Light sport airplanes were supposed to be a cheaper alternative to certified aircraft and they are. But in this republication of AVweb’s analysis of the accident record of these airplanes, the data confirms what many skeptics worried about: They suffer more crashes than standard category aircraft. This video explains why.

13 COMMENTS

  1. An unmentioned factor–many LSA manufacturers portray the aircraft as “fun airplanes”–they show the aircraft landing on short strips (or NON-AIRPORTS, like ridge tops, fields, deserts, gravel bars–and skimming the water on oversize tires. Nothing WRONG with that–it’s just that for many pilots, they aren’t up to actually DOING what the pros in the photos do. It leads to unrealistic expectations–not that the AIRCRAFT can’t do it, but that the PILOTS may not be able to do it.

    I’d like to see what the safety record looks like when the aircraft are flown from marginal or “non-airports” by private owners. (Note that I didn’t say “Private Pilots”–apparently, many pilots with Commercial or ATP certificates fall into that “I can do what that guy in the video is doing” trap.

    As an illustration, the Recreational Aviation Foundation has a better than average record of accidents on remote airports, farm airports, and unimproved landing spots–the “Back Country.” RAF urges pilots to get professional training before doing that–and while it doesn’t eliminate issues, it helps. Unlike the video (which concentrates on LSA aircraft), many RAF members (and commercial operators) utilize certificate aircraft (with their higher takeoff and landing speeds) for their back-country work.

    I’d like to see a follow-up video with these differences taken into account. Another possible video is to massage the same data on accident rates of LSAs operating from licensed airports–I’m guessing that it would make quite a difference from the rates portrayed here.

    Not being critical–this is exactly the information needed for pilots to ask themselves in their best Clint Eastwood squint– “Are you REALLY UP TO THIS? Well, ARE YOU, PUNK?” (laugh). Thanks, Paul, for an enlightening video!

  2. If the light control forces play a factor in the accident rate, I wonder if any of the manufacturers have looked into increasing the control forces. Maybe adding counter-weights or anti-servo tabs or the like. There’s only so much that can be done, but it seems like any little bit will help.

  3. Many if not most LSA and homebuilt (kit) aircraft are constrained by weight and sell themselves as providing more performance/fuel burn.

    The result of these design compromises is decreased wing loading and/or a “cleaner” airframe,

    As an example the C182 has wing loading of approximately 18 lbs./sq. ft., the C172 is 14 lbs./sq. ft. while the typical LSA is 10 lbs./sq. ft.

    The result is less stable handling which becomes challenging under windy/gusty conditions and at lower airspeeds.

    It has always amazed me that the authorities that wrote the LSA rules did not take this into account. I to this day do not know what the LSA rules were trying to accomplish.

    • Can’t edit posts on this forum but I apologize for just reading the text. I have just watched the video and Paul addressed the issue I brought up in my post. My question remains. What were the certifying authorities thinking when they formalized the LSA specs.

      Certified GA aircraft specs are written with a reasonable safety margin in mind. Maybe wing loading should be part of the spec and some number like 14 lbs wing loading be part of the certification process. Or like taildraggers the insurance companies could look at wing loading when deciding rates and whether or not to insure the aircraft.

  4. Bingo on the light wing-loading Paul. If the LSA rule had been 45 kt max stall speed vs a 45 kt clean stall speed, in rough numbers 20% less wing areas would be required, getting the aircraft close to 13 lbs/sq.ft wing loading. Increasing the wing loading to that level benefits handling, cross wind performance, stability and feedback forces.

    Hopefully the update to the rules, whenever they come, will involve sensible updates like this and the 120 kt speed limit.

  5. In France, the equivalent to Light Sport are ULMs, which for many years were around 70kg MTOW lighter than light sport.
    Some time ago one of the French ULM websites looked at accident and death rates, and came to the conclusion that it was slightly more dangerous flying ULMs than riding motor bikes.
    More deaths from the aircraft and fewer serious injuries, but I guess that is the effect of height above ground for you.
    They noted a downturn in death rates as more and more ULMs had parachutes — it is very difficult to sell one without a parachute now — but going into the trees while taking off remained deadly, as was turning over and burning while landing.

    • Goodness, here in North America motorcycle accident rate is high, primarily because of a common mentality among riders, plus getting run own by cars who do things without proper visibility or are drunk.

      One Darwin Candidate was scooting along passing cars on the right, until he encountered a section of the roadside barrier that was out of place – crunch. Another motorcyclist was killed when a fem shortcutted a left turn when she was behind a van so did not see the motorcycle.

      Hopefully the LSA death rate in Europe is not as high as motorcycle rate hear.

  6. It seems that the main issue for light sport comes down to perception versus reality. The original light sport concept was basically a larger version of ultralights. But, manufacturers immediately started to make them grown-up airplanes in a smaller package. And, the buying public agreed with that as evidenced by the fact that the most popular LSAs are the more expensive and better outfitted models. The bare-bones models are not selling well, if at all. Since most LSA pilots are licensed individuals that learned to fly in certified airframes, they want the nicer planes with more capabilities. In other words, they want an affordable LSA that does the same things as their former Bonanzas and Mooneys did. Unfortunately, the low wing loading and low control forces are hard to adapt to when your muscle memory is based on the Bonanza’s control feel. Old habits are hard to break.

