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A Sporting Chance

A Sporting Chance

In the first of a regular series covering international developments, it seems that recent criticism of the American light sport sector has created a backlash from recreational enthusiasts Stateside. The same turbulence is likely to be felt as far away as Australia. Dan Johnson explains.

It is true that a pilot of one type of aircraft may not know much about nor (therefore) care much about another type of aircraft. Ultralight pilots and turbine pilots may not seem to have much in common. Sailplane pilots and crop dusters, likewise. Powered parachute enthusiasts seem on the opposite side of the spectrum from airline pilots. Yet, regardless of our interests — or even the country in which we live — pilots as a whole are more alike than different in one critical way: we all love flying and we treasure the freedom and beauty flying can provide. So, why do some aviation groups disparage other groups? Why do fixed wing and rotary wing or powered and unpowered pilots sometimes engage in heated arguments? The reasons are many and as varied as humans are different. Fine … we have to accept that we are different. Yet should editors and aviation leaders act more professionally? I think so.

Recent aviation editorials have questioned the value and viability of Light-Sport Aircraft. Other than to create controversy to boost readership or viewership, I can’t think of a good reason why one editor blasts a group … at least without good cause. Is the LSA industry in “critical condition?” Can it be true that industry consensus standards “didn’t work?” Based on what information, I have to ask? I’d like to reply to those naysayers going negative on Light-Sport. I’d specifically like to briefly focus on the safety, utility, and the future of Light-Sport.

SAFETY — Why do we certify aircraft? Why do companies institute quality control? Why do we have detailed documentation of manufacturing processes? All these efforts attempt to bring safety to aeroplane operations. Are LSA perfectly safe as a result? No. Yet American FAA officials repeatedly refer to LSA safety with this word: “Acceptable.” Safety can always be better but to say industry consensus standard “didn’t work” is a wrongheaded value judgement, I believe. Indeed, FAA is sufficiently impressed that ASTM committee F44 formed recently to do for Type Certified aircraft what the F37 committee achieved for Light-Sport. Evidently FAA does not agree that industry consensus standards “didn’t work.”

UTILITY — Flight training is one of the harshest of aviation environments. We interviewed several producers who cited multiple examples of LSA with 1,500, 3,000, even 4,000 hours and more, all acquired in flight instruction. Some had 10,000 or many more landings yet they’re holding up well (with good maintenance, of course). They also stated that economically, both from operation cost and purchase considerations, LSA make money for flight school operators. In other tough duty, several LSA have successfully circumnavigated the Earth. Obviously, LSA are reasonably durable and can be used to fly long distances.

THE FUTURE — The first LSA came on market less than eight years ago, so it seems a bit soon to say the LSA market “will never be strong.” Did the new segment solve all of aviation’s growth problems? No. Will it, in time? Perhaps not, though maybe. Was that ever a realistic assumption, given that aviation has been working to solve the growth problem for decades? Meanwhile, the incredible diversity of Light-Sport are offering current pilots a broad variety of choices and have indeed brought new people to aviation. So, rather than going negative about any one class of aircraft, I urge aviation leaders to be the professionals they are and to jointly among all aviation sectors seek solutions for aviation outreach. Throwing darts at one another isn’t what’s needed. Aviators with an audience can — and should — do better, in my humble opinion!

Meanwhile, we recently recorded very strong interest in market share. It would appear the LSA segment is hardly in “critical condition” despite what some may think. The Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA) board of directors recently held its monthly teleconference and some interesting thoughts were expressed. Here we present a summary of how those discussions relate to LSA market share.

First, since 2009 we observed the number of newly registered Special LSA aeroplanes in the USA has been 20-25 per cent of all single engine piston (SEP) GA aeroplane deliveries. In 2012, Light-Sport represented 32.8 per cent of GA SEP deliveries or 24.7 per cent of all aeroplanes. However, that is only part of the story.

