Only days after the final AOPA Summit in 2013, Cessna dropped the news that the Skycatcher was history. No longer would the GA giant put their significant corporate muscle into developing a following for their C-162, the only aircraft the company produced that was aimed at the light sport market. In keeping with the international flair of the airplane which was designed by an American company and built in China, when Cessna CEO Scott Ernest said the airplane had no future he might as well have used the German expression, “Es ist tot.”
The Skycatcher is dead. At least it’s dead as far as Cessna is concerned.
That’s not the end of the story, however. Not by a long shot. This is Cessna we’re talking about after all. The big dog of the general aviation industry. The company by which virtually all other general aircraft manufacturers are measured. There’s hardly an airport in North America that doesn’t sport a wide a assortment of Cessna aircraft on the ramp, in the hangars, and in the sky above. When the news broke that Cessna was pulling out of the light sport market, tongues started wagging.
Contributing to the overall sense of curiosity in the industry was that the announcement came only weeks prior to the US Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida. That event has been growing and finding new converts for more than a decade now. Unique among aviation events, it’s not an airshow and it’s not a fly-in. It’s a product exposition that puts potential customers in close proximity to the machines they’re thinking of buying. Demo flights are undertaken, questions and asked and answered, tires are kicked and aircraft are sold. Yes, aircraft are sold. That’s the whole point of the show, really.
So what’s a general aviation pilot to think of the light sport market these days? The mixed messages I’ve just given you are really all the majority of the pilot population has to go on. Cessna’s out, and a whole bunch of little known names are in.
Feel free to scratch your head in wonder. You won’t be alone, I assure you.
The reality is, Light Sport is alive and well. The aircraft are increasingly finding their way on to flight lines across the continent and the world at large. Those who fly them find the meager fuel burn and the lighter touch of reduced regulatory intrusion to be a beneficial factor in their decision making. Yet still, Light Sport Aircraft and the light sport pilot certificate remain largely misunderstood by the majority of the pilot population. So let’s dispel some rumors and get on with the business of growing the industry, shall we?
Light Sport Aircraft are not flimsy, poorly designed, poorly built tin cans. In fact, the ASTM (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) standard for the design and construction of light sports is in many ways superior to the old CAR 3 standard that so many of our legacy aircraft were designed and built under. For the purposes of comparison, it’s worth noting that both the Piper Cub and the Cessna 172 were originally CAR 3 certified aircraft.
The sport pilot certificate is not a dumbed down version of the private pilot certificate. For those who wish to verify this claim you need look no farther than an FAA Sport Pilot PTS and compare it to an FAA Private Pilot PTS. Because the sport pilot is prohibited from flying at night or in instrument conditions, there are fewer tasks for the sport pilot to perform during their practical test – but the completion standards for every task that is common to both certificates is identical. Yes, identical. A short field landing for a sport pilot applicant is evaluated using the exact same criteria and tolerances required of a private pilot applicant.
Light Sport Aircraft do not all employ unreliable 2-stroke engines. In fact the most popular engine on the market today is the Rotax 912 family of powerplants. They’ve proven to be tough, reliable, fuel efficient, and capable of running just fine on unleaded auto fuel. Mogas. For those who are unfamiliar with the terms, that means the Rotax burns fewer gallons per hour while using less expensive fuel than the more traditional aircraft engines in the 80 – 100 horsepower range. Unleaded fuel. We can assume the EPA is pleased with this development.
Certificated flight instructors with an airplane rating are perfectly legal to instruct sport pilot students, and perform flight reviews for sport pilots. In fact a review of sport pilot privileges and limitations are a requirement of the FIRC (Flight Instructor Refresher Course) designed to bring CFIs up to speed on regulatory changes and instructional insights every two years.
Don’t let misconceptions, misunderstandings, and erroneous assumptions color your perception of what Light Sport is, and what it isn’t. Yes, Cessna got out of the Light Sport Aircraft business. That is no more relevant than it would be to assume that small, fuel efficient cares would disappear from the roads because Volkswagen stopped building or importing air-cooled Beetles into the United States in the mid-1970s. The Beetle still exists of course, in an alternate form. And there’s no guarantee Cessna won’t see a new opportunity to enter the LSA market somewhere down the road. In the meantime there are numerous manufacturers, both American and foreign, that are producing some excellent aircraft that fit well into the Light Sport Aircraft market. And pilots are transitioning into sport pilot at an encouraging rate, whether they’re new to aviation and logging their first PIC time, or they come from the cockpit of a transport category aircraft and are facing the reality of paying their own fuel bill for the first time in their lives.
Don’t count Light Sport Aircraft out. Don’t even consider the category to have the sniffles. LSAs were sold at the Expo in Sebring this year, as they do every year. The industry might in fact be considerably healthier and more viable than you ever dreamed. Truly!