‘A little bit different’

Five years in, a new look at sport pilot

April 1, 2010

A little bit differentThe sport pilot certificate will rejuvenate general aviation by offering a lower-cost entry to learn to fly.

Sport pilot is only useful for pilots who can’t hold onto their medicals.

These were two of the most frequently repeated anthems heard in the pilot community in late 2004 when the FAA released the rules creating the sport pilot certificate and the Light Sport Aircraft category—but the truth lies somewhere in between.

The pilot population appears to be on an uptick, according to data compiled by the FAA. In 2005, there were 607,737 certificated pilots. By 2008—the latest year for which data are available—the number had risen to 614,736. Unfortunately, the number of student pilot certificates dropped from 87,213 in 2005 to 80,989 in 2008. Over the same period, 2005 to 2008, sport pilot numbers increased from 134 to 2,623.

The reduced training and medical certification requirements for sport pilots were seen as big drawing points when the FAA announced the new pilot certificate. The training requirements, laid out in 14 CFR 61, Subpart J, are lower for sport pilots than for private: a minimum of 20 hours flight time, including 15 hours of flight training from an authorized instructor and five hours solo flight. With the reduced training requirements come some restrictions: Sport pilots are not permitted to fly at night or in instrument conditions. To fly to a towered airport requires additional training and an instructor signoff. A sport pilot may act as pilot in command of a light sport aircraft so long as it is in the same category, class, and set as the aircraft in which he or she has been trained and endorsed.

The medical certification requirements are an important aspect of the rules, and an unending source of discussion. Sport pilots may apply for an airman medical certificate, or they can self-certify with a driver’s license. A private pilot can exercise the privileges of a sport pilot—that is, he or she can fly as pilot in command of an LSA aircraft without a current medical certificate—so long as the medical certificate has not been revoked or suspended; if the pilot had been flying on a special issuance, that authorization must not have been withdrawn.

Some skeptics maintain pilots with conditions that could ground them will let their medical certificates lapse and continue to fly. The FAA has said there’s no wiggle room; if a pilot knows or has any reason to know that he or she has a condition that would preclude flying a light sport aircraft safely, the self-certification provision doesn’t apply.

Certainly the sport pilot certificate has drawn people to aviation who previously thought they wouldn’t be able to get through the medical certification process—among them Michael Combs, who plans to fly an LSA to all 50 states this month (see “A Really Long Cross-Country,” March 2010 AOPA Pilot). But to broad-brush the entire sport pilot population wouldn’t be fair, any more than it would be fair to say that sport aviation is only for those whose existing medical conditions make the process of getting a medical certificate dicier.

For David Sussman of Chestertown, Maryland, it was the sport pilot’s simpler requirements; the smaller, easy-to-fly aircraft; plus the additional benefit of no medical certificate that attracted him. “If I got a class three medical, I don’t know what I’d do with it except worry about losing it,” he says. Sussman, who is retired, says he flew enough night and IFR missions while serving as an Air Force navigator. He’s content to fly his Tecnam Eaglet from Stevensville, Maryland, to nearby airports for lunch, and when the weather warms up he plans to go down to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and visit First Flight Airport. “That’s far enough,” he says.

The homebuilt factor

Setting aside the medical argument, a significant source of sport pilot certificates may come from the Experimental/homebuilt community. Jon McDonald, an IT consultant in Chicago, is building a single-place Sonex and maintains he’ll get a sport pilot certificate when he gets close to completing the airplane.

“If I’m building a Sonex anyway, I can’t really come up with a good reason to get a private [certificate] right now. I may get one later, but right now, the private pilot certificate would give me the ability to fly with more than two passengers, which doesn’t matter because I’m building a Sonex,” he says. “I could fly at night, but night VFR can turn into IFR, which I don’t want to deal with. I could fly higher than 10,000 feet, but I don’t like tubes in my nose.” (The FAA recently amended the regulations on flying higher than 10,000 feet msl to allow flight to 10,000 feet msl or 2,000 feet above ground level, whichever is greater.)