In addition, you ought to consider the impact of “experimental”, that is, kit-built LSA (ELSA) plus “alternative” aircraft such as weight shift, powered parachute, and gliders/motorgliders. Historically over the eight year life of Light-Sport Aircraft, these latter non-aeroplane LSA account for a significant share approaching one-sixth to one-fifth, which based on the 2012 numbers, would add 40-50 more new aircraft registered. Accepted figures typically do not include them as they are notoriously difficult to identify in the FAA’s database for a variety of reasons. Despite those challenges, these aircraft are ASTM-compliant (i.e. approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials); are finding customers, and most importantly, are getting pilots up in the air. Ignoring them is to leave out a deserving segment of aviation. Indeed, they account for 28 of 131 SLSA models on the SLSA List.

Another category we have not listed is ELSA, for example, RV-12s, which are primarily built as ELSA rather than Experimental Amateur-Built (EAB). An advantage, beyond no need for an aviation medical, is the opportunity to have someone else partly or fully build their ELSA kit … legally. Perhaps more important is the fine Van’s reputation for handling and performance and the joy flying them brings to their owners. The first and only RV-12 SLSA was registered in July 2009. In the three and a half years since, 203 RV-12 kits have been registered for an average of 58 per year. Add other experimentals to the Van’s equation  – following development of an ASTM-compliant SLSA — accounts for 572 additional LSA aeroplanes. Averaging over seven and three quarter years since the first LSA were approved, this amounts to 74 aircraft a year.

If we take the previously announced 259 SLSA aeroplanes in 2012 and add the ELSA average of 74 and then the 40-50 non-aeroplane SLSA, we arrive at 373-383 aircraft. Presuming this analysis to be correct, this means all LSA represent 47-48 per cent of the 790 GA SEPs or 32-33 per cent of all single engine piston aircraft registered or delivered in 2012.

Note that we are not including Experimental Amateur Built (EAB) kits, which can be flown by someone possessing a Sport Pilot certificate. To be “Sport Pilot eligible”, they must meet the weight, speed, and other parameters of the LSA rule but they are not technically Light-Sport Aircraft according to their Airworthiness Certificates.

Unlike EABs, ELSA are required to be bolt-for-bolt, identical copies of the originally-accepted SLSA so they fully comply to ASTM standards at the time of winning their Airworthiness Certificate. Once certificated, ELSA owners may do their own maintenance and can make modifications, though most probably see little change. LAMA’s board of directors feel it is important to portray the total size of the LSA market and the above facts attempt to do so.

Converted so-called “fat ultralights” (two-seaters) count several thousand examples.Yet in truth, the LSA numbers we report above might still be low. When safety data is presented FAA commonly refers to more than 8,000 LSA, a far larger number than the 2,500 or so SLSA aeroplanes we often list … which number grows to more than 3,500 when including the non-aeroplane SLSA and ELSA discussed above. When you add all these segments you arrive at a number that is more accurate regarding Sport Pilot eligible aircraft and LAMA’s board believes this to be a further refutation of those who opine that the Light-Sport segment is not performing well. Remember, all this occurred in less than eight years!

LSA deliver fun to their owners, jobs to those in the industry, profits to their producers and commercial users, and worldwide potential. LSA also use less fuel, make less noise, offer the latest in technology, are roomy, attractive, cross-country capable aircraft that are sleek, shiny, and smell new. They also have a safety record FAA regularly calls “acceptable.” What’s not to like?

No doubt recreational pilots in Australia would be encouraged by these findings and despite the attempts by some to undermine a youthful and growing industry, can certainly look forward to a bright future. Indeed, many commentators observe that the recreational sector, despite recent hiccups with its governing body, is one of the strongest in the world. We must ensure that this nascent body of aviators do not become a victim of their own success, falling prey to in-fighting and regulatory squabbles. The consequences of internecine debate are already apparent in the grand old U S of A where aviation’s stars and stripes of aviation are descending into war and strife.

One Comment

  1. Your comments are spot on Dan. Give LSA a chance!

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