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Lightening Up

LSAs and traditional flight schools

This is the first of a three-part series reporting on the experience of Lexington, Kentucky-based AeroTech, one of the first flight schools to add light sport aircraft (LSAs) to its fleet of conventional training aircraft. This report details the surprises that came with adding the new, different aircraft. Parts two and three will examine the training changes that were needed to accommodate light sport aircraft, and the experiences of the school's CFIs as they adapted to the new aircraft.

Would addition of a light sport aircraft or two help your traditional flight school attract new customers and generate more profit? In August 2005 we added two Evektor LSAs to an otherwise conventional flight line. What follows are lessons we learned after incorporating LSA into the fleet.

Unlike traditional aircraft, which are manufactured under CAR 3 or FAR Part 23, LSAs used by flight schools are built, maintained, and operated under "consensus standards" established by an FAA-sanctioned committee. An LSA's special airworthiness certificate is issued under FAR 21.190 and comes attached with a list of operating limitations, which must be adhered to and carried on board. You'll be able to identify an LSA's airworthiness certificate immediately: It's colored pink.

Note that these consensus standards don't affect all LSA--only the special light sport aircraft (SLSA) that are factory-made, suitable for flight training/rental, and experimental light-sport aircraft (ELSA, which are kit versions of SLSA).

LSA differences

The requirement that sport pilots fly below 10,000 feet msl, and during daytime only, is a limitation on the pilot, not the LSA. A private pilot with a current medical may fly a LSA above 10,000 feet and after dark, if the LSA is equipped for and capable of such operations.

Of major concern to flight school managers is the requirement that each passenger carried on the LSA be advised on "...the special nature of the aircraft, (and) that the aircraft does not meet the airworthiness requirements for an aircraft issued a standard airworthiness certificate." Try explaining that to a first-time student. It requires either a politician or a marketing guru to find the right words for the customer to enjoy a confident, positive mindset when climbing aboard. We've honed our own statement down to, "The Evektor light sport aircraft has a special airworthiness certificate. Unlike our other aircraft, the Evektor was designed and manufactured under rigid, voluntary, industry consensus standards."

LSAs are not subject to the Instruments and Equipment requirements of FAR 91.205, which apply only to aircraft with a standard airworthiness certificate. Instead, the LSA manufacturer stipulates the required minimum equipment in the aircraft's equipment list.

Regulations limit the permissible for-hire uses of an LSA to flight training or towing a glider or ultralight; this precludes sightseeing, aerial patrols, and other for-hire services traditionally conducted by flight schools. However, since an LSA is a single-engine aircraft, it is suitable and economical for training pilots at any level, from private pilot on up, in addition to sport pilots.

Traditional flight instructors are qualified to instruct in an LSA, with one catch. The FAA Light Sport Branch has issued a quirky interpretation that allows a regular (subpart H) instructor without any previous time in an LSA to train private pilot candidates (and above) in the LSA. However, if the same subpart H instructor plans to train a sport pilot candidate in the LSA, then he/she is required to have logged five hours in the LSA make and model before instructing.

Your instructors should be trained on--and comfortable with--the differences you may find in an LSA--electronic ignition, dual carburetors, the absence of mixture, and flying with a stick. We budget five hours to allow our instructors to get comfortable with the LSA handling characteristics. For instance, most LSA aircraft are high-lift machines when the engine is producing power. In our LSA, VR is achieved in about seven seconds after setting full throttle for takeoff. However, our LSA also becomes a high-drag machine when the power is retarded, forcing most instructors to sit up straight and pay attention when practicing simulated engine failures.

LSA manufacturers are required to provide a Flight Training Supplement, which contains information that is mandatory. You may find LSA checklists, weight and balance, and performance charts lacking in comparison to those of conventional aircraft. We chose to make our own checklists, including the manufacturer's required checkpoints, and adding additional points we felt were needed.

There are few performance charts to learn. Most LSAs are honest, simple aircraft. In ours, the fuel and baggage compartment are located directly over the center of gravity. The seats don't move, but the rudder pedals are adjustable. Thus weight and balance is a simple table--if you have X amount of fuel on onboard, you can put X amount of weight in the cockpit, or vice versa.

Most LSA training flights depart with less than full fuel, allotting more weight for instructor and customer. We calibrated a yardstick that customers use to "stick" the tank to know precisely the fuel on board. As with conventional aircraft, we don't teach or condone pilot dependence on fuel-quantity gauges.

