Do light sport aircraft have an image problem?

For would be pilots who still want to learn how to fly but may be put off by the cost of obtaining training and then the costs associated with owning or operating an aircraft, so called light sport aircraft (LSA), that is, an aircraft weighting less that 1,320 pounds (600 kilograms), offers an alternative. In fact and as we have noted in the past, obtaining light sport aircraft training and a sport pilot license is cheaper than obtaining a regular pilot’s license.

However, as Andrew points out on the Lets Go Flying! blog, light sport aircraft have an image problem because in his words “its mostly to older pilots who are concerned about losing their medical.” In fact, Andrew comments:

Show up to any LSA event and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about– those in the cockpits, asking the questions, and working the controls are 70 year old pilots who see an LSA as their only way to keep flying and avoid spending all their money on golf.

Andrew further comments that if the FAA in the USA were to do away with some of the medical certificate requirements for flying other types of aircraft, the light sport aircraft industry would be in serious trouble. However and at the same time, he notes that:

Just as young people don’t want to drive Dad’s Oldsmobile, young would-be pilots won’t want to fly aircraft known for servicing mainly older people.

Andrew may have a valid point here. However, and given the state of the economy, light sport aircraft has remained one of the few bright spots for general aviation even during the lowest depths of the current economic downturn. In fact, some comments to Andrew’s post touch on the increased interest in learning how to fly one being reported by flight schools in the USA and that there are other issues involved that hamper significant growth – particularly when flight schools have more expensive models that they prefer students to use.

Hence, what are your thoughts about so-called light sport aircraft and are they really worth considering as a serious alternative to other types of aircraft?

Cessna Sport

9 Responses to Do light sport aircraft have an image problem?

  1. Vincent, from Plasti September 16, 2009 at 17:16 #

    I know this comment could start a severe argument, but I've to post it. If a pilot's medical examiner thinks he's not fit enough to fly anymore, is it really a good idea to find a way to fly anyway, despite that ?

    Ok, now you can hit me.

  2. Justin Shelley September 17, 2009 at 15:24 #

    Vincent: I'll take your challenge! An FAA medical allows one to pilot an aircraft up to and including very large, very complex machines. One of the flaws in your logic is that you group all medicals into one class. In reality, we have three levels of "healthy enough to fly". We currently call them 1st class medical, 2nd class medical, and 3rd class medical. You seem fine with the concept that one can be medically fit enough to fly a Piper Warrior, but not fit enough to fly a Citation X carrying passengers. Otherwise, you could equally complain that if someone were to fail a 1st class exam, he should no longer be allowed to hold a 2nd or 3rd class.

    This new ruling does not allow someone to fly who is "not fit enough to fly". It simply adds one more level to our existing medical class system. This forth level happens to coincide with the same standards that we use to determine if one is medically fit to hold a drivers' license. So rather than create a "4th class medical" we use the drivers' license. For example, my driver's license requires me to wear corrective lenses. So if I were flying under Sport Pilot rules, that would apply to my flight restrictions as well. I personally know a few people who have been found medically "unfit" to drive a car, and have consequently had their drivers' license temporarily revoked. So as a Sport Pilot, they would also have lost their "medical" and would no longer be allowed to fly.

    As a people we all tend to resist change. The whole LSA concept is new and many have yet to embrace it. When I first heard of it, I too dismissed it without thought. At the time I was running the flight training program for a small FBO, and then moved to flying C421s at an air ambulance company. Then one day I happened to take a ride in a Tecnam Sierra (LSA) and I could not believe how fun it was to fly, and how advanced the avionics were, and how affordable the whole package was compared to anything else on the market. It made a believer out of me, and I now run one of the busiest Sport Pilot training centers in the country. I hold a commercial certificate, ASEL, AMEL, instrument rating, CFI, CFII, and MEI. I also hold a valid 2nd class medical. I love to fly the bigger twins, the Cessnas, the Pipers, etc. But nothing really compares to the "sporty" class of LSAs. Not for a minute do I look at them as "Dad

    • Matthew Stibbe September 17, 2009 at 15:34 #

      Standing back and watching the sparks fly! 🙂

      Seriously though, I'm kinda interested in LSAs or their equivalent. If I get a zippy two seater at a reasonable price that I could fly IFR, I would be very happy.

  3. Justin Shelley September 17, 2009 at 15:37 #

    Matthew, you need to look at the Tecnam Sierra.

    It can be special ordered as an IFR equipped and legal aircraft. Of course, a Sport Pilot cannot fly IMC. But a properly rated Private Pilot could (in this aircraft) as long as he holds at least a 3rd class medical.

  4. Sylvia September 18, 2009 at 15:50 #

    I've never thought about LSAs before but that Sierra is quite a nice little aircraft. Comparing it to an Oldsmobile seems cruel!

  5. Julien September 24, 2009 at 01:06 #

    In the end it is a branding question. When pilots look at the Cessna 162 Skycatcher, they do not see an LSA, they see a two-seater Cessna with a glass cockpit.

