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Despite Success, LSA’s Have An On-Going Image Problem

The wild early success of the light sport aircraft industry and the excitement over the entire category as we enter year number six, belies one disturbing fact:   The LSA sector still appeals mostly to older pilots  who are concerned about losing their medical. Show up to any LSA event and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about-- those in the cockpits, asking the questions, and working the controls are 70 year old pilots who see an LSA as their only way to keep flying and avoid spending all their money on golf.

In my opinion, an industry built on a negative cannot survive.   If you question my thesis, riddle me this:  If the FAA eliminated the Third Class Medical for all single engine pistons (so your Cessna 172 qualified)  or raised the maximum weight limit so more legacy aircraft would qualify as an LSA (neither of which is under consideration) what would happen to the nearly 100 LSA manufacturers?   Do you think there would be any market for them?

While some LSAs are making their way into flight schools and while there are now hundreds of Sport-rated Pilots, the industry remains built on the back of older pilots.   This cannot be what the FAA had in mind.

As someone deeply interested in the LSA category (I continue to demo fly them with the possibility of buying a share of one), I'm interested in what can be done to  keep the industry from falling apart.   And I'm afraid that's where it's headed.

First, there will be a shakeout.  A few hundred sport-rated pilots cannot support one-hundred aircraft manufacturers.

Second, I'm concerned that seasoned, multi-engine rated pilots who give up their twin for an LSA because of medical concerns will, in fact, lose interest because of the sport-pilot limitations.  Where once they could shoot low-minimum approaches with their family of four, now, as Sport Pilots,  they're limited to day VFR flying with their one passenger or their dog (but likely not both)  These pilots will stop flying when they get bored.

Third,  just as young people don't want to drive Dad's Oldsmobile, young would-be pilots won't want to fly aircraft known for servicing mainly older people.

The LSA rule is the most exciting development in general aviation in decades.  It's the only sector that is showing growth during this economy.   It needs to be nurtured.  That means LSA's need to grow their demographics, not just grow in number of aircraft available.


18 Responses to “Despite Success, LSA’s Have An On-Going Image Problem”

  1. Bill Daniels Says:
    September 9th, 2009 at 9:15 am

    A well written definition of the problem. The solution is a bit hazy.

    For younger pilots, LSA limitations are a problem. These pilots want an airplane with real cross country utility which LSA's don't provide. This is a shame.

    I wish one of these 100 manufacturers would take a look at glider towing. I think a really good single seat glider tug could be built within LSA the limitations. It's possible this market, although still small, would be larger than the market share most will achieve. The 50 year old Supercubs and Pawnees currently used as tugs are getting expensive to maintain. I think there could be a market for as many as 200 aircraft just in the US.

  2. Bill, that is an excellent point.

    I believe the Lambada LSA may be able to be used as a tow plane

  3. Bill Daniels Says:
    September 9th, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    The Lambada can indeed tow gliders. I've seen one tow an LS-3 glider out of Boulder, Colorado on a hot afternoon. It worked surprisingly well by delivering a 500FPM climb to 11,000 feet.

    The still open question is how well it tows heavy 2-seat gliders or heavily ballasted single seaters at high density altitudes. A key requirement of a glider tug is 0 - 30kt acceleration.

    The problem with the Lambada, albeit a small one, is that it's not designed for the purpose. Like all glider tugs, it's a secondary task the designers didn't foresee.

    Specifically, like all motor gliders, it has a small, high RPM propeller. What would deliver the most thrust at low speeds is a large, slow turning prop - or a ducted fan. The propulsion system needs to to be optimized to maximize thrust in the 0 - 60 kt range.

    Ducted fans can produce as much as 8 lbs of thrust for each HP at 55kts which is more than double the best open propeller.

  4. I have recently been visiting airports contemplating continuing my flight training that I started in 1981 (I know, don't beat me up too hard.)

    When I ask the CFIs about the sport pilot license and they all roll their eyes and explained why getting that license was a waste of time. This was the same story at large flight schools at controlled fields to tiny rural airfields that had a healthy vintage tail wheel community.

    So if newcomers to aviation are being steered strongly away from sport pilot training, I think it also reflects negatively on LSA aircraft as somehow being inferior or more of a toy.

  5. Storm, that's a sad story. I hope you aren't discouraged and continue to look for the training situation that is best for you.

    You will find most people in aviation hold strong opinions on at least one subject. The one you encountered is common. It's possible that some of the opinions were related to the school's economic status. (They make more money training commercial/instrument pilots.) Chasing off potential new customers is a plague afflicting many GA businesses.

    If you haven't already done this, take a moment to think about your goals in aviation. (If they're sort of fuzzy right now, that's OK.) I'm guessing you are interested in fun flying.

