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Ultralights answered Europe's need for speed

Possible blueprint for FAA certification modernization

Editor's note: This story was updated May 22 to correct information about FAR Part 103 limitations. AOPA regrets the errors.

Remember the user-fees scare of 20 years ago?

JMB Aircraft converted ultralight models originally powered by piston engines into fuel-sipping turboprops under Europe's more permissive approach to certification of aircraft that weigh less than 1,320 pounds. Photo by Josh Cochran.

It came about largely from fear that Europe’s notorious fee-hungry aviation system might somehow influence American authorities to impose landing fees, fees for using radios, and even fees for each takeoff. In large part due to lobbying by AOPA and other general aviation alphabet groups, those fees never landed on our shores. But high European fuel prices did presage their arrival in the United States—and elsewhere.

European GA’s answer to the high cost of flying was to create a new class of ultralights—and light sport aircraft–that would let more pilots fly for less, and have more performance to boot. And to simplify their certification processes.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) first created the LSA category (calling it CS-LSA, the “CS” standing for certification specification), which in turn proved to have a beneficial influence in the United States. European LSA imports began to trickle into the United States in the late 1980s, prompting domestic manufacturers to come up with their own designs, using American Society for Testing Materials standards, and bypassing the FAA’s FAR Part 23 certification methods. By 2004, the United States had adopted the LSA category.

And guess what? FAA LSA standards basically followed the EASA example—1,320 pounds max takeoff weight, 45-knot stall speed, a 120-knot max cruise speed, two seats, fixed gear, and so on.

Still, pressure in Europe built for, well, more. More speed, a constant-speed propeller, retractable gear, even electric engines—in other words, a more liberal vision of an LSA. Something that Europeans would come to call an “ultralight” category.

Let’s stop right here, because we need to get the “ultralight” term straight. To most pilots in the United States, an ultralight is a tube and Dacron aircraft that comes under FAR Part 103, is limited to a max empty weight of 254 pounds, a max speed of 55 knots, and a stall speed of 25 knots; can have only one seat; and can carry only five gallons of fuel. 

In Europe, an ultralight can have higher weights and speeds than “our” ultralights; can have two seats; and can even have retractable landing gear, constant speed propellers, and—yes—an electric, piston, or turbine engine. And there’s essentially no max cruise limit.

EASA distanced itself from the ultralight concept and let its priorities end at the CS-LSA level. Instead, the business of ultralight standards and certification was delegated to the state level or, in many cases to an EU state’s flying club organization. Theoretically, this means that each of the EU’s 27 member nations could come up with its own ideas of what an ultralight could be, and approve that—however daring it may be.

There were two caveats: EASA ruled that ultralights could have max takeoff weights of no more than 1,320 pounds and stall speeds no higher than 45 knots. If those criteria are met, pretty much anything goes. If those sound like our LSA weights and stall speeds, it’s because they are—iIn both the United States and, in most cases, Europe. Again, it’s up to each EU nation. (In France the max takeoff weight for ultralights is 1,157 pounds. And EASA also grants weights above the maximum for floatplanes.)

This is how sleek European designs like JMB Aircraft’s VL-3 variants, Shark Aero’s UL, Bristell’s B23, and others came to be. Some of these European ultralights have made it to the United States—and are flying in the FAA’s experimental or experimental/exhibition categories.

But could more European ultralight and LSA manufacturers do business in the United States, under more liberal LSA or other categories? This may well be in the works, thanks to an FAA and industry initiative called MOSAIC (Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates). MOSAIC could liberalize and expand the design and performance rules for the current LSA, and other GA airplanes, at the light end of the FAR Part 23 spectrum. Or it could create wholly new categories.

Right now, a yearslong debate continues about what form MOSAIC may take. For that reason, news about the initiative is extremely scarce. It’s all very hush-hush and no one knows what to expect. The rumor mill grinds on, with AOPA, other aviation alphabet groups, and manufacturers all hoping for a modified LSA with European ultralight-like certification features. Textron eAviation, which bought Pipistrel—together with its electrically powered Velis Electro and Rotax-powered line of CS-LSA two-seaters, plus its Panthera (now operating in the experimental category in the United States)—is counting on MOSAIC’s release this year.

Word has it that we may get a look at what the MOSAIC proposals may enable at this year’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. If so, FAA rulemaking would soon follow, with feedback to be solicited, and the United States may get its own brand of “ultralight.”

And to a large extent, we may well have Europe’s example to thank. Sure beats landing fees and bills for ATC services.

Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
Topics: AERO Friedrichshafen, Light Sport Aircraft

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