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Safe LSA transitions: a rated pilot transitioning to a light sport aircraft needs to understand the rules and limitations, get some training and consider their capabilities.


By all the usual parameters, people are turning to the new light sport aircraft (LSA) category and its accompanying sport pilot certificate in large numbers. Both apparently are having a favorable, if perhaps modest, impact on private flying in the U.S. The new aircraft category has translated into options and a new airman certification scheme so far posting some formidable numbers: About 60 new S-LSA types--special light sport aircraft, a factory-built, ready-to-fly machine--have been approved by the FAA under industry-developed consensus standards as of November 2007. Nearly 1100 new S-LSAs were registered through the same period.

And, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), as of July 2007 when association Vice President Earl Lawrence delivered a three-year report on the movement, 2100 new sport pilot certificates had been issued, along with 232 sport pilot instructor certificates and 240 examiners. Not too shabby, considering the FAA didn't publish the final sport pilot rule until August 2004; it was April 2005 before the first S-LSA won approval from the FAA.

The recreational-or-better pilot looking for more economical flying opportunities, more fun or simply a less-restrictive environment may find the LSA and sport-pilot privileges are the way to go. But there are some nuances to the new rules. And, as with any different technology, ensuring a safe transition may require extra effort. The last thing a transitioning pilot should do is think he or she can simply kick the tires, climb in and take off safely.


The LSA aircraft and sport pilot certificate numbers don't reflect any already-certificated pilots opting to exercise their privileges in an LSA. Similarly, none of those LSA registrations includes the use of older, existing aircraft certificated under CAR 3/FAR 23 and eligible for operation as an S-LSA. Dubbed "legacy LSAs," these are generally older tube-and-fabric tail-draggers. See the sidebar on page 20 for more details.

Confused yet? Don't be; it's all relatively simple. And attractive: The LSA category has spawned a wide variety of innovative and economical airplanes usually costing far less than a new FAR 23-compliant flying machine.

The appeal of a modern airplane for the price of something three, four or five decades old is one thing. The ability to keep flying without a medical certificate--whether by choice or circumstance--is another attraction for pilots. For a pilot already holding a recreational pilot certificate or better, exercising sport pilot privileges requires only a valid state-issued driver's license to comply with the medical certification requirements. A pilot may not have had an FAA medical denied, revoked or suspended to be eligible to exercise sport pilot privileges. A pilot whose medical has expired? No problem.


Meanwhile, as with anything, the small print deserves some attention. A couple of the less-understood aspects of the LSA involve the regulatory requirements with which an already-certificated pilot needs to comply before flying them.


Let's presume you're a private pilot (or better) with a chunk of time in your logbook, maybe even an instrument rating and time flying the challenging world inside the egg shell. How hard can this be? Fixed gear is fixed gear; fixed prop is fixed prop; and two seats--well, you get the idea. Yes, having the typical single-engine land rating on your certificate does legally qualify you to fly an LSA. You won't need to go through the 20 hours of flight instruction required for the sport pilot certificate or pass the LSA knowledge (written) test.

The only other thing you'll need to do is ensure your existing endorsements and ratings are appropriate to the LSA you want to fly. For example, if you want to fly a single-engine conventional-gear airplane (a taildragger), but you only have flown tricycle-gear airplanes, you'll need an appropriate logbook endorsement. Same for a seaplane. This is different from the rules applying to sport pilots, who must obtain training and an instructor's logbook endorsement before flying different makes and models of light sport aircraft.

For the long-inactive private pilot, one who hasn't flown in years and with a lapsed medical, the path back via the LSA is easy. Get some dual from a CFI or sport pilot instructor, a flight review and you're good to go. Importantly, no sport or other pilot is exempt from the two-year (biennial) flight review requirement. As long as you have a driver's license, you have a medical.


As a private pilot (or higher) with a valid medical certificate, you can exercise options unavailable to the sport pilot. For example, an LSA equipped to meet night-lighting standards and the operations handbook for which includes night flight, can be flown between sunset and sunrise by a night-legal private pilot, even though a sport pilot cannot fly at night in the same airplane. The additional training required for a sport pilot to fly at night is the private pilot license.

Ditto for flying into airspace requiring ATC contact, as long as the LSA is equipped with the proper radio and transponder as factory equipment, and its use is covered in the aircraft's handbook. Another privilege available to the private pilot or higher holding a current medical certificate is instrument flight but, again, only if the LSA is properly equipped and IFR is approved in its handbook.

According to Dan Johnson of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, the aviation community is working with the ASTM and FAA in expanding the consensus standards. The hoped-for results would incorporate and approve some of the non-TSO'd, non-approved panel gear for instrument flight of LSAs, similar to the way gear must be factory-specified for VFR LSA flight. Currently, an LSA factory can equip its aircraft with TSO'd gear needed for IFR flight and include IFR operations in its operating standards for the aircraft.


