An old idea

October 1, 2002

Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

Everything old is new again, as the cliché goes. And so it is with the proposed sport pilot category from my perspective.

The old way of learning the basics at relatively low cost is certainly not a revolutionary concept, and the proposed sport category airplane just may be the ticket to bring it back. There is a lot in the sport pilot proposal, including training and medical requirements that you can read about on AOPA's Web site, but I'm going to focus on the hardware. Aircraft, no matter what certificate the pilot holds, form the basis of flight. Everything else grows from that.

In the early 1970s my flight school had a guaranteed private pilot certificate program for $550. Relative to today's figures this seems laughable, but then, so does the price of my first car. Students learned basics in a basic aircraft—the venerable Piper J-3 Cub. The Cub launched tens of thousands of pilots and was synonymous with general aviation to the point that we can't shake the image even today. I soloed in 10 hours and then ventured into the world of cross-country with only a whiskey compass, sectional chart, and E6B computer. After 24 hours and several cross-countries, I checked out in the "big" airplane—a Cessna 150—and went on to learn about gyro instruments, flaps, radios, and all the other items needed to become a private pilot.

Reading the proposal for sport pilot I was struck by the similarity of the new airplane limitations to old machines. The Cub, the Aeronca Champ, and a few other old designs qualify under the proposed new rule, weighing in at less than 1,232 pounds with a cruise speed of less than 115 knots—way less! There are several other categories of aircraft also listed in the sport pilot rule, including ultralights, powered parachutes, gyroplanes, and more. These will appeal to enthusiasts, but I don't believe that they are in the mainstream.

If you stick with something more conventional, the options are to build it yourself, have somebody else build a kit, or wait for a special sport aircraft that is factory-built and ready to fly. This latter vehicle appeals to me and perhaps to many others who are adventurous enough to fly but not quite brave enough to do it in something they've fabricated themselves. This is not to criticize those who have the mechanical skills, but in the immortal words of Dirty Harry, "A man's got to know his limitations." It's good advice for cops, would-be homebuilders, and pilots alike.

The main appeal of such an aircraft—the FAA and the industry are working through the process of coming up with consensus standards—is the cost and simplicity. It's been noted that when the price of a new basic aircraft is four times the cost of a new basic automobile, life is good. If you accept that ratio, $48,000 sounds about right. Whether new factory-built sport machines can be sold for that is debatable. To be fair, most of the new four-place aircraft today are far better equipped, twice as fast, and have twice the seats of a Cub. With rental prices approaching $100 per hour and another $25 or $30 for the instructor (which is a bargain for a good CFI), the economics of flight training under the current system are lofty to some players.

The new sport aircraft should have great cockpit visibility, something that the Cub lacked. It is more important than ever to see the sky and what might be converging. Other pilots also need to see you. Taillights, visible during the day, would be a capital idea since these aircraft are more likely to be run down from behind than faster machines. An AOPA Air Safety Foundation study on collisions showed that 82 percent were from rearward converging angles. I recently saw a Breezy flying with large rear-facing pulsing lights that covered not only his six but from about 8 to 4 o'clock. That's smart, proactive collision avoidance.

The airplane should present a reasonably substantial appearance. Remember, this has to appeal to nonfliers who may still be uneasy about the whole Bernoulli business. Crashworthiness is not something that we like to discuss in front of prospective pilots, but it's so much easier and cheaper to build it in than to add it on afterward. Sadly, many of today's experimentals and homebuilts look and fly far better than they protect the occupants in the event of an unscheduled ground arrival, according to the NTSB. Four-point shoulder harnesses, energy-absorbing seats, and some thought to fire prevention makes sense for all new designs, not just the new sport airplanes.

Now for some real blasphemy! Consider making the new aircraft a tricycle design. There, I've said it. The Cub, with its tailwheel, was a good learning machine, but it was also relatively hard to land. The facts are that nosewheel airplanes are easier to land and are far less likely to be involved in a landing or takeoff fender bender. The FAA recognized this when it required tailwheel endorsements and separate currency requirements. That isn't to say that pilots shouldn't be trained more rigorously, but let's be realistic.

The new aircraft also should incorporate the Cub's genius for being easy and cheap to repair after a minor crackup. New pilots are rough on aircraft, and while everyone tries to avoid bending metal or tearing fabric, it happens. At my old flight school, one of the five Cubs was usually in the shop for minor damage repair or routine maintenance—and out again inside of a week. If it's simple and inexpensive to fix, that really helps with the insurance question.

VFR operations away from busy places are what sport pilot is about, and many such pilots will fly in the boonies. But some of these primary trainers may live at the edge of big-city airspace where many flight schools are located. What about adding a transponder so ATC and those aircraft equipped with collision avoidance gear can see you? How about basic radio communications with an intercom and headsets? It sure enhances traffic pattern awareness. While looking out the window is the primary means of collision avoidance, we've all missed a few targets but for the radio call. Most of the time it won't matter and occasionally it will be all-important. I can't imagine instructing these days without a headset and intercom and, having done it the old-fashioned way, I would never go back.

Traffic patterns and VFR skies are where we all interact. There will be speed differentials on final approach of 40 to 50 knots between sport aircraft and high-performance singles. One thing about collisions, stalls, and aircraft falling to the ground is that the general public and the media will make no distinction as to which category they came from. Sure, there will be some grass strips where only the sport aircraft come to play, but plenty of sport aircraft can be expected at moderately busy nontowered airports.

Many pilots with humble roots have grown to love bigger, more sophisticated aircraft, but the GA tent is big enough to welcome many more players, and we need them. Today's new sport pilot may become tomorrow's ATP. Then again, because of financial constraints or desire, he may elect to stay with the most basic aircraft. That provides a base that GA sorely needs, and no one has to apologize for enjoying flight in whatever type of machine he chooses.

Reliable, safe, inexpensive aircraft serve the same function as small boats do for the boating industry. Force a major investment and a steep learning curve early on and many folks will go boating, scuba-diving, skiing, and driving motorcycles. The typical new Piper Warrior or Cessna 172 Skyhawk provides so much more equipment than what is needed in the early hours of flight training that much of it is going to waste, but must be paid for anyway. They are excellent machines but pricey. Extra seats, avionics, systems, and instruments all have their place, but not for the financially challenged or those seeking a more basic initial flight experience. Remember that the Cessna 150 was the dominant trainer for several decades preceded by the Cub and Champ. If the industry can build a good-looking, easy-to-fly, safe machine with real basic value, it will be a major step toward long-term GA revitalization.