    You can slice aviation many ways but a useful division is sport aviation which is for people who just fly for fun and transportation aviation for those who need to travel or are pursuing a career in aviation.

    The Sport Light Pilot certificate lets you fly small, slow airplanes in fair weather daylight hours which is more than enough fun for a lot of people and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Keep looking - you'll find a place that welcomes you and your goals. You might also take a look a soaring or flying gliders. You can read my blogs here.

  6. Storm, on Long Island, the story is actually changing. With the down economy, there seems to be growing interest at flight schools about adding an LSA. Many flight schools acquire planes on lease-backs, so that is slowing down the process.

    But several flight school mamagers I know say they get calls every week now about LSAs and the Sport Pilot ticket.

    I think it depends on what type of aircraft the school has. Bill is right that if the school has DA20s or 152s, then a sport plane will have a negative impact on rentals. But if the school has more pricey SR20s or 22s then the LSA doesn't compete because it's a mission-different airplane.


  7. This is an eBook short story about a teenaged pilot’s harrowing experience flying a small airplane as a swordfish spotter over shark-infested waters off the La Jolla, San Diego, CA coast in the 1970’s.

    Here is the ninth installment, with a few paragraphs to follow about every day…

    He can hear the pilot guiding them to where the fish is and it's movement. The plank is an enormous twenty foot long contraption made of welded tubular steel. It is mounted on the bow and has a 2 x 6 board bolted to it so the stickman can shuffle out to the very end. There, he wedges his body in place, and holding the harpoon at the ready, thrusts it into the water, spearing the fish. This is a dangerous job, for if he falls, he can get run over by the boat. If he gets entangled in the rope, he can die, being dragged down to the depths, as the fish dives out of fear.

    Swordfish are the only known species of fish to be able to dive from the surface to the ocean floor without pausing. This would kill other species. They feed anywhere from the very deepest parts of the oceans to the surface. They are about 6 - 10 feet long and can weigh up to about 800 pounds. They have no natural enemies. I have watched a swordfish spear a shark from underneath, launching both completely out of the water, and ferociously hacking the shark into pieces before falling back to feed. They prefer "dirty" brown looking water, not clear and blue. Their swimming movements are unlike any other fish. They don't have backbones. Their entire body bends as their swords make huge fanning motions left to right. Most other fish wiggle. And "Billfish" or "Billies", as they are also known, change color, from dark purple to fluorescent lavender. Once you have seen a swordfish from the air, you'll never forget it. Sometimes you can spot them just from their movement - other times, just from their color.

    read the whole story to date here

  8. If flight schools will buy them (LSAs), young students will fly them. Assuming they are rental
    priced lower; that's key. The oldies, like me, would welcome that also.
    Hey Bill, I'll fly an LSA cross-country any chance
    I get.

  9. I too am having problems finding instructors that will teach LSA pilots. I don't want to fly for a living I want to fly for fun. I am having to build my own plane because the only school around that has an LSA legal bird the owner will teach when he is around but the instructors aren't interested unless you are in a four seat Piper. Private licenses around here are taking 80 to m85 hours needless to say there are very few students.

  10. Dwight Goodwin Says:
    September 23rd, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Allan, a Cessna C-150 can be purchased by a flight school for $15,000. A new light sport might cost $125,000. You simply can not buy or insure such an asset and then rent it for less to renter pilots.

    Eric, a bit over 80 hours is just exactly right on the national average to get a private pilot license in the US right now. That is not because your flight school is bad. That is because it is hard to learn to fly and it is hard to get student pilots to 1. take lessons close together, so they do not forget things between lessons, 2. study and read and review and learn; FARs, AIM, POH, textbook, chart, airspace, navigation...and much more that is required to be a safe, proficient pilot.

    Clyde Cessna designed a very nice plane in the C-150. It is light, responsive, economical, stable, easy to fly, easy to buy, easy to maintain. It is hard to expect a new light sport that costs four times as much to be four times better or more desirable a plane.

    If you buy one, I am sure you can find an instructor to teach you how to fly it. If you want to spend that much money on an airplane.

  11. Andrew, I do not believe that your conclusion "The LSA sector still appeals mostly to older pilots who are concerned about losing their medical" matches your observation "Show up to any LSA event and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about-- those in the cockpits, asking the questions, and working the controls are 70 year old pilots who see an LSA as their only way to keep flying and avoid spending all their money on golf." I manage the largest sport pilot school in the country and I find sport pilot to be the great equalizer of flight training. We have students ranging from age 18 to 82 at our school, male and female, of many races, from both blue and white collar backgrounds. I previously worked at a local 141 school where training was extremely expensive compared to our sport pilot school and students were almost exclusively white male doctors and small business owners. There was none of the great diversity of students we have present at our sport school.

