In support of Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)

February 27th, 2014 by Jamie Beckett

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!

Jamie Beckett

Jamie Beckett is a passionate promoter of all things aviation who focuses his attention on the positive more often than not. He is the former president of the Polk Aviation Alliance in central Florida. He is committed to working to build a growing pilot population as well as a greater appreciation for general aviation nationwide.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • DvdPvlch

    Good article, Jamie! There’s a lot of very nice airplanes in Light Sport and considering their relatively low cost per hour to operate, they are a very viable option to keep people in the air.

  • H Paul Shuch

    One reason for the failure of the SkyCatcher is Cessna’s decision to power it not with the Rotax 912 engine that Jamie so rightly praises, but rather with the much heavier and more expensive Continental O-200. In 25 years of production, there have been 40,000 912s sold, most now making 2000 TBO, accumulating over 40 million hours flown … this ain’t your grandpa’s Rotax.

  • Daniel Winkelman

    Good point about the ASTM standards vs the CAR-3 standards. People tend to forget that when comparing ASTM to modern Part 23 requirements… most legacy airplanes on the ramps today were not originally built or tested to today’s Part 23 requirements. This is why there are very few truly “new” designs out there. Beech keeps building Bonanzas, Cessna the 172 and 182, Piper with practically their whole line. Verification and Validation (V&V) of the new models consists largely of “verification by similarity analysis”. Every airframe part they leave untouched is one less thing to go through expensive testing with. Cirrus is the notable exception… and look how long and how costly that effort has been.

  • Darrell Yelton

    I am encouraged and greatful for any and all progress in General Aviation. But let’s be real. The efforts since the first General Aviation Revitalization Act has failed miserably! GA productin in 1978 was 18,000 aircraft. Down to 4,000 by 1986 and 928 in 1994 (GARA). Production of GA aircraft for 2013 was 1516 of which 1097 made in the U.S. (GAMA). Let’s be real. The LSA with all good intention has not made any real inroad in its promise to provide an affordable aircraft to GA community as a whole.

    What we need is REAL tort reform! Cessna exited the LSA market for the same reason Cirrus and Piper cancelled its LSA. To much risk for little potential profit. It is not a viable business model.

    GA recovery is not a parrallel path. It is liner, starting with effective tort reform.

    When we see production return to at least half the level of 1978 (10,000 new aircraft), maybe we can claim progress. It all starts with getting the lawyers out of GA pockets.

  • Rylan Downs

    Great article. I am working toward my Sport License and going to school to earn my A&P certificates. I just flew 1.1 hours of solo time and I am very excited!! The Cessna 162 I am flying is great, however I do get blown around because of the low weight. I love everything aviation and I am grateful for the Light Sport Category!!

    • nighthawk808

      Congratulations on your solo, and best of luck along your path! Stick with it and you’ll be there before you know it.

  • 28576

    Flying for over 50 years. Awarded Master Pilot award last year. The idea a middle class person can afford a LSA, VFR, 2 place for probably 150K or so will never approach the Golden years of aircraft affordability. IMHO. Having been there and enjoyed that. Although it can’t fly but new auto certainly can go faster in quiet, air conditioned comfort,, and is in your garage ready to go in an instant, Do realize what kind of automobile 150K ( or much less) will buy? Plus the ego trip it brings? And the convenience that comes with it? At least 5 or more total passengers. Takes you directly to you destination. No annuals or, currency problems or hangar rent. How about insurance? But you can still buy an old aircraft for a fraction of the new LSAs price so maybe there is a glimmer of hope. But you best know a reliable honest A and P. I was in marketing for many years when a new 4 place

  • Haiko Eichler

    I belive the reason why LSA’s will be successful in the future is the aging pilot population in the US. Many of them are afraid of losing their medical, will not take any chance and transition to the LSA. I have been flying since the 1960’s and I am still in good health so I will hang on to my trusty old (1962) C182 – even at a fuel burn of 11.5 gal/hr. Still cheaper than shelling out $150K for a smaller plane with half the performance

    • Low Nslow

      The aging pilot population is exactly what LSA was targeting. Pilots that were in danger of losing their medical. In its infancy it was advertised as a way for more pilots to enter GA. What a load of crap! The planes were supposed to be in the $50K range. By the time LSA was adopted the planes were priced over $100K, far out of the reach of the average/upper middle class. If GA was hoping this was a way to expand, they missed it by a mile. This won’t bring new pilots. It just keeps the old pilots flying.