    As the brand value of LSA manufacturers grows bigger (and market consolidation eventually happens, as it always does to mature markets), the brand will trump the category. Couple that with a likely increase in the maximum gross weight for LSAs and what will happen is that the LSA category is going to cannibalise the lower-end of the GA market, thereby establishing itself as the dominant category of aircraft for private pilots and flying schools.

    I also think that LSA manufacturers have a better capacity to innovate, and we may see one major disruptive innovation coming from them rather than established GA aircraft manufacturers. I'm thinking of the first electric two-seater with similar useful load and endurance as a C152 for example.

  6. Jim Lawrence March 18, 2010 at 17:38 #

    I'm an avid supporter and believer in LSA, having started out with hang gliders in the 70s, building and flying my own ultralights in the early 80s, and building an experimental kitfox in the late 80s.

    LSA have their place because they're a lot more than just new (albeit more expensive) Cessna 150s, which they will fly circles around.

    It's a new breed of fun-flying aircraft.

    They make use of new technologies, and allow people to fly who might not be able to otherwise.

    Justin makes several excellent points about the Sport Pilot medical, to which I'll only add, Sport Pilot licensees are expected to "self certify" that they are medically fit to fly. That's a level of personal responsibility that I wonder if class 3 and above medical holders always cleave to…of course they don't. Personal responsibility is always the top indicator of a good pilot, IMHO.

    There are lots of great aircraft out there already, but LSA fill a bit of a void: they have low-end General Aviation performance, climb out quickly, are fun and easy to fly, well-designed and built, and many of them carry airframe parachutes, which is an idea GA would be wise to adopt.

    There are many people alive today who would be underground, and whose families would be grieving them prematurely, for not having that 35 lbs. or so of life-saving equipment on board.

    If LSA with their smaller useful loads can carry them, and Cirrus and a few others think they're wise (and have many "saves" to back them up), others could and should follow suit.

    I'm a bit off topic here, but for every pilot who says, "Well, I won't make those kinds of mistakes," I say, you cannot account for, nor unerringly prepare yourself for, every mishap that can happen to you in an airplane.

    Just ask anyone who's had an airplane climb up underneath them, completely impossible to spot, or had an engine failure over inhospitable landing terrain, or…well, enough, I'll get off my parachute soap box now.

    I'll say one more thing though: LSA, and the parachutes so many of them carry, are concepts whose time has come.
    .-= Jim Lawrence

  7. Richard Johnson December 26, 2016 at 19:45 #

    As the author has pointed out, IF Light Sport has an image problem, it is among the “young”. But how many Young people do you know that can afford to buy, insure, maintain, repair, fuel, etc. an airplane? ANY airplane? And have the time to actually fly it, in addition?

    Apparently, Young people aren’t interested in any activity that extends beyond digital electronics. But MS Flight Sim. isn’t actually flying. The sales of breakfast cereals have declined by 1/3 recently. Having to actually wash a bowl, and a spoon is just too much effort.

    It seems unlikely that the opinions of this cohort, actually matter as regards the desirability of Light Sport aircraft. While there is some variability as to when the “average American” matures to the point where they have, 1) the money, 2) the time, and 3) the interest, to actually become a pilot, it’s clearly NOT 20-something, or 30-something, and still probably not 40-something. Around 50, seems likely.

    If there actually is a “stigma” concerning LSA’s it’s related to their price. The fact that they’re the (relatively) affordable category of aircraft, works against their “image”. No matter how reliable / practical / affordable a Toyota Corolla is, it’s never going to have the sex appeal of a Ferrari “La Ferrari”. Its very practicality makes it less sexy.

    Non-LSA G.A. aircraft are rich men’s toys (1/4 Mil ++ buy-in, multiple $ hundreds/hr operating costs). Unless, of course, you’re willing to fly a plane older than your grandfather. And even then…the repair / maintainance costs of elderly Cetificated aircraft limit these planes to the wealthy.

    Not that owning / operating any airplane, even a LSA, is now, or ever, going to be inexpensive. Duh…. So in’t not the “youth” that are ever going to be the preponderance of the owners / pilots. The average age of G.A. pilots in America is skewing older, and older, as time goes by, and the “Middle” class shrinks. And for the first time in modern american history the average life expectancy is going (back) down!

    This confluence of demographic trends, (most) people getting poorer, and dying younger, will inevitably lead to a decrease in airplane ownership, and pilot licensing.

    So, the real question should not be “do LSA’s have an image problem”, but, instead, “what can we do to arrest (much less reverse) the decline in ownership / licensing? And the answer is, I suspect, “Nothing”. The costs of ownership will continue to rise, even if not any faster than inflation in general. and the “Gen. X’ers / Millenials” appear to be to lazy /fixated on their X-Boxes, to “bother” to learn how to fly (not all, just Most, (which is what matters, demographically).

    Combine these trends with the rise of “Drones” (no pilot, or passengers, at all), and Self-Flying airplanes (oops,I mean “Personal Air Vehicles”) and the percentage of Americans with a Pilot Certificate, which peaked at roughly 1/5 of 1% in the 70’s, will drop to “next to nothing” over the next 30 years.

    This, is the “Future of Flight” in America.


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