    I think most people agree that the solution is to allow higher gross weight, which will both make the airframe stronger and increase the wing loading for a “true airplane” feel that pilots expect. Almost as soon as the original specifications for LSA came out, people started lobbying for changes in weight and airspeed limitations. Ironically, it is now taking longer to get updated standards than it took to formulate the original specifications. Personally, I find it inexcusable that it has taken this long and we still have no idea when new standards will appear, or what they will look like when they finally arrive. It appears to be a topic that no one in the FAA wants to touch, so there is no incentive for them to get serious about moving it forward. In the meantime, the Europeans are moving forward with several new airframes that can only be imported as an experimental aircraft in the US. Classic government inertia.

  7. LSA was supposedly about “innovation” and “expanding markets” (money). I was not sure that anyone really cared about actual safety numbers since it was always a marketing bandwagon, not a reality bandwagon.

  8. When I was a fledgling aviation in the early 1970s a friend and mentor WWII Naval Aviator gave me some great advice. “Always fly the airplane that your a$$ is sitting in.” So I don’t fly my Citabria like a Caravan or Bonanza. Worked for all those years.

  9. Just seen the vid, very professional. But we still don’t know the matrix.
    My 2c worth on just some aspects Paul touched on.
    There are some LSAs out there that a pretty much the silhouette of a C172 ( albeit faster, eg Jabiru ) so their higher accident rate my be due to the pilot cohort flying them, the missions they fly or just higher touch down speeds ( good news, this is a low fatality scenario as the figures show).
    There is another LSA group that attract the “gee whiz that looks like a racing car” group. They are a pickle when low and slow and turning, as Paul said. While a Jabiru for example will maintain full control authority at and thru the stall, some other aircraft flick a wing down, then the nose down, before you can blink. Goodnight.

    • Shane, very true. The focus on “innovation” and “new markets” also meant that a lot of the new designs were rushed into production to get into the beginning of the inevitable sales bubble. That rush sometimes meant overlooking poor stability, poor loading margins, and unharminized controls.

  10. Light wing loading also adds to the handling mix, low inertia. Low inertia makes the airplane subject to any and every change in the wind and its flow with no ability to penetrate it.

    I owned an experimental airplane that actually was the third airplane built by the manufacturer as a testbed for the eventual kit offered to the public. Essentially a factory built kit aircraft. By the time I bought it, it was now equipped with a Lycoming 0-320 of 150HP with all the latest mods bringing this airplane up to the latest iteration being sold by the manufacturer. Empty weight was now 841 pounds. Since it was first certified at 1500 lb gross weight, it did not meet the light sport category. But close enough to learn about unusual control harmony or lack of it a low speeds combined with low inertia from a low wing loading, light empty weight, and high drag. Plus it was a STOL type taildragger. Longer than a single seat Pitts but slightly shorter than a Pacer.

    GPS verified power on stall in the full flap landing configuration was 28 miles per hour. Stall in the landing configuration, power off, was 32 miles per hour. Clean stall was 38 mph. Power on rudder authority was excellent. Power off very vague. Aileron authority under 38 mph almost non-existent no matter what the power settings. Elevator was the lightest of the three and excellent no matter what speed…until the tail stalled…which usually happened before the wing. That means an instant nose pitch down with no stick input. Three pointing it was impossible. After designing, installing, and testing VG’s on the wings and ahead of the elevators including strakes for the horizontal stab, plus gap seals on all the flight controls, it became much more manageable. However, any winds over 10-20 miles an hour, even aligned with the runway made it a handful from taxi to landing. Crosswinds beyond 10 miles per hour fuggetaboutit. In normal climb and cruise, the control harmony was actually quite good and balanced. But slow it down and its nature changed dramatically. STOL operations made it difficult to get safe consistent performance. Yet it was marketed as a STOL bird.

    Low wing loading is just part of the problem. Unusual handling at slow speeds is another. 3 axis control harmony at cruise speeds can go away quickly at slow speeds. And these slow speeds look like great STOL performance which comes at a price of lack of controllability.

    CubCrafters has fine tuned an airplane that has 80+ years of known flight pedigree. Very predictable, with any previously known vices massaged into a well balance airplane in all flight configurations. Other newcomers to the LSA market are airplanes are more like my former experimental. Lots of surprises in areas of the low speed performance envelope. Not a whole lot of flight maturity with such low sales volume being flown by people whose handling expectations have been honed in Part 23 certified airplanes.

    I would venture to say, a fair amount of these LSA’s would not be sold if all of the performance envelope was satisfactorily demonstrated. Especially the low speed side in anything stronger than a very light breeze. CubCrafters has taken there training approach seriously with excellent results. I don’t see that same investment from other manufacturers. I am sure many would like to. But financially impossible to design and implement for most.

    To me, as long as the FAA is stuck on this 1320 lb gross weight limit, the LSA market has peaked at the design limitations. This includes all the problems associated with lack of control harmony through out the speed ranges, light wing loading, low inertia allowing for anything over a breeze to be a dangerous situation, and lack of flight training available either from the manufacturer or the preset CFI community equally steeped in Part 23 performance rather than LSA’s.

    There are always exceptions in the LSA aircraft category including seasoned LSA instructors. I don’t want to broad-brush every LSA offering. But those that have had the handling quirks dealt with one way or another are in the minority. And locating a seasoned LSA CFI is also difficult to access as well. LSA pilots are somewhat test pilots in many ways. I agree with Paul, that eventually the accident rate will improve over time due to attrition and experience. But as long as the LSA weight limits are so low, these airplanes are suited for safe flight only under the most ideal, calm flight conditions flown in the middle of the flight envelope.