Sonex and several of the least-expensive homebuilt designs fall squarely into the LSA classification, McDonald points out. “I do know of several people in the build process who are taking sport pilot lessons,” he says.

What’s flying around?

Light sport aircraft as defined in FAR Part 61 are meant to be simple, low-performance, low-energy aircraft. They are limited to 1,320 pounds maximum takeoff weight (1,430 pounds MTOW if the aircraft is intended for water operations), one engine, two seats, fixed gear, a maximum calibrated airspeed of 120 knots, and a maximum stall speed of 45 knots. Sport pilots can fly standard or experimental aircraft that meet the LSA definition.

More than 21,000 certified airplanes in the Standard airworthiness category from seven manufacturers qualify as LSA. These include Piper J-2 and J-3; Aeronca Champ; Ercoupe 415C and CD; the Luscombe 8, 8A, 8B, and 8C; and Taylorcraft BC, BCS, and BC-65.

In addition to the Standard category aircraft and Experimental models that qualify, numerous manufacturers have brought Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSA) to the arena. S-LSAs are completely factory-built and conform to the industry’s consensus standards created with guidance from ASTM International and approved by the FAA.

Deliveries of the Cessna 162 SkyCatcher S-LSA have just begun (see “ Fun at Mach 0.162,” January 2010 AOPA Pilot). Piper has gone in a different direction, choosing to rebrand an existing S-LSA—the Sport Cruiser, built in the Czech Republic—as the Piper Sport (see “ Seen at Sebring,” March 2010 AOPA Pilot). Other U.S. manufacturers include American Legend in Sulphur Springs, Texas, and CubCrafters in Yakima, Washington.

A great many of the more than 100 S-LSA models are imported to the United States. They include the CTsw and Remos, made in Germany; Evektor Sportstar, from the Czech Republic; Jabiru, from Australia; and Tecnam, from Italy.

While the S-LSAs are meant to be simple machines, they can be ordered with any number of options that would impress a Bonanza pilot: autopilots, glass panels, and other sophisticated avionics. It’s not uncommon to see $100,000-and-up price tags, which cause many to wonder what happened to the “affordable” part of the light sport equation. The weak dollar and a strong Euro are part of the reason behind the high cost of the imports, says Dan Johnson of ByDanJohnson.com. The nice-to-have options certainly don’t keep costs down.

Smaller, cheaper, fun to fly

LSAs’ lower operating costs (they typically burn three to six gallons per hour and many have engines designed to use auto fuel) and sheer fun factor make them attractive for many pilots. David Sussman purchased a Tecnam Eaglet and put it on leaseback at the flight school where he earned his sport pilot certificate. “I could certainly buy a used 172 and get a private certificate,” but he says he’d much rather fly with a stick in the right hand and have a left-hand throttle, which feels more natural to him.

Ed Benson of Mineral Bluff, Georgia, has owned a Cirrus SR22, a Cessna 150, and two Citabrias. Benson is a commercial pilot and CFI, and he plans to renew his medical. It’s not inconceivable, however, that he could join the ranks of those who exercise sport pilot privileges exclusively, he says. He now owns a Sky Arrow, an Italian-made two-place LSA. He likes the Sky Arrow’s tandem seating, the panoramic view that its canopy affords, and the fact that it can easily get in and out of the private airstrip where he keeps it. “I like things that are a little bit different,” he says.

E-mail the author at jill.tallman@aopa.org.


Artful trickery

A successful sweeps giveaway in California

By Dave Hirschman

“We’re calling because we’re starting a conspiracy and need a co-conspirator,” the voice mail message from AOPA to California-based FedEx pilot Jimmy Rollison began. “This may get messy and complicated, but if anyone can pull this off, it’s you.”

