Somewhere, in a hangar equipped with SolidWorks, an enterprising airplane designer is dreaming of finally putting a stake through the heart of the sclerotic Cessna 172. Fueling the fever dream is the just-announced results of the FAA’s MOSAIC project to modernize the Light Sport Aircraft rule. We don’t have the final rules details yet, but the NPRM announcement suggests the thing is going in the right direction. For once. (See the NPRM here.)
In a nutshell, the new rule would remove the onerous and arbitrary 1320-pound weight limit, would increase stall speed to 54 knots from the current 45, and would allow retractable landing gear and controllable pitch propellors. Current LSAs are limited to 120 knots, but under the new rule, the limit would be 250 knots. Not many certified airplanes can steam along that fast, so we’re looking at the probability of some real hot rods.
So yeah, this is a good thing, but let’s keep the heavy breathing in check by reviewing what got us here. By next AirVenture, the Light Sport Aircraft rule will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Light sport was supposed to ignite a wave of innovation and cheap—check that, less expensive—airframes. The Sport Pilot rule would allow pilots to fly them sans medical and would make it easier to obtain certificates. So did it? A lukewarm sort of maybe. Many LSAs are flown by pilots with higher certificates, stepping down from expensive airframes they no longer need. The FAA says 7000 sport pilots were certificated since the 2004 rule. That’s under 400 a year.
I consider the light sport industry a modest success because I never expected much of it. There are too many airplane types chasing too few buyers at prices that definitely are lower than new certified aircraft but that aren’t cheap, exactly. I think we talked ourselves into the idea that $40,000 LSA airplanes would gin up demand and we would be in the tall cotton of 1978. But buyers persistently larded up the new airplanes with all the options available, soon driving the mean LSA sticker toward $150,000. Buyers say they want cheap airplanes, they just don’t buy cheap airplanes. Or cheap avionics, either.
LSA did produce some innovation. The list is short, but the Icon A5 is on it, despite carping about its limitations and over the top promotion. CubCrafters ran with it and the Sport Cub begat the Carbon Cub, which has evolved to a deserved status as a classic. The company also developed its own engine. Legend put a second door on the Cub, which makes the airplane more fun to fly and a better floatplane. Pipistrel leveraged the LSA ripple to produce the first not-yet-practical electric airplane and got it certified in Europe. They’re still moving forward.
Sales volume was anemic and remains that way. In 2022, Tecnam was a sales leader with 70 ASTM airplanes, Icon had 36, Pipistrel 41 and Flight Design 7. The FAA claims 4459 airplanes were built under the rule or about 230 a year in the aggregate. If those numbers keep the lights on, who am I to call it a failure?
Why didn’t light sports sell better? The weight limitation was part of it, I’d guess, but the larger driver was lack of cost-value. The Icon’s come on price, for instance, was around $150,000, but it’s $390,000 now, fully equipped. And it doesn’t do much. Cross countries require patience, so it’s a runabout airplane for lake and river sport flying. So, a lot of money for not much utility. At least you could take an old Cessna 180 on floats to Alaska.
Now comes Son of LSA in the form of MOSAIC. Higher weights, faster speeds, bigger. We just reported on Texas Aircraft’s Stallion LSA, a four-place airframe powered by an IO-360. Think about the possibilities here. These airframes are still consensus ASTM approved, not certified. That means they’ll be cheaper to develop and pound for pound, should be less expensive than certified aircraft are now. (The NPRM makes vague reference to “revisions” of the consensus standard, but it’s unclear what this means.)
Without the weight restriction, designers can put more structure into them so they might survive the rigors of daily training, which flight schools have found current LSAs can’t always do. Broken landing gear, cracked mounts and chintzy door latches on the Skycatcher come to mind. I can imagine a modernized reiteration of the Cessna 150 as an LSA, powered by a Rotax and robust enough to survive the rigors of flight schools. Recall that Mooney’s aborted M10 was heading in that direction, but tanked after a $20 million investment poured into the dark hole of a sparse trainer market. The M10 was developed in anticipation of CS23’s streamlined requirements, but it was still a certified airplane. MOSAIC airplanes shouldn’t cost as much to develop.
When LSA first appeared, I imagined my ideal airplane would be sort of an upsized Globe Swift with 160 HP, turbocharged, retractable, side-by-side seating and full IFR. Except for the IFR part, all that is doable under MOSAIC. Rotax has the 916, Garmin and Dynon reasonably priced avionics and as Randy Schlitter and I discussed in this week’s video, small airplane factories can increasingly afford CNC equipment that dramatically improves productivity, at least limiting the rise in manufacturing expenses. You may recall that the same tech-driven economies were supposed to apply to the Eclipse Jet 18 years ago and, well, Eclipse was going to show us all how it was done. But what we saw was the bottom of a billion-dollar crater.
If you ever hear me say, well, this time is different, just slug me. But with the ASTM standards, the investments should be lower, the developmental times faster, capabilities higher and sticker prices lower. Not $40,000, but not $400,000 either would be a dreamy hope. Perhaps I lack imagination, but I don’t expect much market expansion here based on price alone, just as there wasn’t with the 2004 rule. Manufacturers entering this new realm should, in my view, think about one thing: ballistic parachutes for every new model. Perceived crash risk weighs heavily on people considering coming into or staying in aviation. If Cirrus proved anything, it proved that parachutes are a real safety enhancement that also broaden market appeal. Higher weights also allow more passive safety systems like belts, flail space, protected fuel lines and tanks. These airplanes need to have these things.
Now on to the legacy implications. The rule isn’t fleshed out yet, but apparently proposes to eliminate the definition of Light Sport Aircraft in favor of something else derived from a performance-based standard. That led the FAA to set a weight limit of “about 3000 pounds.” But it’s not a hard limit, rather one based on a clean stall speed of 54 knots. Make that speed and you’re in. I’m sure this will be sending many of us to paw through POHs looking at stall speeds. A 172, at 50 knots, makes it and so does the 182 at 53. But not the 210 and not the 177 Cardinal. Yes to the Piper Archer, no to the Dakota. V35 Bonanzas? Sorry.
Your guess is as good as mine for what implications this may have on the legacy market and on attracting new pilots into aviation. My guess is some, but not a measurable change. The 2004 rule gave the market for Cubs, Champs and Ercoupes a little boost, but it could hardly have been called frenzied. The advent of Basic Med softened the legacy market because medically challenged pilots could stay in or move up to heavier aircraft. Maybe it will be the same the second time around for 172s and Archers.
I disagree with the FAA’s rosy view of LSA safety. The agency’s own research revealed that light sports, as a cohort, have a higher accident rate than certified aircraft. My research into 200 light sport crashes revealed that many appeared to be the result of runway loss of control or stalls often related to low wing loading and light control forces. Adding weight and size to the airframe helps by making the airplane less of a kite in crosswinds with less tendency to overcontrol or PIO. Remains to be seen what manufacturers will do with that, but that new Stallion from Texas Aircraft may be a harbinger.
And you know what? All things considered, I would rather have the option of flying these more capable airplanes on driver’s license certification than not having it. I would rather have 4500 LSAs in the fleet than not have them and I’d rather have the prospect of new, more capable LSAs—or whatever we’re going to call them—than not have it.
So let’s call it MOSAIC what it appears to be: a promising step forward.