LSA industry wary of AOPA/EAA medical proposal

Communication remains the key issue

December 8, 2011

There was anger among many in the light sport aircraft (LSA) industry when AOPA and EAA announced a joint effort for 2012 to get an FAA exemption from the third-class medical for pilots flying aircraft commonly seen in flight schools. (Pilots would have to have a valid driver’s license and complete an online course to help educate themselves about determining their fitness to fly.) Now, there is an acknowledgement that it could be good for the industry, if approved, but concern remains that it could affect LSA sales.

Meanwhile, based on emails, phone calls, and other input, AOPA and EAA members and pilots in general are overwhelmingly supportive of the initiative to seek the exemption.

The ability to fly with only a driver’s license as a medical certificate has been only a secondary marketing theme in the LSA segment. An LSA’s ability to lower the cost of flight training has been the primary marketing message promoted by most manufacturers and the industry. Nonetheless, some LSA dealers are concerned that the potential ability to fly a four-place180-horsepower airplane without a medical certificate will hurt sales of two-place aircraft built specifically for the LSA market. (The exemption would allow pilots to fly up to one passenger in a four-place aircraft; see the frequently asked questions for an explanation of the limitations.)

The key issue, said several in the LSA industry who were interviewed for this article, was the lack of early warning.

“The main hurt was being blindsided,” said Dan Johnson, president and chairman of the board of directors for the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. “If we had just known about it, we could have been prepared,” he added. “There was a lack of communication, and I was told literally one day before it was announced. That’s the one main stumbling block in this whole thing.” When it was finally announced to a small group of industry officials, prior to the public announcement, Johnson said the feeling in the room was that they had been hit by “friendly fire.”

Reflecting that opinion was John Calla of Liberty Sport Aviation and Adventure Flight Training in Lancaster, Pa. “What if you went to the Czech Republic and spent money importing an airplane, and the day you introduce it [ the new Czech-built Bristell] is the day AOPA and EAA come out with a proposal to change the rules?” Calla said.

“Do I think it is a good idea? I think it is a great idea. I’m 66 years old,” Calla said. “I spent the last six years of my life building the light-sport industry. It’s too early to tell how it’s going to affect the market. It’s going to stump the market and slow it down, because people are going to wait and see.”

Tom Peghiny, president of Flight Design USA, said, “I think the threat to general aviation right now is so great that anything that keeps people flying is good. I can see the motivation. It is a little unfortunate that it focuses back on LSA like this. But light sport aircraft offer more than just being able to fly without a third-class medical.”

“The industry does seem to see it wasn’t really a bad idea in the first place,” Johnson said. “I have seen some who were unhappy, at first, that have mellowed. It has happened because most are supportive of the concept.”

If buyers are waiting for a quick change to allow flight in up to 180-horsepower aircraft based on a driver’s license, they may be grounded for a long time. The FAA approval process for an exemption can take years, although none of the people interviewed wanted to venture a guess. There have been five to eight attempts in the past by AOPA and EAA over 20 years, depending on who you ask, but none involved the two membership associations working in concert. Johnson said he learned the approval of the sport pilot certificate and light sport aircraft was delayed two years by the FAA’s concern about eliminating the need for a medical certificate.

John Hurst of Sebring Aircraft in Sebring, Fla., sells light sport aircraft, most of them used. He has concerns about the proposed third-class medical exemption, although he doesn’t feel the new exemption would make it more difficult for him to sell his light-sport inventory. The sport pilot certificate got some good pilots back in the air and brought in new pilots, he said. “With the initial crowd [of light sport aircraft buyers], 80 percent did not have medicals. There was pent-up demand. Now, 80 percent do have medicals, but just like the features of the LSA.” 

Rob Hackman, AOPA vice president for regulatory affairs, said, “We are doing this for our members and the good of the industry as a whole. The industry as a whole benefits from reducing obstacles that allow the potential for more new pilots and that encourages existing pilots to fly longer. More pilots and pilots flying longer means more activity. Our members tell us on a regular basis that we need to be advocating relief from the [third-class] medical. This is an ongoing effort.”

EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski said among the primary purposes of the light-sport movement were to bring ultralight aircraft into compliance with FAA standards, and to develop something for local-area recreation. The elimination for a medical certificate was an auxiliary issue. “The real issue [of the exemption request] is to get and keep people in the air and to keep them up there in aircraft that they are familiar with. This isn’t anything new,” he said. “We do think it is important to keep our eyes on that goal. EAA and AOPA are doing what they are supposed to do as membership organizations.”

Knapinski noted there are other branches of the light sport movement, including powered parachutes and weight-shift aircraft, that are not affected by the effort to get an exemption to the third-class medical requirement.

Pilots delaying a purchase decision, such as deciding whether to buy a light sport aircraft or to keep their Cessna 172 in hopes of the exemption’s passage, need to look “at the here and now,” Knapinski said. “Once it goes into the FAA mill, you don’t know when it might come out.”

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | "AOPA Pilot" Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.