      • S.B.

        Agree. They succumbed to the temptation to over dress the beasts. I’d go for a J-3 or Champ clone (Kitfox would be fine) over an all composite glass panelled modern wonder any day. Keep it minimalist and affordable. “Steam powered” gauges will be just fine! Aviation was fun when it was just me, the airplane, and a sectional chart. The gadgets can be useful I suppose, but I’d rather enjoy the scenery and look for traffic than play what seems like video games. Basic flying needs to be just that- basic.

      • Haiko Eichler

        Amen!! Once us OLD aviators are gone there will be no more GA as we know it today. Why would any young person want to get an expensive aviation education with the goal of making a living either as pilot or support with the ridiculous salaries offered in that field today? Can you say $15,000/year for a first officer?

  • Johnnie Poole

    Flown and worked in military, general and corporate aviation for 46 years. I fly a Remos GX that has an empty weight of 703 pounds and will fly two hefty folks, bags and fuel for way over 400 miles through the ATC system with much better avionics and comfort than all but the best 172 or 182. Maybe lower, but not much slower at an honest 105 knots all day.
    Cessna built a heavy, weirdly controlled, cramped airplane using last century’s stick-and-tin riveting methods and then compounded the offense by doing it in China for too much money. IMHO the thing was DOA! I may have paid a premium upfront, but my operating and inspection costs are insanely low. Try pulling an honest annual on a 172 or even a 152 in four hours with another hour for the logbook entries! And yes, I run auto fuel at less than $4/gallon.
    The medical requirements for a third class license are a joke! They keep good pilots grounded, dishonest, older pilots flying, and have no scientific basis in weeding out unfit pilots. None. Private pilots and Sport pilots are statistically indistinguishable in their rate of medical problems while flying.
    Sport pilots are unfortunately lumped in with the Recreational Pilots in the minds of the majority of GA pilots. We do not have the geographical restrictions and can easily use our aircraft as efficient travelling machines. Another point is that you can FedEx or UPS bags just about anywhere we fly. Why waste fuel hauling sporting goods and spare underwear?

  • disqus_6EUuVNkGgK

    How do we get these things to be able to go IFR in IMC? That’s the only thing holding me back.

  • rick1138

    I’ve been flying for over 50 years with 22 in the USN and am still current. The thrust of this article is indicative of what is so hosed about the LSA program. Mr Beckett seems to be promoting the new class of $150K LSAs. The problem in aviation is NOT a shortage of aircraft, it is a shortage of new young pilots and flight students. Look around at your next EAA chapter meeting and you’ll see a whole bunch of 60-80 year olds with perhaps 1 or 2 youngsters. I was working in Europe when LSA was first approved and my thoughts were,GREAT!! Now we can start getting youngsters involved. I later found out that the FAA,almost certainly at the behest of the manufacturers, and with the bend-over agreement of the alphabet groups had excluded perhaps the most suitable aircraft of all time for the LSA designation; the Cessna 150. In looking at the specs for LSA the only spec the 150 does not meet is the 1320 LB. GTOW since it has a GTOW of around 1600 LB. And why the hell is GTOW a big deal anyway? The only problem with the C-150 is the manufacturers could not sell $150K LSAs if the 150 were allowed in the door. Allow C-150s into LSA and watch the pilot community start to grow again and maybe the manufacturers could start to sell more upscale product to the newly burgeoning pilot community. If someone from the alphabet groups wants to tell me that GTOW for LSA was set honestly, I will tell him with just as straight a face that he/she is “being economical with the truth”.

  • jeffgoin

    Nicely written.Options are always good and a healthy LSA industry makes aviation that much more appealing to the people and their politicians.

