Sport Pilot Lands

A new dawn for low and slow

October 1, 2004

The Sport Pilot and Light-Sport Aircraft initiative means many things to many people. For nearly a decade the FAA and the general aviation community toiled away, trying to make the bricks fit into a complicated regulatory wall. The initial proposal alone generated some 4,700 public comments. As of September 1, there is a new level of pilot certificate and a new class of aircraft.

So where do you fit in?

Think of it as a way to embrace the fun side of aviation. Smell the cut grass, read water towers, and follow the cornrows in low-performance aircraft. The FAA put light airplanes, gliders, balloons, powered parachutes, and weight-shift-control aircraft (basically hang gliders with engines attached) under one regulatory umbrella. The initiative also gives pilots of these aircraft access to more airports and airspace and better access to insurance and financing. The initiative was developed to enhance the fun of aviation, but more so to help shatter cost barriers and bring back already-certificated pilots to the world of flight by introducing less cumbersome medical standards.

Where you stand in this depends on several factors such as whether you're already a certificated pilot or want to become one, and whether you have a current medical certificate or plan to use a driver's license in its place. Although the initiative could take years to fully implement, read on as we break it all down.

Medical relief, sort of

Often when you lobby the government for new regulation, you don't know what you're going to get — there are always a few surprises in the end.

Such was the case with the medical component of the initiative that came with some rather irksome caveats. Based on the original proposal, already-certificated pilots could simply use a driver's license in lieu of a medical certificate and, pending a flight review, fly immediately on or after September 1 any existing certified aircraft that would meet the light-sport aircraft specs such as a Piper J-2 or J-3 Cub, Aeronca Champ, and various Luscombe and Taylorcraft models. There would be no waiting for the industry to crank out new airplanes, an aspect AOPA championed for its members. If you were healthy enough to handle a car at highway speeds in close proximity to other fast-moving objects, as the thinking went, you would be safe enough to operate a light-sport aircraft. Also, medical factors only contribute to a tiny percentage of aircraft accidents.

But what raised many pilots' hackles was language in the final rule saying that if a pilot's medical certificate (or special issuance, for that matter) had been denied, suspended, or revoked, he couldn't use a driver's license in place of the medical certificate. This means he would have to go through the special-issuance process to clear the medical before using a driver's license. Let's look at it another way. Say a person suffered from the same medical problem, but never held or even applied for a medical certificate. In theory, at least, he could still fly using a driver's license and bypass the aviation medical examiner. This seemed unfair. AOPA and industry groups are trying to get the FAA to revert to the original language or offer a new process for pilots who are willing to fly only under sport pilot limitations. The FAA raised concerns about the difficulty of implementing the latter idea, but has agreed to further discussions.

The trick then becomes to hold onto your driver's license and not lose it because of medical problems — vision changes, loss of motor functions, seizures — or from operating recklessly or driving while under the influence. In addition to the driver's license, sport pilots, just like other pilots, have to self-certify that before they fly they don't have any medical conditions that would make them unable to fly light-sport aircraft safely.

What if you hold a recreational pilot (or higher) certificate, possess a valid medical certificate, and you simply want to fly light-sport aircraft for fun while maintaining all your privileges? No problem. You can fly any make or model of light-sport aircraft. That is, as long as you meet the category and class requirements on your certificate. For instance, if you're a private pilot with " airplane single-engine land" privileges, you can fly light-sport airplanes as long as you have a tailwheel signoff for those airplanes of yesteryear. To fly powered parachutes, you would need to receive training from an authorized instructor as well as a logbook endorsement.

For questions about the medical aspects or any other topic, call our Pilot Information Center at 800/USA-AOPA (872-2672).

Getting back in the air

So the Sport Pilot idea sounds interesting but you haven't flown since Nixon? Reagan? Clinton? Don't worry. AOPA has prepared volumes of information on AOPA Online to get you back in the air. See our Web resources box that accompanies this article.

General information and a complete list of certified aircraft that meet light-sport specifications are on AOPA Online, "Sport Pilot and Light-Sport Aircraft."

In another area of the Web, the Pilots' Guide to Getting Back Into Flying is broken down by which decade you stopped flying and provides a summary of all the nuances and changes in regulations that have occurred since that time. It also provides information on saving money and finding a flight instructor.

Need to brush up on weather? Aircraft inspections? AOPA has prepared a host of subject reports based on member inquiries. AOPA's Handbook for Pilots also provides information on emergency procedures, navigation, and airport operations, among other things.

But what about insurance? The AOPA Insurance Agency has commitments from several underwriters for hull and liability insurance for light-sport aircraft. Also, if you plan to rent light-sport aircraft, renters insurance is available. For more information, give the AOPA Insurance Agency a call at 800/622-AOPA (622-2672).

Starting from scratch

The Sport Pilot and Light-Sport Aircraft initiative was drafted to provide a less costly way of entering the realm of flight; in fact, flight time logged as a sport pilot can be applied to a higher rating.

If you do not hold a recreational, private, commercial, or airline transport pilot certificate, you must have a minimum of 20 hours of flight time for a sport pilot airplane, gyroplane, airship, or weight-shift-control aircraft certificate. For powered parachutes the minimum is 12 hours; 10 for gliders; and 7 for balloons. Just like the higher certificate levels, sport pilots are required to be at least 17 years old (16 for gliders and balloons) and take a knowledge exam and practical test conducted by an FAA-designated pilot examiner. It will take some months, however, before the FAA has finalized the written tests and trained examiners. Some who criticized the proposed rule didn't think it would be enough training. The FAA disagreed, noting that " the skills necessary to operate an aircraft that exceeds 120 knots differ from those skills necessary to operate a light-sport aircraft."

