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Embracing sport pilots

Adding to your income potential with Light Sport

My mouth hurt from laughing so much.

David, an ultralight pilot, was training to transition to sport pilot. He'd finally become comfortable with faster speeds, higher altitudes, and the big city airport. He had logged four hours with me in a light sport airplane. Paul, an airline captain, was training to transition down. Just 18 months into retirement, he missed flying. After a career culminating in captaining 757s, he wasn't yet comfortable flying low and slow or departing our small 7,500-foot runway. He had logged four hours with me in his Baron. The lives of David and Paul converged at my flight school, and I had brought them together at lunch to laugh over silly flying stories.

This lunch lesson was about dealing with change. Since the Sport Pilot rule took effect September 1, 2004, much has changed. Many in general aviation originally resisted the new category, fearing that pilots flying without traditional airman medicals would lower industry safety standards. On the other side of the fence, many potential new sport pilots who had flown ultralights feared the FAA, and losing freedoms they previously enjoyed. Everyone feared the change.

After a year of including sport pilot in curriculum offerings at my flight school, I've found that relieving fear from both sides of the table is not only enjoyable but also an opportunity for profitable new business.

The issue of the medical

New sport pilots who use a driver's license as a medical are not certificated by an aviation medical examiner. Just as ultralight pilots have always done, these sport pilots rise each morning and consider the self-certifying of flight fitness a high responsibility. A no-go decision based on having the sniffles or something simply being "not right" is common. On the other hand, a GA pilot with an "official" medical certificate in his or her pocket may be tempted to place more reliance than warranted on that piece of paper, despite the rule that clearly requires medical self-certification for all pilots before every flight.

All GA pilots can benefit from lessons learned by ultralight pilots, and now sport pilots using a driver's license as a medical certificate. As a flight school, we're placing stronger emphasis on responsibility for self-certifying medical fitness. We encourage everyone to consider any known medical issues that may render them unsafe to operate airborne machinery.

Losing freedom

George is an attorney. He had logged several hundred hours in ultralights, although he'd never flown from an airport. He didn't have access to good training.

George traveled from Florida to Kentucky for his sport pilot transition. He arrived as one of many ultralight pilots from various points across the country for a week of sport pilot training. He willingly followed instructions and completed late-night homework assignments, the knowledge exam, and the FAA checkride. He was exposed to general aviation as an industry. He learned about associations, the WINGS program, and the various types of support that general aviation pilots take for granted. He returned home an enlightened, certificated sport pilot.

Today, he finds that the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport is convenient to his home. He purchased a hangar there for his new N-numbered light sport airplane, and he has continued his flight education by adding an endorsement for flight in Class B airspace. He no longer fears big airports and realizes more utilization in both his airplane and his skills by being able to fly more often. He has realized more freedoms in his flying habits. He has dedicated himself to helping other ultralight pilots realize the benefits of general aviation. He has become an aviation citizen, promoting general aviation in his area.

Adding sport pilot to your curriculum

Any instructor with at least five logged hours in light sport aircraft can train sport pilots and help bolster our industry by adding pilots like George. If you are considering the addition of sport pilot to your curriculum offerings, here are a few tips for success.

Recognize your customers. There are primarily three sport pilot groups: the never-flown-before sport pilot candidate; the private pilot dropout who comes back to flying; and the ultralight pilot transitioning up.

Establish a sound curriculum. If you think that training sport pilots is the same as training private pilots, only without the night and instrument hours--think again. This is a different program. While some basic skills are inherent in the making of any good pilot, the lower and slower sport pilot has different priorities and unique concerns.

Establish the right atmosphere at your school. Train receptionists and flight instructors in answering questions about sport pilot. Train flight school employees to smile and to say the words that make sport pilots feel welcome. Unfortunately some flight schools look down on sport pilots. The right atmosphere will make them feel like part of our fraternity. They are, after all, there to spend money at your school.

Choose a good light sport aircraft, one that complements the competencies of the school and its instructors. Choose equipment and a configuration that is consistent with your expertise. Your current aircraft insurance underwriter will probably insure an aircraft that you have experience in operating safely.

Establish a support network. Sport pilot is still in its infancy. There are few "experts," and instructors should be wary of those appearing to be expert. The FAA has established the Light Sport Branch in Oklahoma City to handle all aspects of sport pilot certification. The regulations are at times not clear, and interpretations of regulations continue to evolve. You'll find portions of Part 61 that aren't intuitive. As an example, an instructor with a sport rating isn't required to wait two years before training another initial sport instructor, as is the case with instructors certificated under Subpart H. Having a support network of instructors working in collaboration allows everyone to bounce ideas around.

Start small and build. To date, my flight school has committed itself to ultralight pilots and in helping them to feel welcome and comfortable with general aviation. We've become expert on the issues surrounding the ultralight transition. We haven't had a graduate from our complete sport pilot course, but we have had ultralight pilots who transitioned to sport return for additional training toward a private pilot certificate. Choose an aspect of sport training with which you feel comfortable and build on a solid foundation.

Consider the sport instructor. A person holding at least a sport pilot airplane certificate along with an instructor certificate with a sport rating can teach in a light sport aircraft--an instrument rating or commercial pilot certificate are not required.

Students realize benefits from flying with sport instructors who have unique credentials. Becky was a 3,000-hour Brazilian commercial pilot flying over rainforests and the Amazon River. Two years ago she married and moved to the United States. On paper, she holds an FAA private pilot certificate. She added a sport instructor certificate and today she instructs while continuing to work on her other FAA certificates. Few students would have the opportunity to fly with such an accomplished instructor--and only because of the unique aspects of the sport instructor certificate do they have the opportunity to do so today.

Anyone still uncertain of how the sport pilot rule may affect flight training or the aviation industry need only learn more about it. To find out more, see AOPA Online. Once the opportunitiesand benefits are clear, it's a no-brainer. Then you'll look back and laugh about why it seemed fearful.

Arlynn McMahon is the chief flight instructor for Lexington, Kentucky-based flight school Aero-Tech.

By Arlynn McMahon

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