It was hoped that the introduction of the light sport aircraft (LSA) category would reinvigorate the flight training industry. The aircraft would be less expensive to buy and operate, reducing hourly costs for students. Those who simply wanted to fly for fun could earn a sport pilot certificate with little more than half the training required to qualify for the private, while the earlier opportunity to carry passengers might make it an attractive way station for those who planned to continue to the private pilot level or beyond. Established pilots who no longer wanted to bother with FAA medical examinations could step back to sport-pilot rules; they’d need transition training, and many would go on to rent the airplanes they’d trained in.
It’s probably fair to say that the penetration of LSAs into the U.S. market hasn’t yet matched the most optimistic of the early forecasts. The FAA estimated that in 2009, LSAs accounted for just more than 1 percent of both the active single-engine piston fleet and its noncommercial flight activity. However, this still represents steady progress: In just the two years since 2007, the number of LSA registrations almost doubled, while the number of hours they flew increased by more than 75 percent.
Of course, increasing special light-sport activity has also brought increasing numbers of LSA accidents. What might not have been anticipated is how quickly they’ve increased. There have been 133 in the five years since 2006, when significant numbers of LSAs first began to appear in the accident record. Although the numbers remain too small to bear a great deal of weight, the trend is not entirely encouraging. The 35 that occurred in 2009 made up a little more than 3 percent of that year’s accidents in single-engine piston airplanes, and more than 4 percent of those in fixed-gear piston singles. The estimated accident rate for LSAs in 2009 was likewise about triple that for piston singles in general. The rate estimate is fairly soft; however, the discrepancy is still wide enough to warrant some attention from the airplanes’ operators—not to mention students and instructors.
Fifty of those 133 accidents (38 percent) occurred on instructional flights (and two more were on solos by student pilots that the NTSB nevertheless classified as “personal” flights). Flight instruction only accounted for 14 percent of all accidents in fixed-gear piston singles during that period. It’s true that flight training made up a larger part of LSA activity to begin with, but not by enough to explain the difference: By FAA estimates, about 30 percent of LSA activity was flight instruction, about one-third higher than the 23 percent in the larger fleet.
Again, the data isn’t clear enough for a detailed analysis, but training accidents in LSAs look very much like that of instructional accidents in general. Thirty-five of the 50 (70 percent) occurred during primary training, and 25 of those (71 percent) happened during takeoffs, landings, or go-arounds. Both percentages are almost identical to those for the industry as a whole. Only four of the 50 were fatal, none of them on student solos.
We don’t yet have the data to explain why the LSA accident rate is higher, but it’s tempting to guess that one factor is the sheer novelty of the aircraft. Pilots accustomed to heavier airplanes have been known to describe them as “twitchy,” and CFIs who trained in Skyhawks or Cherokees may find that adjusting to their lighter wing loadings and slower approach speeds is harder than expected. If that’s the case, we might expect the LSA accident rate to begin to drop as collective experience accumulates, and on that point the trend is a little more favorable. From a high of 35 in 2009, the number of special light-sport accidents dropped to 25 in 2010. Although the activity estimates used in the rate calculation won’t be available until late this fall, it seems like a step in the right direction.
David J. Kenny is manager of aviation safety analysis for the Air Safety Institute and an instrument-rated commercial pilot.