Less training, though, means a shorter leash. Initially, sport pilots are restricted to flying up to 87 knots in level flight but can open it up to 120 knots with additional training. The FAA put a ceiling on sport pilots of 10,000 feet msl, even in mountainous terrain. Sport pilots are restricted to day VFR only and can take along one passenger. Properly equipped light-sport aircraft can also be operated by sport pilots in Class B, C, and D airspace with the proper training and a logbook endorsement. Flight reviews are required every 24 months.

The original proposal would have required sport pilots to log ground and flight training for each make and model of light-sport aircraft they wanted to fly. Seeing this as too restrictive, the FAA changed it to allow sport pilots to check out in an airplane that belongs to a similar " set" of aircraft that have like operating characteristics and to fly all the aircraft within that group. The FAA based it on the National Designated Pilot Examiner Registry that was set up for training and checking pilots who operate warbirds and other vintage aircraft. The FAA plans to establish a working group of government and industry representatives to determine the sets.

To fly another category or class of light-sport aircraft (such as going from an airplane to a gyroplane), you need to receive and log ground and flight training in certain operational areas from an instructor, and successfully complete a proficiency check from a different instructor. The latter endorses your logbook.

So what if you're a private pilot, for instance, and are using a driver's license in lieu of a medical certificate? Then consider yourself a sport pilot. This means that you have to operate under the same, more restrictive rules they do. Although sport pilots are not allowed to fly at night, there is an interesting loophole. With a current medical certificate, private pilots or above can fly light-sport aircraft at night if the aircraft is properly equipped.

Factory new

In addition to training, operating and acquisition costs tend to lighten the wallet. Because factory-built light-sport aircraft are much simpler in design — no retractable-gear or constant-speed props — and will be flying at lower speeds, the FAA has allowed a new process to bring aircraft to market, a streamlined approach compared to the multimillion-dollar type certification process.

By allowing the industry, in conjunction with the FAA, to develop "consensus standards," aircraft can be made much less expensively. Although the aircraft will not be type certified, a final inspection is required. These will be done most likely by FAA-designated airworthiness representatives (DARs) who are authorized to inspect light-sport aircraft. Each aircraft will be issued a serial number and a special light-sport airworthiness certificate that demonstrates conformity to the manufacturer's design, assembly, and quality control processes. Any deviations from the manufacturer's specifications will require a special experimental airworthiness certificate.

Instead of pilot's operating handbooks or flight manuals, the aircraft will come with "aircraft operating instructions" that don't require FAA approval on the text. Another difference between light-sport airplanes and type-certified mounts is that the FAA doesn't intend to issue airworthiness directives (ADs) for airframes, although already-type-certified components such as engines and radios may be subject to AD action. In the final rule the FAA boosted the maximum takeoff weight by 100 pounds to 1,320 to allow for ballistic parachutes and certified four-stroke engines.

Estimated sticker prices so far seem to be averaging around $50,000 for most manufacturers, give or take 10 grand. Many of these are existing kit designs that will be manufactured as ready to fly or aircraft that are already being produced under international microlight guidelines and meet the light-sport aircraft specifications. But no one knows for sure when we'll see the first production light-sport aircraft.

Already-type-certified aircraft such as that trusty J-3 Cub that hold standard airworthiness certificates will still have to be treated like certified aircraft and operated and maintained according to the paperwork, regardless of what level of certificate the pilot holds.

Turning your own wrench

Maintaining your own aircraft would certainly be nice, huh? Knowing the mechanic so intimately could be a good or bad thing depending on your level of self-esteem.

If you buy a ready-to-fly light-sport aircraft, the FAA allows owners to perform preventive maintenance such as changing the oil, just like on certified aircraft. But with some training, you can become a light-sport aircraft mechanic.

The FAA created another new level of certification: repairman. And two ratings to go along with it: inspection and maintenance.

By taking a 16-hour FAA course, you can perform the annual condition inspection of your aircraft. With more schooling (120 hours for airplanes, 104 hours for powered parachutes and weight-shift, and 80 hours for glider and lighter than air), you can do the maintenance and inspections.

This doesn't mean you can go to work on your friend's Cessna 172; the certificate limits you to light-sport aircraft. If you don't opt for the training, the existing maintenance routes for certified aircraft are also available to light-sport aircraft owners such as airframe and powerplant mechanics and FAA authorized repair stations. The maintenance program is yet another area of the initiative that will take some time to get rolling.

Flight instructing

It's a lot less stringent and takes fewer hours to go from scratch to a sport pilot instructor than following the traditional route. You don't need a commercial certificate and an instrument rating along with a minimum of 250 hours of flight time. A sport pilot flight instructor certificate with airplane privileges can be had in 150 hours.

Besides meeting the age requirement of 18, you must hold a sport pilot or private pilot certificate, receive and log ground training in the fundamentals of instruction and specific aeronautical areas, and meet aeronautical experience requirements. You then must pass an FAA written test and an oral and flight test conducted by an FAA-designated pilot examiner.

The sport pilot instructor certificate is good for 24 months. It has to be renewed just like a regular CFI certificate within that timeframe.

If you are already a CFI, your category and class authority extends to light-sport aircraft as well, opening up new training opportunities. After all, new opportunities is what sport pilot is about.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

AOPA Web resources

General sport pilot information and a complete list of certified aircraft that meet light-sport aircraft specs along with a photo gallery

The Pilots' Guide to Getting Back Into Flying

AOPA's aviation subject reports

AOPA's Handbook for Pilots

AOPA Insurance Agency Web site