I was standing in line at a hot dog booth at the Arlington, WA fly-in, a wonderful 5-day event full of airplanes, airplane lovers, vendors, educational sessions, and mostly junk food. I couldn’t help overhearing the two people in front of me.
Person #1: “I’ve GOT to start flying! It looks like so much fun, and I’ve put it off too long. There’s an instructor here who can give me lessons in a Light Sport airplane, and I’ve decided to work on a Light Sport pilot license [certificate].”
Person #2: “Why in the world would you want to go for a Light Sport License [certificate] when you can work on a Private license [certificate]? You don’t want an LS license [certificate] – you really ought to get a Private.”
Person #1: “Really? You think I should get a Private instead of a Light Sport license [certificate]?”
Person #2: “Absolutely!
They paid for their hot dogs and walked away, still talking.
After they left, I wished I had been part of that conversation. I don’t think it makes sense to decide what type of certificate you’re going to get until you decide on the type of flying you want to do. If I were Person #2, I’d be asking, “What excites you about flying? What type of flying do you see yourself doing? What type of flying experience are you dreaming about?”
The Ultralight Experience: No Certificate Needed
Do you see yourself flying really slowly, low over the ground, smelling the scents that rise up from farms and fields? Seeing people, animals, and other things from a totally different perspective? Flying usually in the local area? Flying by yourself in the aircraft? Landing on dirt roads, in open fields, on dry lake beds and perhaps on sand bars or on deserted beaches?
If so, you might not need a certificate at all. Perhaps you might want to consider a true ultralight – whether a fixed wing type or a weight-shift trike or a powered parachute. Flying solo at 30-55 mph, might fit the bill entirely for you.
Flying Light Sport – with a Light Sport Pilot Certificate
The “Low ‘n Slow” End: E-LSA
Maybe you want the ultralight experience, but you want to fly slightly faster, go farther than five gallons of gas will take you, and you want to take someone with you to savor the experience. The slow end of Experimental Light Sport aircraft might be a perfect choice. Fully enclosed cockpit or out in the open air, slow-flying E-LSAs include what used to be called “fat ultralights”. Fixed wing aircraft, weight shift (trikes,) and powered parachutes all fall into this category. They look like ultralights, but they’re too heavy, carry too much gas, fly perhaps a little faster than the ultralight regs allow…and they include two-seaters.
For me, they’re the perfect aircraft. Yes, they’re “slow” – as a group the “slow end” of E-LSA typically flies about 55-65 mph. They can handle more wind than an ultralight, but not as much as the higher-speed Special Light Sport aircraft or a certificated plane. But you can fly for an hour enjoying the details of the scenery at 500 or 700’ AGL, have an adventure if you only have time for a 30 minute flight, and get really familiar with your local area. Like a true ultralight, these slow-end E-LSAs can land in spots that faster aircraft just can’t manage.
You don’t need to “go” somewhere in these slow-end E-LSAs: often I just want to fly, with no specific destination in mind. I want to see whether a farmer to the north of my airstrip has finished planting his windrows, and how much the Sandy River has changed since Marmot Dam was removed. Flying a slow-end E-SLA means leisurely looking, often with a camera. Of course, you can also make long flights of hundreds of miles – it will just take much longer.
The “High End” of Light Sport
No one will mistake the high end of Light Sport aircraft for an ultralight. While the slow-end is almost always constructed of fabric and aluminum tubing, the high end looks like miniature planes, almost always made of composite materials. Compared to the slow speed E-LSAs, the high end S-LSAs are little speedsters. They fly up to 130 mph and often have avionics that tell you everything you’d ever want to know about what the plane and engine are doing. They are sleek and penetrate the air in ways that are unknown to slow speed E-LSAs. Equipped with cabin heat and comfortable seats, they are a delight to fly.
Whether you want to fly an Experimental Light Sport aircraft or a Special Light Sport Aircraft, what you’ll need is a Light Sport pilot certificate and a driver’s license.
Flying with a Private Pilot Certificate
If you want
- want to go faster than the ultralight or Light Sport regs allow,
- want to take more than the one passenger allowed by Light Sport,
- want a larger, heavier plane to fly in rougher weather,
- intend to fly higher than the 10,000’ MSL allowed in Light Sport,)
- eventually want to fly IFR,
- feel safer and more comfortable in a certificated aircraft
- have fallen in love with an aircraft that doesn’t meet the Light Sport regs.
then you probably want to earn a private pilot license.
Take Demo Flights Before Making a Choice
Obviously, there are many more pros and cons as you decide whether to go for a Light Sport or a Private pilot certificate– or decide to fly an ultralight and fly without a certificate at all. I always urge potential pilots to take as many demonstration flights as they can in a wide variety of aircraft. You never know what you’ll fall in love with! The key is to think about the type of flying you want to do – and pursue the appropriate certificate. If your flying interests change, you can always get additional training and a different certificate.
So decide WHAT you want to fly first, and that will determine the type of certificate you need to fly.