    Your observation about the clients visiting the aircraft sales booths at airshows is correct but not indicative of who is interested in sport pilot. The older pilots you see at the shows are simply the pilots who have enough money, often as equity in a larger GA plane that they already own, to afford a $120K new plane. Younger pilots are excited about sport pilot but the financial reality for them is that they will be renters not buyers in the near future.


  12. I've read the article and the comments. Like Storm about a year ago last August I started flying again after having been away since 1973. It seems more difficult now from an academic stand point but pretty much the same from a stick and rudder point of view. It's my second restart so I now have about 80 hours. My goal is to first be an LSA Instructor and eventually a CFI (long range). Here's what I've been told, read and understand. You can become an LSA Instructor at the 150 hour mark but your instruction can not be used towards a rating requiring a CFI. As an Instructor I would tell a perspective student that if he/she had aspirations beyond LSA then he/she should use a CFI/CFII. I also understand that except for only having 2 seats a number of LSA's will far out perform the C-172 (I fly) in every category. That said, I can see where someone that was in the market for a new plane, would save a few dollars over a new Cessna and buy an LSA. I am probably going to buy that old well equiped C-172 for 25K to 35K because I'm one of the old guys the article talks about but there are people with a whole lot more money than me that want something new for personal use that they can land on their vacation property and will get them there in 1/3rd the time. I want that but 2 seats aren't enough. Flight schools are starting to buy and lease them; the school I use has been negotiating for a lease back and I have talked to a school that bought one. They will rent their's for around $100. wet. Next time I travel there I will get checked out, as long as it counts. I understand an LSA is not restricted if it's flown by a Private Pilot (or above) and is properly equipped, transponder, lights and etc.
    I think the article is right, that if all you can do is drill holes in the local area and be restricted, they won't last. However, they have already evolved and appeal to a wide spectrum of people and I expect that to continue to grow. Think of a Cessna 150 with great performance; they have been around for many years.

  13. I agree that LSAs were initially heavily (even primarily) marketed as being a solution for people who wanted to avoid the FAA medical. I also agree that, while it may have made short-run sense to go after a ready market, it's not a good long-run marketing strategy.

    But I think LSA offers a tremendously important lesson that is being lost in the distraction of the medical/sport pilot license. That lesson is that, if you lower the regulatory barriers to entry, you get a tremendous burst of new aircraft on the market, most of them apparently well-thought-out and safe. There are something like 100 new 2-seat designs out in the last few years - compare that to the preceding, oh, 50 years or so. Despite expectations that only a handful would survive, that hasn't been the case (yet, at least) and innovative new designs are continuing to appear regularly. With ballistic parachutes, GPS-coupled autopilots and glass cockpits almost standard equipment, these little machines are demonstrating that pilots WANT safety equipment that they CAN'T GET with most Part 23 aircraft.

    While it's true that fully-equipped monocoque personal-airliner LSAs cost close to $140k, you can buy tube-and-fabric airplanes that will knock the yellow socks off a Piper Cub for about $50k. That's new. Completed.

    The impact on LSA if the sport pilot (and medical) were expanded to address 4-seat aircraft is not what we should be considering; imagine, rather, the positive impact on private aviation if something like the LSA certification rule were expanded to address 4-seat aircraft!

    As to the little airplanes themselves, having flown several, comparing most of them to a C172 is like comparing a sports car to an SUV. Both cars be limited by law to 65mph on the highway, and the SUV may have more seats and payload, but that doesn't make it a "better car." There is no comparison in the handling, for example. Most LSAs have radically better runway and (density) altitude performance than the old 172s, easier (and much quieter) engine operation, and essentially equal speed. And once you've "manhandled" an LSA around the ramp (with one hand), you never want to go back to doing it with a bigger airplane. I am able to rent an LSA and now fly it more or less exclusively - it serves my missions, it's immeasurably more fun, and although it's no cheaper to rent, I'm putting my passengers into a modern, new sportplane instead of a dated, noisy flying wagon...

    It would be nice if we could unleash modernity on the rest of the fleet, too!

  14. Manny Corrao Says:
    May 17th, 2011 at 5:49 am

    The problem with the Light Sport Category is that there are no rentals available. The mistake the FAA made was not including planes like the Cessna 150 & 152 and many other two seat trainer aircraft. That is the biggest barrier to growth for the new category and interest by both young and old. I have a Private Pilot’s license but must now fly Sport. I have come to realize that the only way I can fly is to fly with a CFI, or buy a plane or build a plane from a kit that falls into the Sport Category: and who can afford that! The reason schools don't want to train for the Sport License is that there is no way to continue a relationship with the Sport Pilot once they are licensed, and most flight schools can barely afford to be in business let alone buy a new and way overpriced Sport Trainer.

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