It’s Time To Raise The LSA Weight Limit


From the unintended consequences file comes this: The Third Class medical exemption rips away the last vestiges of logic—if there ever was any—for retaining the weight limit for light sport aircraft. If you can fly a 6000-pound airplane without a medical, why are you limited to 1320 pounds under essentially the same conditions?The whole thing has a Monty Python sort of silliness to it.

Against a mountain of data that shows medical certification has zero measureable impact on flight safety and that limiting weight probably doesn’t do much either, it’s time to re-examine and eliminate or change the weight restrictions on the light sport segment.

To be fair, the weight limit wasn’t really about safety, but economics. The idea was that the LSA weight limit could be set in such a way as to include some legacy airframes like Cubs and Taylorcraft, but not so many that it would stifle development of new, innovative light sport airframes. I would call this notion a noble failure. It honestly may have made sense at the time, but in retrospect, the idea of ASTM committees and the FAA attempting consensus decision-making on what will sell and how markets behave is dubious at best. Of course, it wasn’t all about that. When this was being discussed at the turn of the last century, the people developing it had to divine not just what would make sense, but also what the FAA would buy off on. Segueing back to Python, you’ll recall the demand to find a shrubbery. It was like that.

The weight limit had another effect. It would presumably result in airframes that cost less to manufacture. People who should know better often say the fact that the typical LSA retails for about $135,000 shows that light sport has been a failure. I continue to believe this is wrong. A two-place light sport costs about a third what a certified four-place light aircraft costs and the way things are trending, that will be soon be a quarter. Light sport prices have not escalated much.

True, airplanes like the Icon A5 have blown through the typical price points, but the fact remains, light sport airplanes are, on the whole, much cheaper than new certified airplanes. They generally deliver respectable performance, and are easy to fly and cheap to operate. And yeah, I know all about the comparison to used certified aircraft and I’ve made the argument. But the point was, is and always will be new airplanes. And new airplanes that are accessible and in tune with the easier-to-achieve light sport pilot certificate.

I think it’s a common misconception that the facilitators of light sport airplanes promised cheap airframes. I’ve searched my archives and never found such promises, although people in the industry did promise airplanes that were cheaper than certified examples. And that is, indeed, what we have. What we don’t have is a burgeoning market; we have a lukewarm market well in keeping with aviation in general. Hotcakes, we ain’t.

But consider this: Last year, 946 piston aircraft were manufactured worldwide, according to GAMA data. Just over 200 of those–22 percent–were light sport aircraft. The actual number of airplanes is actually not accurate because GAMA’s data sweep doesn’t include many European manufacturers like Pipistrel, Aeropro and Czech Sport Aircraft. If all of those were totaled, I suspect the light end of the market would be closer to 50 percent. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have those sales than not, even if dreams of mosquito swarms of LSAs have been long since dashed.

Back to the weight question:If you were king and could raise the light sport weight limit, what would you set as the higher weight? Would you even change it all? And do you think it would make any difference?

Let’s unpack this a little. Under the current rule, a light sport airplane is limited to two seats, limited to a single reciprocating engine, has a 1320-pound max gross (1430 pounds if float equipped) and an 890-pound max empty weight. Speed in level flight is limited to 120 knots indicated.

In practice, there are some problems with all this. The 1320-pound limit must be among the top five most operationally ignored limitations in aviation, with cloud clearance and currency right up there with it. The speed restriction is also a mere guideline for the unimaginative. I’ve seen 130 indicated in more than one LSA I’ve flown. The reciprocating engine requirement was presumably meant to simplify things and/or keep some bright bulb from stuffing a turbine into an LSA, but all it has done is complicate gaining approval for electric-powered aircraft. All it needs is a language fix. No one knows when that will happen, if ever.

So how to approach this? I wouldn’t leave it as it is. The rule is just illogical as it exists now. You could eliminate “light” and just call it sport aircraft; still two seats, but say a weight limit under 6000 pounds, no speed limit. Let the market and insurers sort it out. This is sort of where the Part 23 revision was supposed to go but probably won’t in its final form. This level of hands-off regulation is likely to cause fatal clutching of pearls in the FAA and Congress, so it’s unrealistic.

How about an incremental approach? Here’s one of the ridiculous things about light sport aircraft. CubCrafters’ Carbon Cub and American Legend’s Super Legend are both essentially Super Cubs, which in the certified form have a max gross weight of 1750 pounds and no restrictions on max empty weight. So it takes some pretty serious heroics to keep these airplanes within weight limits that are, in the end, now arbitrary, since it’s quite clear the market is awash with new, innovative airframe designs and legacy airplanes haven’t stilted this development.

Second, when I was at Diamond Aircraft a few years ago, Peter Maurer said the company had discussed offering the DA20 or something like it as an LSA. But it demurred when an analysis showed that to achieve the empty weight, it would have to trim nearly 300 pounds of weight out of the airframe, all of it structure. While that would make the airplane structurally more efficient, structural efficiency is antagonistic to durability and possibly safety and crashworthiness. Icon found this to be true when it petitioned the FAA for a higher weight limit to build in spin resistance. Similarly, LSAs are sometimes too weight restricted to accommodate full-aircraft parachute systems and crashworthy seats.

With all this in mind, I’d peg the maximum LSA weight 500 pounds higher than it is now—say 1800 pounds–and let the market chew on it for a while. I’d also let whatever legacy airplanes fit that guideline—that would include Cessna 150s—to be flown under the light sport rule. I just don’t see an economic or safety downside. The upside is that higher weights will add value to light sport airplanes and at least one manufacturer told me the company would enjoy a few more sales as a result.

As far as I can tell, there’s no active proposal to raise the limit circulating in ASTM or the FAA. EAA was rumored to be pursuing it, but the association says its not an active proposal. But I think this should go on the to-do list. Even though it’s rarely been so, we should keep trying to pursue regulation supported by logic and data rather than emotion and politics. Yeah, I know. That sounds like the rantings of a crackhead, but sometimes even I have moments of lucidity.

The foregoing is opinion and commentary based on disclosed facts. AVweb welcomes other points of view, including guest blogs.