normally be excluded to participate. It may not be what actually drove the FAA to establish the rating and the category (which primarily was motivated as a way to regulate two-place ultralights), but it is the purpose it can best serve and the vision that needs to be behind it now.

Like anything new introduced into an old system, it is to some, and more often to those with no experience with it, a threat. There seems to often be an assumption that Light Sport aircraft are somehow inferior, despite the fact that many of them can and do outperform the standard trainers that have been around for decades. (My CTSW at full gross has the same power to weight ratio as a 200HP Piper Arrow.) Anyone who’s flown a Light Sport in very gusty winds or crosswinds can testify that the stick and rudder skills are no less and are often more demanding than those of many general aviation aircraft. (One old airline pilot told me the bigger an airplane is, the easier it is to fly; I add, …and it does more damage if it gets way from you.) There is also a perception that because Light Sport is considered a “recreational” rating, it is not on the stairway to a career in aviation. It needs to be considered the first step; and it usually is not, even by flight schools that have a Light Sport aircraft in their inventories.

Worse, most non-profits geared around aerospace education and that perform flight training take students to solo in standard trainers aimed at the private pilot rating and drop them one–third to half-way to there. I have no doubt that getting a student pilot to solo does encourage them to continue; but I am unconvinced it improves student pilot completion rates if that’s all that happens. For many of those kids, often low income, solo is all they can do until they become adults. How many of them will still be so interested in flying a decade later? Think about what happens if…instead of dropping them at solo…you dropped them with a pilot’s rating? A student who solos in ten hours is only one quarter of the way toward his Private Pilot rating, but he could be half way to getting his Light Sport. A student with 15 total hours would be only 5 hours away from possibly getting his own pilot rating. If you invest 5 more hours and take them to their Light Sport rating, they can probably hobble together money to fly at least occasionally….and stay in the air.

Of course, the thing inhibiting this just as much as the lack of vision is the more practical problem of low availability of good Light Sport trainers and the high costs of the ones that are out there. I’m not talking about the cost of operation (low) but the cost of “buy in”, the overhead associated with insurance, the high cost and long downtimes of repairs (which drives the high cost of commercial insurance). There are more Flight Design CT’s in the United States than almost any other Light Sport airplane; yet, when we suffered a bird strike that punched a hole in our canopy, it took ten weeks and a total cost of $10K to get the canopy replaced. ($2K of that was due to transport costs to a repair site, costs I now consider unnecessary because I listened to someone who was supposed to know about the airplane’s airworthiness instead of trusting my own engineering instincts.) Paul Shuch recently told a similar story at an EAA webinar on near mid air-collisions when his canopy was fractured during evasive maneuvers. (He wound up shipping his canopy and frame back to the aircraft manufacturer overseas and lost 12 weeks.). When I first learned how much it was going to cost to get the canopy replaced, I thought the insurance company would balk, but the agent told me it was inline with other light sports.

When Light Sport was invented, folks were looking for the movement to bring the costs of flying down to the price point of automobiles. And they did…as long as you’re looking for a racecar thoroughbred and not the family SUV. (Or don’t mind competing with the cost of your house.) Instead, most manufacturers have driven the market toward glass cockpits and fuel injected engines whose costs and utility are truly questionable for a day VFR airplane with shrinking useful loads. What will drive the market upward isn’t the fascination with high technology (though that will always drive point sales) but more utility and lower costs of both purchase and repair. There’s still a lot of market to be had for those that go after it; otherwise, Light Sport aircraft of the ilk of the CT, the Remos, the Sportstar, or the RV-12 will remain a niche market, handicapping its full development.

All this can change. If we want our children and grandchildren to have their own opportunities to soar like we can, we need to make it happen.

This CFI-S is Taking Off!

