I mostly fly aircraft certificated under Part 23, but last month, I had five flights in a row in four different light sport aircraft. All this light sport flying got me thinking about an opinion piece I read years ago with the self-explanatory title: “The Skycatcher’s Death Proves the LSA Rule is a Failure.” That seems like a lot to hang on one chubby little airplane.
I’m not a nervous flier. I teach spins and light aerobatics. I fly single-engine piston aircraft at night and in IMC, although I am resistant to doing both at the same time. But whenever I fly the Skycatcher, it stresses me out. The club where I teach has a policy that pilots are required to plan for a one-hour fuel reserve. I think it’s a good policy. A one-hour reserve leaves just enough margin for mistakes and closed runways.
Call me what you will, but if you want to reduce your odds of being in an aircraft accident, the lowest hanging fruit—by far—is not running out of gas. The useful load on the Skycatcher is about 450 pounds. Take two adult men of slightly below average weight, with flight bags, a few quarts of spare oil and one hour of reserve fuel. That leaves 55 minutes of gas for actual flying. What am I supposed to do with that? Admittedly, many pilots will choose to intentionally exceed the aircraft’s maximum gross takeoff weight. While the 1320-pound (600 KG) weight limit for LSAs is an arbitrary figure, pilots who exceed it will be left to calculate performance figures and ultimate load factor without assistance from Cessna’s test pilots and engineers. That’s never a good practice and a totally unacceptable practice in the training environment.
The airplane is not only too heavy; the construction is too fragile. On a recent flight in the Skycatcher, the secondary door latch wouldn’t close all the way, so I pushed hard against the door to make sure it was secure with the primary latches. You can guess where this story goes, and you’re half right. The door didn’t come open. Much worse, it came half open. The front latch released, the rear latch stayed secure, and the leading edge of the door popped out like reverse thrust doors with a similar impact on performance.
After a herculean effort to get the door closed, we flew the 15 miles back home at 60 knots to keep the door from getting away from us again. To make it a real gold star day, my student threw up from the combination of excitement and turbulence as we were entering the traffic pattern. The Skycatcher does have easy inflight access to the baggage area, which allowed me to rapidly repurpose a gallon zip lock bag from oil funnel holder to barf bag.
You’d think for how heavy this airplane is, and how delicately constructed, it would be spacious. Although my 6-foot 3-inch frame fits OK in a Cessna 152, the Skycatcher’s seat is fixed and the adjustable rudder pedals move about three inches, leaving my knees at elbow height.
Is this all the proof we need that LSAs make for bad airplanes? Well, maybe it’s just proof that the Skycatcher was a bad airplane. This may explain why Cessna couldn’t make enough money on the airplane to justify the liability and ultimately scrapped the unsold inventory. It could also be that the light aircraft market is so unprofitable that there’s no long-term role for large public companies like Textron, who are driven more by profit than passion.
There are LSAs out there with ample interior room and great useful load, but they tend to use lighter Rotax engines and lighter fabric-covered wings. The Skycatcher can’t keep up because it wasn’t really designed as an LSA. It’s a scaled-down Cessna 152, which is a scaled-down Cessna 172, which is a scaled-down 747. I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble by pointing out that Cessna is not exactly a modern innovator in design of light aircraft. The Cessna 172 was introduced in 1955 and hasn’t fundamentally changed since 1996. To be clear, the 172 is the best training aircraft I’ve ever flown. It’s a damn good airplane. It just shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Cessna failed to squeeze all the juice from the light sport rules.
I suggest that you go fly a light sport aircraft if you haven’t already. I know, there are things they can’t do. They don’t carry more than one passenger, they don’t go into IMC and they don’t go fast. But hardly anyone does. Very few flights in piston singles have more than two people on board. They rarely fly in IMC. And while I’m constantly looking for trips far enough to outrun my car, but short enough to outrun Southwest Airlines, I never find them. Get in an LSA, grab your BFF, go sightseeing and have some lunch. That’s what piston single flying is mostly about. And that’s OK.
Geoff Rapoport is an AVweb news editor.