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Letter of the Week: Revamp Light Sport to Save GA
The real world responses to this week's Question of the Week on the FAA's 2030 Aviation Forecast once again underscore the fact that the FAA's "last great hope" for aviation, Light Sport, is going to go the way of the 1990s recreational pilot and the Dodo bird. It's high time that everyone involved "gets" the fact that aviation is a sunset industry [unless there's] a massive paradigm shift in thinking.
All of the ongoing positive accolades from FAA and EAA and AOPA aside, Light Sport has produced only 3,248 Light Sport pilots in just over five years. That's about one Light Sport pilot per State per month. The total number of active U.S. pilots is down more than 35 percent since the heyday of the early 1980s. Something has to be done.
From FAA's own database, the average age of a new LSA pilot is 53, while the average age of a new student pilot is 34. Looks like the older guys are the ones interested in LSA. That's good, but it isn't going to reinvigorate aviation. Per the FAA, there is no way to determine how many older existing pilots are transitioning down to LSA, but by viewing the age of participants at Sebring's LSA Expo, I'd bet big bucks that it's a number larger than new LSA pilots. There are lots of aging pilots who want to keep flying, and Light Sport is their only vehicle. Some of these aging pilots own fine existing low-end GA airplanes.
LSA manufacturers now have 100 ASTM-compliant designs and have sold only just over 1,000 airplanes. To be fair, about five manufacturers have built the bulk of LSA airplanes, but I wouldn't establish an LSA Company based upon those statistics.
Light Sport was supposed to provide us with airplanes that would cost just a bit more than a high-end car, from $40,000-$60,000. One would be lucky to get one home for twice that number at a time when the price of used airplanes is plummeting. A good C-172 can be had for around $40,000, yet the less capable LSA would cost three times as much. Have they heard there's a serious economic downturn on?
Here are two measures which I feel would cause Light Sport to explode compared to the sad performance to date:
- Raise the totally ridiculous max gross weight of an LSA-compliant airplane from 1,320 pounds to about 1,600 pounds. This would allow a used C-150/152 to be used as an LSA and pull more new pilots into the fold. The existing LSA MGW limits the incorporation of sufficient design safety margins and handling qualities.
- Establish two categories of Light Sport Pilots, one for novice LSA pilots and one for the aging existing population of experienced pilots with hundreds or thousands of hours who want to keep flying but don't want to deal with medicals. It could be further defined by the total number of flying hours, as well. Anyone over, say, 400 hours of total time ought to have more options than being limited to a 1,320-pound airplane. I'd be willing to limit myself to day VFR only with one other passenger in my C-172 if I could continue to fly it under Light Sport rules.
Within FAA's own existing rules, there exist FARs which define the parameters of what a Primary class aircraft is and what privileges a recreational pilot may fly under. Neither of these FAA "better ideas" ever went anywhere, but by marrying them with the LSA movement, I believe that a massive quantum leap in interest would occur.
A person could become a recreational pilot in 30 hours and fly a C-172 but would need a medical. The same person could today fly a 1,320-pound LSA without a medical. Frankly, we're down to splitting hairs here.
A new LSA pilot aspirant lets call them Type A (novice) would be limited to the (new) 1,600-pound C-150/C152 airplane. But as he/she builds time, he could move up to an airplane that meets Primary aircraft standards. They'd still be limited to day VFR and one passenger but could hope to fly better, more comfortable airplanes that cost a heckuva lot less than a new LSA.
The existing experienced pilots willing to give up privileges in return for no medicals could continue to fly their existing airplanes as long as they flew day VFR with one passenger and the airplane met Primary aircraft parameters.
Spawning new pilots is important, but equally important is keeping the pilots we have. The more pilots and airplanes we have, the more infrastructure will be required. Unless and until the FAA, et al. get serious about growing aviation, we truly are in a sunset hobby. If no changes are made to the LSA rules, it will join its predecessor, Recreational Pilot, in the box of poorly thought-out aviation "better" ideas.