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time (and I found out this past weekend I have at least one reader…and he’s not in my family!), then you know I’ve felt like the FAA, EAA, and AOPA have been disregarding Light Sport. In particular, the press for Third Class Medical Reform seemed to have buried two issues near and dear to my heart as a Light Sport Instructor. The biggest injustice was that dual instruction toward a light sport certificate given by a Light Sport instructor (Subpart K, Part 61) didn’t seem to count toward a private or recreational pilot certificate (and I say “seem” because that was the interpretation of an FAA legal office opinion not actually codified into law). This held the potential to handicap a CFI-S trying to get new students that knew they wanted to go on to a higher certificate and privileges. (It didn’t seem to impact us when we had our flight school going as about half our students were “new starts”.) It also wasn’t fair to the students; if they wanted to train in a particular Light Sport aircraft, why shouldn’t they be able to train with the instructor they wanted, especially if he/she had the most experience in that aircraft, without taking a penalty?

The other piece of the Part 61 regulations that was troublesome was the fact that a Light Sport instructor without any other pilot ratings couldn’t give the required instrument training for their student pilots to go solo cross-country as required by 61.93 (e)(12). The NPRM corrects this deficiency by allowing Light Sport instructors who wish to give that instruction to do so after getting one hour of ground instruction and three hours of flight instruction and a competency endorsement from a Subpart H instructor. The NPRM also allows the CFI-S who has the endorsement to act as “safety pilot” under these conditions, closing the other legal loophole created by today’s regs. (That said, I was convinced that the current regs allowed a CFI-S with at least a private pilot certificate rating to act as safety pilot in an LSA even using a “driver’s license medical. Ask me sometime and I’ll show you; but it’ still nice not to have any ambiguity left.)

As you might guess, I’m going to fully support this NPRM and hope you will, too. I do have one comment to make on the first part (the CFI-S training requirement) in that the rationale for training is that they assume the CFI-S has no instrument experience. I’m going to suggest that the training requirement as written is overkill for a CFI-S who holds private or commercial pilot certificates with an instrument rating and that a Subpart H instructor endorsement of competency should be adequate. I’d have no issue with an hour of ground and an hour of flight to get a refresher; my CFI and I did “hood” work as a normal part of me working up for my CFI-S. Why not, though, just let the Subpart H instructor decide what it’s going to take?

For me personally, the timing of all this could not be better. I’ve been moving toward getting more into instructing; I’m hoping to test out for my Advanced Ground Instructor rating in the next two months. I just had a chat with the folks over at Coastal Skies Flying Club about Light Sport in general, and they, like me, are interested in growing it. So, I’ll be joining up (a decision reinforced when I found out one of the pilots I flew with in VF-51…and my roommate on the Vinson cruise…is a member) and getting checked out in the Remos to start instructing there. Hope you’ll come join me! This’ll be fun!

Elephants in the Room: ATC Privatization

Since I live near Houston, I am directly impacted by the air traffic control system, whether I directly use the services or not. Houston has two interlocking sections of Class B airspace, one protecting Houston Hobby (which is only 8nm from my home airport at Pearland) and the other protecting Houston Intercontinental, also known as Bush. Additionally, I often have my airplane serviced up at the Denton, TX airport where a Flight Design approved mechanic resides; and, when I do, I use flight following from takeoff to landing to both speed up my trip (by avoiding a very large sidestep of Class B airspace around Dallas’ west side) and to keep it safer. I often travel to Huntsville AL for volunteer work primarily at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and have a new grandson south of there and a granddaughter (on the way..three more weeks!) north of there in Fort Knox, Kentucky. I often use flight following on those trips as well, and nearly always use Class C services to get into Huntsville Executive. With only a few exceptions, I have found the air traffic controllers friendly and easy to work with and a great asset in protecting me and my aircraft. So, I have a stake in what happens to the air traffic control system; it directly affects my efficiency, my economies, and…most importantly…my safety.

