The next decade of LSA innovation
Thursday, 04 September 2014 09:30

aircraftAt AirVenture Oshkosh this year, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) mounted a very visible celebration of Light-Sport or Sport Pilot-eligible aircraft.

The exhibit drew dense traffic throughout the week by offering a large cross section of the aircraft types and configurations available since the FAA loosened its control over the process of approving new aircraft for sale to the public. It was the 10th anniversary celebration of Sport Pilot/Light-Sport Aircraft (SP/LSA).

EAA’s collection of aircraft tells only part of the story of what might be expected in a second decade. One example to help view the bigger picture is to think of the EAA/Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) joint project to eliminate the need for a third-class medical. The big organizations use 10 years of pilots flying LSA without a medical as proof the idea can work. Indeed, the FAA has often said the LSA safety record is “acceptable.”

“You’ve outdone yourselves in my opinion,” said FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Peggy Gilligan as she spoke to a manufacturers group at AirVenture 2014. She balanced her remark by observing that work must continue to assure safety to the flying and buying public.

Given the young industry’s impressive performance in the first decade, what might we imagine in a fresh decade? One decade into the new SP/LSA rule most pilots are aware of at least two attributes of the new sector: (1) a large number of new LSA models have arrived on the market and (2) you don’t need a medical to fly them.

Acceptance of the new aircraft has been solid with about 3,000 sold through nine years. A significant number of pilots have stayed in aviation because they no longer need a third class medical … and this has occurred with no uptick in medically-related accidents. While some have decried costs that are greater than expected for LSA, the higher prices and the no-medical aspect are related. Many of those who relinquished their medical moved from larger GA aircraft to LSA. Many customers chose to equip their LSA with loads of features. No one anticipated autopilots on LSA in 2003, yet today most of the higher end models are so equipped.

When something like an autopilot — or digital glass panels or angle of attack indicators or airframe parachute systems, and more — can be added to an LSA without the high cost of conventional certification, these improvements proliferate. Angle of attack indicators that cost $8,000 to add to a TC aircraft can be added to LSA for just $200, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).

Beside the move to banish the third class medical, one of the clearest acknowledgements of the success of the 2004 rule is the new move to rewrite Part 23, the Federal Aviation Regulations that govern how new aircraft become approved. So significant has been the success of industry consensus standards to prescribe how an aircraft is proven airworthy that FAA has fully embraced the concept.

Future Type Certified aircraft will still be approved by the FAA but how that is demonstrated will change in a dramatic fashion. That should be beneficial for two reasons: (1) new TC airplanes can be sold profitably at lower prices (because costs may drop sharply), and (2) rapidly developing technologies should appear far faster in TC aircraft. Both occurrences are likely to be embraced by pilots.

LSA builders roughly emulate the tech industry, adding new features relentlessly and at lower cost. While LSA can hit or exceed $150,000, this price is but a fraction of many TC aircraft, yet these modestly-priced flying machines are equipped with modern engines, hardware and software.

The result is downward price pressure even while improving the breed. Indeed, the FAA’s new mantra is: “Twice the safety at half the cost.” While some high-end LSA are positioned as TC airplane replacements, the sector has also seen development of much lower cost aircraft with a range of choices from less than $30,000 to $100,000. Such choices were not forthcoming in the world of TC aircraft where some single engine piston, fixed gear aircraft now approach $1 million.

Opening the World to Aviation

The Sport Pilot Certificate can be obtained for $3,000 to $5,000, much less than a Private Pilot Certificate ($8,000-$10,000). In the first decade this did not produce the tens of thousands of new student pilots as some believed it would, but it may be early to pass judgment. Sport Pilot is the logical starting point for most student pilots even if everyone in aviation may not yet accept this fact.

What is not known to many American aviators is the expanding bubble of LSA around the world. While most governments have yet to accept the Sport Pilot Certificate, many are embracing industry consensus standards. Indeed, countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, nations of the European Union, China and others add sovereign rules, but a LSA manufacturer can, with reasonable effort and for fairly affordable cost, gain approval in numerous countries.

Another cap on cost is the opportunity for individuals to do maintenance on their airplanes. A weekend class lets you do your own annual inspection (saving hundreds to thousands of dollars) and a month-long class will allow you do much more work, even for hire. After slow early years, many GA mechanics have added LSA training so that between professionals and what you can do yourself service is good and costs have been pushed down.

The sector has even developed its own set of shows where nearly all vendors serve the SP/LSA market. In all, it has been a fascinating first decade and we can only wonder at what might happen in 10 more years.

Fasten your seat belts!


photo credit:

AddThis Social Bookmark Button