Most manufacturers make the aircraft's operating instructions, maintenance procedures, and flight training supplement available via the Internet. When selecting an LSA for your flight school, it's worth getting these manuals to see what the manufacturer expects from you. An e-mail to the aircraft distributor should yield a quick response.

Costs, performance

Our cost for a 100-hour or annual inspection, plus discrepancies, has averaged $580 over the past 18 months. Most parts and consumables can be purchased at your local auto store--off-the-shelf parts can be used if they meet the standards specified by the manufacturer. Spark plugs cost $1.37. Oil, light bulbs, and filters are equally economical. Still, consumables have been higher than we originally budgeted. Driving up the cost is the fact that Rotax recommends 25-hour oil changes to control lead build-up when using 100LL. Also, because engine idle speed is so high--2,500 to 3,000 rpm--brakes wear out quickly. The insurance premium for $100,000 hull and $1 million liability coverage runs us $600 per month. When the time comes for engine overhaul, it may be just as easy to throw the engine away and install a new one for about $5,000.

Our LSA have performed flawlessly in outside air temperatures ranging from minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 100 degrees F. They have endured long, back-to-back pattern flights on training days as well as long cross-countries. We've flown from central Kentucky to destinations as far away as Kerrville, Texas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Wichita, Kansas; all with no problems. There are a few differences in LSA cross-country flying: Most LSA don't have an official aircraft "type" designation, making it difficult to file a VFR flight plan. Expect ATC to refer to you as "experimental." Also, after landing, most FBOs are not able to "tug" an LSA, so be prepared to maneuver it into a tiedown yourself.

Maintenance

Maintenance of an LSA is different from that conducted on conventional aircraft. In addition to Part 43, LSA maintenance and inspection requirements are found in FAR 91.327. Additionally, a flight school manager must consider consensus standards. For instance:

  • LSA regulations do not require compliance with the manufacturer's traditional service bulletins. However, on a LSA, service bulletins are called "safety directives" and they are mandatory. Moreover, while TBO is normally not mandatory on a traditional aircraft engine, it is on an LSA. TBO on our Rotax 912 is 1,500 hours.
  • The LSA manufacturer must specifically approve any repair or modification, and the approval letter from the manufacturer must be kept with the aircraft maintenance records. Only those repairs listed in the manufacturer's maintenance manual are allowed. Anything that is done to the aircraft outside of the maintenance manual must be manufacturer-approved. Our flight school learned this when we installed a Tanis oil heater on the engine for easier cold starts, when we exchanged the factory tires for more robust tires, and when we installed a retractable sunshade for the bubble canopy. The good news is that the approval process was surprisingly simple.
  • An FAA Form 337 for major repairs and alterations is not required because LSA are built to a consensus standard "accepted," but not "approved," by the FAA. When our LSA sustained a hard landing, the legalities of the repair process were cumbersome. Although repair of the LSA itself would not require a 337, the form is required for major repairs performed on any FAA-approved products installed on LSA. This may come into play on the new Cessna LSA, which is expected to have an FAA-approved Continental engine on a consensus-standard airframe.
  • Maintenance for LSA-installed avionics is the same as for traditional aircraft, and the owner-performed preventative maintenance actions specified in FAR 43.13 apply equally to LSAs.
  • Your maintenance staff will likely complain about the lack of good, clear service information and parts lists. However, chances are good that your LSA will be equipped with a Rotax engine, and the two-day Rotax School for airframe and powerplant mechanics, as it's affectionately called, is an excellent investment. But an A&P certificate is not required for LSA maintenance. There is a weeklong LSA Repairman course that can qualify a non-A&P to perform LSA maintenance and approve aircraft return to service.
  • When the LSA goes for its annual checkup, it is referred to as an "annual condition inspection." A LSA repairman or a technician with an A&P may approve an LSA for return to service; an IA is not required.

Flight school managers and LSA manufacturers keep close working relationships. The manufacturer that we deal with is very accessible and ready to hear any feedback. The Internet is fully utilized to share information in owners' groups. Rotax owners can find information at a factory-authorized Web site. Rotax operator's manuals and documentation are available at the manufacturer's site.

Customer acceptance

The addition of LSAs has helped our flight school to generate more profit and attract new customers. Our new LSAs are easier to maintain than conventional aircraft, and certainly more economical to insure. The factory-new feel and smell make them more desirable to customers than our older two-place conventional airplanes.

When we purchased the LSAs, we didn't just add more airplanes to the fleet. Instead, we gained a new asset that added new and exciting training products that our school can sell. It generated a new breed of customers and brought back a few old friends who had dropped out of flying for financial reasons.

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

By Arlynn McMahon

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