The current FAA reauthorization bill has passed the Senate but is stalled in the House. It is being held hostage because the chairman of the Transportation Committee, Rep Bill Shuster, wants to hand over control of the ATC system to a private “non-profit” corporation. He says the FAA is not moving fast enough on Next Gen ATC improvements and, as we all know, private industry can always do things better than government (a line that never takes into account things like the big banks collapsing the economy, the big tobacco companies having to be reigned in to improve public health, or why we’re seeing all those millions of airbags in autos being recalled). While this whole thing smells like a dead fish to me, for reasons I’ll get into later, the thing I really love about the recent efforts to move the system to user fees or privatization is the total lack of safety studies that go along with them.


(And if government never does anything right, do we really want a piece of the government, i.e., the Congress, deciding what to do with ATC? Kind of a conundrum, isn’t it?)

Indeed, a report by the Government Accounting Office pointed out the risks and issues associated with the transition. The report, entitled “Federal Aviation Administration: Preliminary Observations of Potential Air Traffic Control Restructuring Transition Issues” can be found here. I’m going to center my discussion of it to the overall safety impact of the transition, whether as a result of the privatization or the imposition of user fees.
“Preliminary discussions with experts have raised several transition issues that would need to be considered when separating safety oversight from ATC operations, such as (1) challenges with delineating roles and responsibilities, (2) potential impacts to coordination, and (3) potential impacts to the remaining safety regulator.”

The FAA’s current structure allows integration of flight standards procedures and approval of new procedures, something that could be adversely affected by splitting off ATC. Even if it can be done, no work has been done to figure out how it can be done or the time necessary to make it work. (This needed to have been done as part of the process of preparing this legislation; the Transportation Committee could have asked for this instead of just trying to ram the bill down everyone’s throats.) Further: “according to experts, how decisions about safety criteria, standards, and processes (e.g., separation standards for runways) would be made and who should be involved in that decision-making process would need to be addressed. Some experts stated that a process will need to be put into place to address disagreements between the safety regulator and the ATC entity regarding safety decisions.”

(Not only that, but what are the legal aspects of pilots dealing with an ATC entity that is now a private corporation? If this change were to happen, it would take a Pilots Bill of Rights 3 to address them.)

Additionally, here’s what the report says about the impacts of user fees: “Currently an array of users access the U.S. airspace, and the costs of the system are paid by these users through a series of taxes and fees paid as described above. If a system of user fees were to replace the current financing structure, there may be differential effects of the new funding structure across these different users. As we previously noted, a transition issue identified through our preliminary discussions with experts is how any user fee structure might differentially affect varied users and, in turn, how this would impact the use of the airspace. For example, some of the experts we spoke with noted that, depending on how user fees are structured, it is possible that general and business aviation might see their contribution to the cost of ATC services rise and that this increase could reduce the use of the airspace by these users.”

(Might see their contribution rise? Might!? It’s a certainty…)

And, here, ladies and gentlemen, we see…or miss of the elephants in the room, i.e., the one unexplored question that never gets asked when we hit this topic: What is the impact on general aviation safety when users avoid ATC system services, especially in airspace underneath the floors of Class B airspace that are already congested?

And there is another elephant: “In addition, another concern raised by experts during our interviews is that small and rural communities could be negatively affected by a restructured ATC. According to one expert whom we spoke to, rules need to be in place for the ATC entity to not restrict access so that only high value customers, such as commercial airlines are served; access should be maintained for small communities and other services, which are important but don’t make a lot of money.”

So, all this is being ignored while the current FAA reauthorization is being held up to try to shove it into it (and, btw, the GAO report said that privatizing ATC could DELAY Next Gen improvements, which contradicts Shuster’s reasoning for why it’s needed). I always look sideways at people trying to push things through in a hurry, because they’re usually trying to keep you from looking too closely at it. That, and the following report by Politico about Rep Bill Shuster’s personal ties to one of the prime organizations supporting this legislation, make it smell like a dead fish to me.