Rollison wasn’t the winner of the AOPA 2009 Let’s Go Flying Sweepstakes SR22, but in this small aviation world we inhabit, he was sure to know our winner. Both are California-based FedEx captains, general aviation aircraft owners, and longtime AOPA members living near Sacramento.

As happens about this time each year, AOPA hired an independent accounting firm to randomly choose a number, match it against AOPA’s list of sweepstakes entries, and identify the winner. Within the association, a few staff members involved in awarding the prize began finding out all we could about the winner: Michael Graves, age 55; home address at the Alta Sierra residential air park in Grass Valley, California; an ATP with a type rating in the Airbus A300.

A few more phone calls and some Internet sleuthing revealed that Graves owned a Cessna 180, he’d been an AOPA member for 18 years, and he had recently signed up for automatic membership renewals—a move that got him the bonus sweepstakes entry that ended up being chosen in the drawing.

The plan for getting the SR22 to Graves began taking shape among a half-dozen scrupulously truthful staff members who took to dishonesty with alarming alacrity. Our original idea was to have AOPA President Craig Fuller dress as a FedEx courier and deliver the SR22 keys to Graves at his home. But FedEx has tight restrictions on who is allowed to wear its courier uniforms, and the company’s public relations department was focused on transporting a world-famous panda from Washington, D.C., to China that week, so we reluctantly shelved the courier notion.

Then Rollison called back—and, thankfully for all involved, he enthusiastically agreed to join our plot. We swore him to secrecy, identified the winner, and Rollison got busy.

He informed us that Graves was scheduled to leave on a two-week work trip in just eight days. He’d be flying mostly within Europe during that period and return home late in the month. His March schedule wouldn’t be set for another week. If we hurried, though, we at AOPA figured we could get the SR22 in place, along with a video crew, photographer, and writer before Graves left town. Fuller would drop everything and rush to California to lead the giveaway.

Rollison found out about an airport property for sale at Alta Sierra, and he called Graves to ask if he’d mind showing him the place. Graves invited Rollison to drop by on Super Bowl Sunday morning as he, wife LaDona, and daughter Ariel were planning a small family get-together that afternoon at kickoff time.

The outline of a plan fell into place—but there were complications. First, Alta Sierra is a gated community, and getting a video crew inside would be difficult and sure to raise suspicions. Also, the weather looked questionable with rain and low ceilings in the forecast. Alta Sierra, with a 3,000-foot long, 50-foot wide runway at an elevation of 2,275 feet msl, is VFR only.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rollison said confidently. “Just head this way, and by the time you get here, we’ll have lots of ideas.”

Lamar? Really?

Michael Graves sits in the Cirrus SR22 and holds out the keys. Michael Graves and holds out the keys getting ready to take a first flight in the Let’s Go Flying Cirrus SR22.

The next day (Wednesday, February 3), I took off in the Let’s Go Flying SR22 bound for California. A series of heavy snowstorms had the East Coast blanketed in white, but the ramp at Frederick Municipal Airport had been plowed that morning. The SR22 was soon on top of a carpet of clouds at 8,000 feet with a 30-knot headwind and made it to western Kentucky for the first fuel stop. I planned to set out for Oklahoma next, but a powerful winter weather system was bearing down on the plains, and I was concerned about getting delayed there. I aimed farther north at Wichita, but the XM Weather display on the Avidyne MFD showed that Kansas was going to get blasted, too.

With diminishing headwinds and the SR22’s long endurance, I changed the destination to Lamar, Colorado, and got there just after the sun had set with a light rain falling. I wasn’t sure I’d gone far enough to make a complete end run around the weather. But overnight snow accumulations were light, and the next morning the way ahead over the Rocky Mountains was wide open.

Helpful ground crews at Lamar pushed the SR22 into a heated hangar where a thick layer of frost soon melted away. My cell phone chirped with a text message from Rollison: “Lamar? Really?” (He’d been monitoring my progress on FlightAware.) I fired one back telling him I’d be at his home field, Davis/Yolo County Airport (DWA), that night.

