Guest Blog: Teaching Light Sport (If You Can)
From 2005 to 2015, my small flight school offered training in the famously rare Comco Ikarus C42, which was (and still is) manufactured in Germany. I say “rare” because (to my knowledge), only 13 C42s were ever imported in the U.S., and at one point I had three of them in my hangar. It was the largest fleet of C42s the U.S. (In Germany, more than 1400 of these airplanes have been sold.)
During those 10 years, I picked up 750-plus hours teaching in “real” airplanes, our airplanes, and a variety of other LSAs including the classic Piper Cub. In those hours, I did most of the learning. The first thing I learned was a trainer should have dual controls. The C42 had a center stick, and a single motorcycle-style handbrake.
So, an elderly student showed up one day, and his goal was to transition from his weight-shift trike to a real airplane. We had a discussion about the differences, and soon departed for an introductory flight. He was already light-sport qualified, so I assumed I could communicate to him pilot-to-pilot. During our third approach to land, I held my left hand over the stick, and as we started to flare, I said “nose up … nose up.” He promptly and forcefully pushed the stick forward. I grabbed his hand and pulled, and he pushed harder. Eventually I won the arm-wrestling match, and we went around.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. “I’m sorry,” he said. “To get the nose up in a weight-shift airplane, you push forward so your body moves back, and that raises the nose.” Apparently, I wasn’t paying attention during our preflight brief.
During our occasionally busy periods, I needed a fill-in flight instructor. I found a guy with over 500 hours and checked him out. He performed well, and I allowed him to put five hours on the airplane at my cost before taking on a student. I flew with him again, and I was confident he could take on our more advanced students, where surprises are less frequent.
One sad day, I spotted a white thing between the runway and taxiway. Two guys were standing next to it, apparently talking. I walked over to join them. They were standing next to my C42E, which cost $103,000. It was literally broken in half. The fuselage tube was snapped. The wings were bent. After the investigators left the scene, I interviewed the instructor and student separately. The instructor said he didn’t know what happened. The student said, “We bounced pretty hard on the landing, and then the airplane turned left and we were pretty high, and he said ‘This is going to be a really hard landing.’” It was. Thank goodness for insurance.
Just how different are LSAs compared to heavier airplanes? Sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot. In the case of the C42, the maximum takeoff weight can be less than 1100 pounds, depending on model, power and accessories. That’s well under the LSA limit of 1320 pounds.
These little birds are called microlights in Europe. In my opinion, this was the most honest and responsive LSA I’ve flown; overpowered for its weight, and having exquisite control harmony. But microlights are easy to over-control and are a handful in moderate winds. Our crashed airplane was over-controlled during the flare, and our instructor didn’t recognize that there are hard landings, and then there are really hard landings.
During a first flight, experienced pilots don’t show much more skill in the C42 than do zero-time pilots. It has a trick windscreen. From the left seat, all pilots initially taxi toward the right, and the opposite is true if you switch seats. It’s an intimidating illusion even for high-timers. During the flare, the illusion becomes more convincing, leading to loud squeaks or blown tires.
But all LSAs are not the same. Three, in particular, surprised me. I don’t want to get too specific about the manufacturers, because my experiences may have been flukes. (But I doubt it.) I was checking myself out in an LSA in which I’d be training a guy who bought it ($130,000) and planned to get his light sport ticket in it. His insurance demanded that I have five hours in it. My checkout was via a phone chat with his former instructor. I took off for the first flight, and began the basics. I started with slow flight.
At well above stalling speed (I was taking it easy), I started turns. I soon discovered I could start a left turn with rudder and aileron, but with no immediate response. I’d reverse the turn, without ever changing my heading. I honestly thought I had a control failure. I carefully returned to the airport and flew final approach at 80 knots, which was recommended during my phone checkout. That was fine, but as I got over the runway and into the flare, I again thought I had no aileron control. A phone call to my phone-checkout guy confirmed that this was all normal.
After 40 hours with the student, I recommended he sell the airplane, saying, “I can barely control this thing. I think you should sell it and get something that handles better.” He did sell it. Then the buyer sold it. Then the final buyer wrecked it.
The other surprise came while I was giving some dual to a guy who said he had a hard time landing his new LSA. In the pattern, I commented that he wasn’t coordinated. He said, “No, that’s just the way it flies.”
I asked if I could fly the next pattern. No matter what I did, I could not keep the ball in the middle. Maybe it was rigged wrong, or maybe my rear end was broken, but I simply could not find a combination of aileron and rudder that would kiss and be nice.
Finally, I once picked up a demonstrator: “The Light Sport that Would Change the Industry.” It was priced at $80,000. It was covered with loosely stitched and wrinkled fabric. In the air, the flapping fabric made as much noise as the engine. It was even less coordinated than the airplane I described above. I got it on the ground, and asked one of our instructors if he wanted to fly it, to confirm my suspicion it was a death trap. He refused. I never flew it again.
I am not surprised that the bright future of the LSA remains just that.