Read the reports before you let them force us to take this fish home. If it really is as smelly as I think, we might not ever get rid of it.

Runways, Hazard Avoidance, and Risk Management

On the first Saturday after a week of flooding, my wife and I manned up the CTSW for a one hour flight northwest to Brenham. A great hundred dollar burger restaurant named “The Southern Diner” hosts a 1950’s theme, complete with a sometimes seen pink Cadillac golf cart, always present waitresses in poodle skirts, and sometimes working juke box controls at the tables. In addition to being the first nice weather weekend since the flooding, it was spring, meaning there would be lots of flyers, motorcycle and car clubs, and tourists out to see how many bluebonnets might be pointing at the sky. Sure enough, when we got there, ramp space was getting tight but we found a place to park the CT on the ramp right at the entrance from the runway. There is always a crowd outside the FBO waiting for their seats underneath its awning, and I’m sure they thought the little CT pilot had lost it when I nosed it in and shut down facing the “wrong” way. While very nimble in the air, the CTSW is not so on the ground; its wide turning radius teaches you quickly that the best way to park is to face her in and then shut down, get out, push down on the tail, and spin her around on the mains.

The lunch was good and, though there were a few more bumps in the air than I had thought there would be, the flight was uneventful. Almost. As we flew the final approach to runway 14 at Pearland, a silver and yellow high wing taxied up to the hold short. Just before we crossed in front of it, the pilot called he was departing one four. The impatience of the call gave me a half second of pause before I got busy with landing my own airplane. We landed near the thousand foot markers and turned off at taxiway Bravo, which is roughly halfway down the four thousand, three hundred foot runway. As I started turning off the runway, my wife looked back. Obviously, she was also wondering where the impatient pilot was, too; she saw him airborne and climbing. He had taken off behind us while we were still on the runway.

There is no regulation preventing two aircraft from being on the runway at the same time at a non-towered field. (Yes, I have flown formation and do understand we are not talking about that case.) The question becomes what risk is involved in any particular operation. It also becomes a perfect example of the difference between using “hazard avoidance” or “risk management”.

I believe most pilots practice “hazard avoidance”, i.e., recognizing a hazard to the flight and then avoiding it if possible. For the pilot taking off, practicing “hazard avoidance” means waiting until the aircraft on the runway is completely clear before taking the runway. Doing so completely alleviates any risk to the other aircraft of some kind of aberration occurring during the takeoff run, making dealing with any emergency that could happen easier and more likely to have a good outcome for everyone involved. Using “risk management” means looking at what the risk might be (loss of control or systems failures like engine, flight control, landing gear, etc.), examining the outcome (collision, fire, injury or death) and then deciding whether to proceed based on likelihood. In this case, we assume the pilot figured he could be well above us by the time he crossed over us and the risk was acceptable. The problem I have with that, though, is that he was making a risk decision for BOTH of us. We’ll assume he at least thought it through enough to sidestep us as he went over. As I said in my earlier blog, the problem for most folks in estimating likelihood is that they are overconfident in their answer. It’s like running a stoplight; you get away with it until you don’t.

In prepping for this blog, I read through the latest runway incursion brochure from the FAA. It discusses runway incursions in the context of controlled field operations but says nothing about non-towered fields. Frankly, from what I’ve experienced, I’ve got more to worry about…especially with people pulling out in front of me on final (usually from being over-reliant on the radio for traffic control) at non-towered airfields than anywhere else. At fly-in’s or any kind of crowded aviation event, it may be difficult to avoid being on the runway at the same time as another aircraft and may seem like a time-waster when the runway is several thousand feet long. Just be sure you’re thinking about not only your safety but those you might endanger if things go wrong. Even if nothing bad happens, you also don’t want to be on the bad side of someone’s You Tube video or the FAA inspector who starts looking at you trying to figure out whether “careless”, “reckless” or both apply. Either of those will present arguments you are not going to win.