Light Sport Aircraft

by Philip Greenspun, ATP-CFII in August 2010

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Light sport airplanes are designed to carry two people in clear daytime weather. They are limited to a maximum gross weight of 1320 lbs. (1430 for seaplanes), a maximum stall speed of 45 knots, and a maximum cruise speed of 120 knots. A light sport airplane's low speeds and restricted uses mean that pilots with fairly minimal training can operate safely.

Certified versus Light Sport Airplane?

In the United States, an airworthy used four-seat certified airplane can be purchased for $30,000. The used certified plane can hold a family of four, be operated through clouds under instrument flight rules (IFR), and be flown safely at night with appropriate training. How is it possible that anyone would want to pay $100,000 or more on a new light sport airplane with just two seats and no IFR capability?

The first problem with certified airplanes is that they were designed for a mission of practical transportation that hardly anyone wants anymore. The number of private airplanes and private pilots in the U.S. has been declining since around 1980. Within the mainland U.S., there is no way that a certified airplane can compete with a Honda Accord in terms of practical door-to-door transportation. The car has a much more comfortable interior with less noise and vastly superior climate control. A certified four- or six-seat airplane can be sensible transportation for a family with a second home on an island, but for most of us the Honda Accord will get there about as fast, with much more certainty, and in greater comfort.

Light sport aircraft are an attempt to turn back the calendar to the early 20th century when people flew for the joy of being up in the air, because they were fulfilling an ancient human dream, and because they wanted to enjoy the bird's-eye view. Dispensing with the array of instruments required for flying safely through clouds means that the light sport aircraft can have a less cluttered panel and therefore a better view outside. Having a slow stall speed means that a light sport airplane can be used effectively for aerial sightseeing.

Which is more fun?

Are light sport aircraft as much fun to fly as a heavier (certified) four-seater, for example? They should be more fun, in the same way that a 2000 lb. sports car is more fun to drive than a 4000 lb. sedan, which is more fun than the 7000 lb. SUV. There is less inertia so the airplane responds faster. If it is just one or two people, the only situation in which light weight is unwelcome is in windy or turbulent conditions. A heavier airplane is more stable and easier to land when the winds are gusty. If you're willing to plan your flying to occur on calm mornings, the light sport plane should always be more fun.

Learning to fly

If you enjoy learning new material and reading books you might just as well get a standard Private pilot certificate at the nearest flight school. You'll be better equipped to use Air Traffic Control services, to fly at night, and to get out of trouble in the event of unexpected clouds or heavy rain. With a standard pilot's certificate, you can fly a light sport aircraft without needing the periodic medical exam (every 2 or 5 years, depending on age) required of certified airplane pilots.

The minimum legal requirements for a conventional Private are 40 hours of experience, but most students require closer to 60 hours. The minimum for Sport Pilot is 20 hours, but a typical student may need closer to 40 hours.

Define your mission first

To make an intelligent decision between certified/standard and light sport aviation, start by writing down your mission. Do you want to fly from Point A to Point B or mostly takeoff and land at the same place? Do you want to carry more than one passenger? You'll use the same written mission when shopping for an airplane. There is no ideal aircraft for all missions.

Which light sport airplane to buy?

Choosing a light sport airplane is difficult because there are almost as many manufacturers as airplanes currently flying. How to narrow the search for the best airplane? I would recommend looking first at the long-established European light sport designs that Cirrus and Piper have chosen to remarket here in the U.S. Cirrus and Piper are filled with experts on flying and building airplanes. The fact that they picked the FK 14 Polaris and CZAW Sportcruiser is very confidence-inspiring. Another manufacturer worth investigating is Tecnam, which has been manufacturing airplanes since 1948 and currently produces both certified and light sport airplanes.

Although it would seem very simple to design a light sport airplane, there have been some unpleasant surprises, e.g., multiple crashes of the Cessna 162 Skycatcher during spin testing.


Text and photos (if any) Copyright 2010 Philip Greenspun.