Guest Blog: Teaching Light Sport (If You Can)

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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.

Comments (10)


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 14, 2018 6:00 AM    Report this comment

Good article. A lot of these airplanes handle very differently which we as CFIs are familiar. The same can be said of many amateur build aircraft that are currently flying. I once was advised by a senior WWII carrier pilot to "fly the airplane that my butt was sitting in" As a young pilot, I really didn't fully appreciate the wisdom of his advice. Now many thousand hours later, I try to instill this in my students.

A Cub handles differently than a C150, which handles differently than a Bonanza. The same is true of EAB (Experimental Amateur Built) or LSA. This also applies to experienced pilots transition from heavy metal airline aircraft or biz jets, to Citabrias. Ask me how I know that one.

Some of these LSA and EAB really have different and at times dangerous handling characteristics. A CFI needs to really understand what she/he is getting into when learning these aircraft and when using them for instruction. Remember the more unconventional an aircraft is in design, handling and/or ergonomics, the more likely that it will get bent. This goes back to the theory of primacy such that in times of stress the pilot will revert to what they first learned. I have seen this in aircraft with hand operated brake systems (EAB and Certified) where the pilot is frantically stomping on the rudder pedals while the end of the runway gets ever closer. The pilot completely forgets that the brake is hand operated.

There are some aircraft that must be avoided at all costs. It is incumbent that a CFI understand this before considering giving instruction is said aircraft. There are some that I will never consider. It could be due to a matter of survival or a matter of keeping my certificates in my wallet.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | June 14, 2018 5:44 PM    Report this comment

Sorry to hear about your bad experiences with LSAs. I flew an LSA just once.

A few years ago I was a C172-trained low-time pilot approaching "that age" where the 3rd Class Medical becomes more of an issue. I took a demo flight in an LSA with a CFI at a nearby flight school. My taxi, takeoff and climb-out were uneventful. After a few turns, etc. the CFI asked for slow flight including turns. They were sluggish, but again, uneventful. Returning to cruise power, I entered the pattern and lined up with the runway with an approach that was even higher than my usual high-approach tendencies. The CFI took the controls and slipped down to a reasonable glide path. I'm not sure who performed the final flare, but it was as uneventful as the rest of the flight.

For various reasons, I decided not to pursue flying that LSA. But even with my modest skills and experience and advancing age, I had no problem adapting to the smaller plane (except for the final approach). Maybe I was just lucky.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | June 15, 2018 12:00 AM    Report this comment

I am only just starting flying lessons, but have been a serial pest at flying schools and as such have done 3 intro flights and 1 proper lesson. They have been in a PA38, 152, Jabiru (LSA) and 172. I haven't done any landings yet, but in the air, and relative to flight simming with a joystick, it was the Jabiru that seemed the most natural as a first timer, right hander, with the throttle on the left, stick on the right, compared to using a yoke in the other aircraft. Just my 2 cents from my super experienced 2.5hrs total time across 4 types

Posted by: Alasdair Underwood | June 15, 2018 2:05 AM    Report this comment

For a long time, I considered an LSA but rejected every one I flew for exactly the reasons you espouse, Jeff. They are just too light and the structure cannot possibly put up with abuse like a heavier certificated airplane ... like a C150/152. Even in the hands of an experienced pilot, sometimes the vagaries of flight exceed the airplanes ability to cope.

If only the bureaucratic "they" would increase the weight limit of an LSA to a nice round 2,000 lbs..

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 15, 2018 4:22 AM    Report this comment

Sorry to hear of your poor experiences in LSAs. I have experience in a wide range of LSAs, although not a lot of time in any one of them (for any individual model, I peak at somewhere around 15 hours). I have quite a bit of experience of the C150/152, C172, and PA-28s.

I can see how LSAs could make poor training airplanes because they're not built heavily enough to take the abuse. And, you do need to remember that winds and turbulence matter a lot more in a lightly-loaded, slow airplane. That, and their speed, means they are limited as go-places airplanes - about the same as a C152. And, yes, there is one LSA model I've flown in that I don't want to fly ever again (also true of one Experimental, and one certificated type), and there are one or two I didn't care for much.

But, the experience of flying LSAs has ruined me for Cessnas and Pipers. Once you've flown something with quick handling, excellent visibility, a decent power-to-weight ratio, a modern engine, low fuel consumption, simple systems, modern avionics, a wide comfortable cabin, the ability to touch down below 40 knots in an emergency, and even a ballistic parachute, climbing back into an old Cessna or Piper and dealing with ancient systems and avionics, controls that often feel like they're not connected to anything, weak rates of climb, atrocious visibility, etc.,... is awful. It's like going from a '17 Caddy to a '50s Chevy; sure, the Chevy's affordable and it gets you there, but it's awful to drive.

And I know I'm not the only one who's had that reaction. "Simple, comfortable, responsive, modern" is a mantra I've heard from other pilots who are abandoning complex airplanes and flying LSA on full third-class medicals.

But, it's probably true that most of them are too high-strung, and too lightly built, to be training airplanes. Perhaps, if the new Part 23 rules haven't already become impossibly complex, maybe we'll see modern, LSA-type designs with higher weights and beefier parts, and we'll all be happy!

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | June 15, 2018 8:12 AM    Report this comment

The C42 is and remains one of the very few airplanes my cold, dead body can never be recovered from...

Posted by: Jason Baker | June 15, 2018 3:27 PM    Report this comment

Another problem with many of the airplanes built by small poorly capitalized companies is the issue of replacement parts. What do you do when the company no longer exists and you need a unique part. Not only are new parts unavailable but used parts don't exist -- normally -- either. Caveat emptor.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 16, 2018 5:32 AM    Report this comment

enjoyed your article

for what comprises a 'real' airplane
watch the 1965 classic film
'The Flight of the Phoenix'


Posted by: David Ahrens | June 16, 2018 10:31 AM    Report this comment

One must remember that LSA was originally conceived to replace "fat ultralights". The FAA envisioned most LSAs as open-framed, very-low-performance aircraft with no radio or electrical system and used primarily to train ultralight pilots or tow hang gliders. That's straight out of the horse's... err... mouth, in the Federal Register.

They never envisioned people viewing them as real replacements for Part 23 airplanes. At best, they figured existing airplanes that met the limits were "fringe cases" of a sort.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | June 16, 2018 4:05 PM    Report this comment

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