Early in the push to develop what ultimately became the sport pilot rules, their advocates hoped that reduced certification costs would promote development of new models that were attractive, fun to fly, and cheap to buy and operate. Medical self-certification would open the door to inactive pilots intimidated by the documentation burdens of special issuance, and the combination of reduced costs and lower administrative barriers would attract new students who wouldn’t otherwise find flight lessons affordable. A flush of new students eager to fly cheaply and returning pilots eager to fly at all (and requiring transition training) would fill flight schools’ schedules and improve operating margins.
Of course, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. New models have certainly entered the market—one industry reference lists 136 currently available in the United States—but 90 percent of those have sold fewer than 50 aircraft each, and while fuel economy is good, the promise of low acquisition costs hasn’t been fulfilled. Most models that don’t cross the six-figure barrier at least flirt with it. Given that the same sum will buy two or three 1980-vintage Skyhawks or Cherokees with mid-time engines, the limited speed, range, and payload of light sport aircraft—plus their unfamiliarity to many instructors and mechanics—has made their value proposition less than compelling.
Still, some schools offer LSA instruction; some even specialize in it. Thanks to them, we’re beginning to get a fix on another question that has inhibited their adoption by the industry: concern that the weight limits mandated by regulation would lead to machines too flimsy to stand up to the pounding of the training environment.
Results are mixed. Since the sport pilot rule took effect in 2004, there have been 290 accidents involving special light sport aircraft. As of 2013 (the last year for which the FAA has published data), a total of 2,056 S-LSAs were registered in the United States, so this represents 14 percent of the fleet. That’s about double the accident involvement of type-certificated airplanes, which was slightly less than 7 percent.
On the other hand, only 33 S-LSA accidents (11 percent of the total) caused any fatalities, compared to more than 16 percent of those in traditional designs.
One hundred one of the S-LSA accidents (35 percent) happened on instructional flights, just about in line with their share of overall flight time (36 percent in the 2013 survey). In the certified piston fleet, flight instruction accounted for 27 percent of flight time but only 15 percent of accidents. This suggests two things: Light sport aircraft actually are more likely to be used as trainers, but they don’t benefit from the lower accident risk that flight instruction has traditionally experienced.
In general, the instructional accidents involve new students rather than old pilots stepping down. In three-quarters of these accidents, the individual receiving instruction held either a student pilot certificate, or none. Forty were on student solos—almost exactly the same proportion reported for all fixed-wing training accidents in the Air Safety Institute’s review of Accidents During Flight Instruction.
So what goes wrong? Well, there’s a lot of wisdom in the old saying that “Nobody ever crashed into the sky.” Accidents attributed to deficient airmanship during takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds made up more than 60 percent of the overall S-LSA record (181 of 290). That’s a bit higher than in all noncommercial fixed-wing flights, where they account for slightly less than half, but the difference reflects both the higher proportion of S-LSA time devoted to flight training and the fact that light sport aircraft rarely get caught by hazardous weather. The simplicity of their systems makes fuel mismanagement rare as well.
If we restrict attention to training accidents, takeoff/landing/go-around accidents likewise account for a good two-thirds of the total—again, not that different from the record for certified airplanes. Mechanical failures were implicated in only nine of 101 accidents, about half the proportion reported for other training accidents. Maybe new airplanes do offer greater reliability, at least once the instructors teaching in them get to know the machines they’re flying. That novelty might also be one of the factors suppressing the safety advantages we’ve all learned to associate with instructional flights.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.