The SR22 crossed the Rockies near Alamosa on V210 at 15,000 feet, flew over Monument Valley, and arrived at Grand Canyon Airport (GCN) in gorgeous sunshine that reflected on fresh snow and ancient canyon walls. The final leg of the trip was a 4.5-hour journey over the California desert and up the fertile Central Valley.

The last approach and landing at Davis turned out to be one of the most challenging of the entire year with darkness, rain, and winds gusting to 30 knots. Thankfully, Mariellen Couppee, FBO manager at Davis Flight Support, had stayed late and turned the runway lights to full brightness. Rollison drove his pickup to the taxiway, flashed his lights for me to follow, and guided the SR22 to airport neighbor Chris Galloway’s open hangar door. He handed me a beer and said a new plan was in the works, but we’d have to act quickly.

“Mike Graves has no idea how much his life is about to change,” Rollison said.

Rollison sometimes flies Songbird III, the Cessna 310 made famous in the 1950s TV series Sky King. Rollison phoned Graves and told him a video crew wanted to record images of the famous Cessna, and Alta Sierra’s mountain backdrop could provide the perfect setting. Would it be OK to bring it? Graves didn’t hesitate. He’d watched the TV series as a kid, got his multiengine rating in a 310, and would be honored to have the iconic airplane come to his home field.

The trap was baited and set—but the weather was still questionable for delivery day.

Artful trickery

“We’re all in place but the ceiling’s kind of low,” said Jennifer Storm, AOPA public relations director, who was on the ground posing as part of the video crew at Alta Sierra the morning of the scheduled delivery. “What do you want to do?”

We decided to wait an hour. The weather was clear at DWA, and Songbird III was fueled and ready to go. Workers at Davis Flight Support had cleaned and detailed the Let’s Go Flying SR22 until it sparkled, and Fuller was ready to take the SR22’s left seat for the 50-nm hop to Alta Sierra. Finally, weather reports from Auburn and Grass Valley, the airports nearest Alta Sierra, showed VFR conditions.

“Here we come!” I tapped out in a text message to Storm moments before Songbird III and the SR22 took off and flew east together to fulfill the elaborate ruse.

Rollison landed first in Songbird III and taxied to a spot by the runway that Warren Morningstar, AOPA video producer, had selected. Graves was there and spoke with Rollison about the beloved 310 as they pored over every inch of the aircraft. Twenty minutes later, the SR22 landed and taxied directly up to Songbird III, where about 30 airport neighbors and friends had gathered. Graves helpfully marshaled the SR22 into position, nose to nose with the well-known twin, not realizing that the airplane he was guiding was about to belong to him and his family. When Fuller stepped out, Graves couldn’t quite place him.

AOPA President Craig Fuller presents Michael Graves with the keys. AOPA President Craig Fuller presents Michael Graves with the keys to the 2009 Let’s Go Flying Cirrus SR22.

Then Fuller introduced himself as AOPA president, gave Graves an honorary seventieth anniversary challenge coin, and reminded him of the association’s annual sweepstakes. This year’s prize was a 2005 Cirrus SR22, Fuller hinted. Graves couldn’t believe that he was the winner until Fuller handed over the keys and said, “It’s yours.”

Fuller said he was pleased that the highest-performing, most technologically advanced aircraft AOPA has ever awarded went to an experienced pilot with the knowledge and skills to use it fully. “It’s a perfect match,” Fuller said. “I know you and your family will have many memorable adventures together in this fantastic airplane.”

Remembering an AOPA Pilot article and video that recounted how the SR22 had been donated by philanthropist and veteran aviator J. Lloyd Huck, Graves said he planned to thank Huck personally for his generosity. Rollison apologized to Graves for his artful trickery and hoped his colleague would understand it was done with good intentions.

“The only thing I’m at all disappointed about,” Graves told him, “is that we’re not going to be neighbors.”

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.