  • idb

    The problem with LSA’s of course is that they, like virtually everything in the aircraft market, are heavily overpriced and therefore almost unobtainable for someone with a normal income. Worse, they are almost impossible to finance due to the rapid depreciation and prejudices of finance companies. Their limitations make them nice weather airplanes, further limiting their usability. These issues combined make the LSA market a niche market, however undeserved.

  • Duane

    Frankly, the LSA market exists primarily due to unnecessary FAA regulation of pilots … aka, the Third Class medical. Take away the requirement for the medical, as per the bill now working its way through Congress at this time, and it will kick the legs out from under the LSA market.

    Why on earth would most pilots pay four to six times the cost of the average ubiquitous legacy four-place single engine piston plane that, with good care and maintenance, can be flown effectively forever, in order to buy a new LSA airplane that depreciates much faster, and is much more limited in speed and payload, if it weren’t for the Third Class Medical?

    An LSA is not an airplane designed to travel efficiently over long distances and has little of the transportation utility of any legacy GA four to six place aircraft. They’re too light, and therefore too squirelly in windy conditions. And too slow. They’re rather spartan and cramped in the cockpit, and they’re still too expensive to maintain, modify, or upgrade as certified aircraft. Payloads are simply unacceptable for most of the models now available.

    If the Third Class medical bill is signed into law, not all LSA manufacturers will go under immediately, but most will. LSA aircraft may well become the equivalent of the HD-DVD of the home entertainment world – a product in search of a reason to exist.

    There will still be some LSA survivors who will thrive not just because of an artificual regulatory dispensation (it was always ridiculous to grant medical waivers for LSA pilots – it never made any sense at all from a safety perspective). I’m thinking of truly innovative models like the Icon A5.
    But even that aircraft would be far more attractive to me if it could have a higher gross weight than the artificial restrictions now imposed. Even with the FAA relaxation of the gross weight limit earned with their “spin resistant” design, Icon still lists the A5 as being able to carry no more than 310 pounds payload with full fuel – meaning it’s over gross with no baggage, one extra quart of oil, and just two 155 pounders on board! That’s simply not a realistic airplane for typical adult occupants unless flown solo. And that’s for an aircraft that sells for nearly $200K!

    Put a Lyc O-360 in it, bump the full-fuel payload up to 600+ pounds, and then you’ve got something I can actually fly me and an actual passenger plus some baggage to an actual destination besides a trip to a local lake. Sell that for $150K and there’ll be some buyers!

  • Don Arnold

    Many moons ago, the ARAC committee met to consider letting part 103 ultralights go over 300 pounds empty. It would have effectively allowed cruising at reduced power and increased range. Simple goals to enhance reliability and safety. But somehow this effort was hijacked by booster types. Let’s kickstart a whole new segment!! We’ll call it LSA!! Include 150’s? Naw, that would only be practical and exactly what aviation needs. It wouldn’t start a whole new segment.
    To get real, anyone with $150k has always had options. Most people buying new LSA haven’t been stimulated into action by LSA. Bring in the $20k 150’s, and you’ll see plenty of activity by people who have no option right now. Similar to the tax code, if you give a billionare another tax break, nothing happens. They have and will spend just as they please. Give a break to people who are presently constrained economically, and stand back.

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  • Jon R.

    I have always been an aviation enthusiast, though never able to afford direct participation other than my service in the Air Force. That probably spoiled me as for my opinion of light sport aircraft. The heavy aircraft industry has made progress in its design and improvement of its products. They are far quieter and more efficient than they were years ago. The light sport aircraft industry on the other hand is basically using the same technology as the Wright bros. used when it all started. This industry is still selling the “airplane noise”. There are more and more of these noisy little aircraft playing in the skies above us. Most are used just for fun and in the process are disturbing to all they pass over with there poorly muffled power plants and noisy propulsion systems. They fly low and slow with a large noise foot print. They are in a class with noisy motorcycles and personal watercraft when it comes to their disturbing effect on the general public. This part of the aircraft industry needs to advance into the next century or we are going to be stuck with these noisy toys for the next hundred years like we have for the last hundred!

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