But how safe are these machines? Does the lack of FAR 23-style FAA certification have an impact? What about crashworthiness, maintenance requirements or engine reliability? When considering overall safety, for example, most systems are straightforward and most powerplants have been around long enough to develop a record. But first, let's tackle LSA certification.

The ASTM standard for LSAs is similar to FAR 23, but different. For example and according to the EAA Web site, "The requirements for light-sport airplanes are similar to FAR Part 23 requirements, but in a general sense the ASTM standard calls for a slightly higher load limit. However, each individual aircraft, whether type-certificated under Part 23 or certificated as LSA, must be operated within the limitations published in the aircraft's flight manual or pilot operating handbook. These documents are where the specific limits for a given aircraft are found." Additionally, engines, airframes, instruments and components all must meet either FAA, European JAR or ASTM standards. In other words, buyers and operators will need to read the fine print before presuming too much.

Although we consider it too soon for the category to have established a safety record, crashworthiness should be comparable to aircraft of similar weight and capability. One factor worth mentioning is the widespread use of airframe parachutes among LSA manufacturers.

Maintenance, too, is similar, but different. An S-LSA aircraft will be required to have 100-hour inspections when being used in a flight school or for rental. Additionally, a "condition inspection" must be performed each 12 calendar months, regardless of the types of operations in which the aircraft is engaged. The aircraft will need to be maintained by a person with a LSA repairman certificate with a maintenance rating, by an A&P mechanic or by an appropriately rated FAA repair station.

The LSA rule and the industry it spawned have broadened the horizons of anyone wanting to become a pilot or continuing to fly. In addition to understanding a new regulatory framework, prospective owners and pilots will need to understand the differences--and similarities--between LSAs, sport pilots and the conventional requirements and responsibilities of FAR Parts 61 and 91.

In subsequent articles, we'll look at these and other topics, including the overall safety record being earned by LSAs, powerplant and system characteristics, "legacy" aircraft and the implications of these options.


What Makes An LSA An LSA?

In developing the standards under which LSAs are approved, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and its working committees knew the FAA wanted to allow a great deal of latitude in aircraft design. One of the guiding principles was to develop a low-cost way to meet the standard and win approval, and to create airframe standards allowing for a wide range utility and performance--up to a point.

So, the LSA standards arrived at and maintained by ASTM set some well-defined parameters for speeds, weights, payloads. They're laid out in FAR 1.1 and go like this:

* Single engine; fixed or ground-adjustable prop.

* Unpressurized cabin.

* Maximum operating weight of 1320 pounds (600 kilograms). For seaplanes, a maximum weight of 1430 pounds . maximum empty weight equal to 1320 pounds minus the weight of two 190-pound passengers (380 pounds), minus the weight of fuel equivalent to half the horsepower (e.g., 50 pounds for a 100-hp engine, or 40 pounds for an 80-hp powerplant).

* A maximum straight-and-level speed of 120 knots CAS (138 mph if you like things to sound faster). maximum stall speed of 45 knots (51 mph) CAS.

* One or two seats.

* Fixed landing gear, except for an aircraft intended for operation on water or a glider.

Importantly, aircraft with a standard airworthiness certificate and meeting the specifications may be flown by sport pilots. However, the aircraft must remain in the standard category and cannot be changed to light-sport aircraft category. Sport pilot certificate holders may fly an aircraft with a standard airworthiness certificate if it meets the definition of a light-sport aircraft.

Then there are the different LSA categories: S-LSA for standard light sport aircraft, E-LSA for experimentals. The E-LSA category includes kit- or plansbuilt aircraft. An E-LSA may be used only for sport and recreation and flight instruction for the owner of the aircraft. The S-LSA may be used for sport and recreation, flight training, and aircraft rental, just like a standard-category aircraft.

The LSA category encompasses several classes of aircraft: fixed-wing; autogiro; weight shift (commonly called "trikes"); powered parachute; and lighter-than-air.

Legacy LSAs

The FAA rules addressing light sport aircraft specify the maximum number of seats and maximum certificated gross takeoff weight, along with maximum stall and top speeds (see the sidebar on the previous page for a list of the requirements).

As it turns out, many older aircraft certificated under FAR 23 and its predecessor CAR 3 rules meet the LSA requirements. Examples include many Aeronca, Piper and Taylorcraft models, for example.

At the same time, many other models from these same manufacturers don't meet the LSA rules. Often the difference can come down to a specific model being certificated at a slightly higher gross weight--much-needed at the time but now a victim of unintended conse consequences--which makes it heavier than the LSA criteria.

Too, an otherwise-compliant airframe modified with an STC raising its gross weight isn't eligible. And, no, the FAA won't allow an aircraft modified by an STC to lower its gross weight to be operated as an LSA.

For additional details on which unmodified standard category air aircraft are eligible for operation under the LSA rules, see the EAA Web site, html.


Dave Higdon is a professional aviation writer/photographer with several thousand hours of flight time in many aircraft types, including hang gliders, ultralights and LSAs.
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Author:Higdon, Dave
Publication:Aviation Safety
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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