Is the FAA about to go all-in and all but remove the weight restriction on light sport aircraft? Here, key the ecclesiastical music, insert the visual of the clouds parting and Jack Pelton descending the mount with the stone tablets, or at least a USB drive announcing something intriguing.
But let’s tap the brakes and see what develops. We heard over the weekend that a proposal is coming from the FAA to raise the light sport weight limit to 3600 pounds. For a benchmark, that’s what a Cirrus SR22 weighs and also a Piper Saratoga. Yeah! Riding to the pancake breakfast in style at last.
In a moment of giddy enthusiasm, I’m mixing apples and oranges here. The light sport airplane rule and sport pilot privileges aren’t the same thing. But for argument’s sake, let’s say this proposal—and we have absolutely no confirmed detail on it yet—mashes together the airplane rule, the light sport pilot rule and BasicMed. Pour that out of the blender and you get 3600-pound single-engine piston airplanes that a pilot could fly with up to six occupants, with driver’s license certification.
You could operate VFR or IFR within the U.S. at altitudes below 18,000 feet and not exceeding 250 knots. If this rule actually does that—and I’m speculating here just to entertain myself on a slow Sunday night—this could be, well, yyuuuuge. Or at least moderately stimulative, as BasicMed appears to have been. (Hard numbers are elusive.)
This idea is not a new one, by the way. It was circulating about four years ago as a kind of background proposal. Same 3600-pound gross weight, but the idea was that it would allow manufacturers to use ASTM consensus standards—same as LSA—to design, build and certify new models, rather than the more restrictive FAR Part 23, which requires extensive test programs. You don’t need to be a bean counter to understand how this would reduce the cost of bringing new airplanes into the market, although how much is impossible to say.
It could very well encourage new entrants who otherwise might take a powder because of low volume and daunting certification costs. Regardless of the real cost reduction, it would undeniably be a positive thing for general aviation, even if it reduces new model sticker prices by just a third. I wouldn’t expect too much more than that based on where Icon finally settled out with its prices: almost the equal of a new Cessna 172.
There’s a possible dark side, too. And you know what it is. The existing light sport industry could be impacted on several fronts. One, legacy airplanes would suddenly gain more utility and more value, making not-that-cheap LSAs somewhat less attractive. And if new ones aren’t selling, used ones won’t be as attractive, either. We’ve been expecting the light sport market to shake out significantly, but it hasn’t yet. Grandfathering more older airplanes into no-medical-required eligibility seems certain to have an erosive effect.
But what many people miss about this equation is that even though light sports are expensive, they’re still the cheapest new airplanes. By a lot. A new Flight Design CTLS retails for about $180,000, less than half the price of new Skyhawk. The CTLS is faster and burns less gas. Yeah, it carries only two people, but then abundant data show that most GA trips carry one or two people, not four. Still, lots of buyers like to carry around seats they never use.
But that’s a bad example. The better one is Vashon’s new Ranger, which I reviewed here. Nice airplane and one poised for the kind of efficient, automated production you don’t see in general aviation. But the Ranger is heavy and lacks enough useful load. I’m not thrilled with the O-200 engine, either. A higher weight limit could transform the airplane and if it were me, I’d slap an IO-240 into the airframe or maybe even a Rotax 915, which would make it a real hot rod and something more interesting than it already is.
We’re told that this proposal may surface sometime next year as an actual NPRM. Twixt cup and lip and all that. But even if nothing ever comes of it but this delusional blog, that’s something, right?