20 Hours to Solo
Will a new pilot category restore the glory days of general aviation?
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, September 2007
(Page 2 of 5)
“In both cases, they were not what they needed to be,” says Dan Johnson, president of the Light Sport Aircraft Marketing Group. “The recreational pilot rating had too many requirements for the amount of privilege that you got, and it had some significant restrictions, one of which was only being able to fly a short distance.” Because the private pilot license took just 10 more hours of flight instruction—40 versus the 30 required for a recreational pilot’s license—“most flight schools just said, ‘Why should you get a recreational pilot’s license when you can’t do very much with it? Why don’t you just go ahead and go all the way to private?’ ”
What helped doom the recreational pilot certificate is that it requires the same medical certificate private pilots must hold. And like sport pilots, recreational pilots are restricted to fair-weather, daylight flights, but unlike sport pilots, rec pilots cannot roam: Their flights cannot exceed 50 miles from their home airport.
As a rec pilot, Jim Hazen would not be able to travel much outside the city limits of Mesa, Arizona, but as a sport pilot he ventured all the way from North Carolina to Arizona. Granted, he had to make 10 stops for fuel, and weather grounded him in Tennessee for three days, but he wasn’t in any hurry.
Intended to work in tandem with the FAA’s rec pilot certificate was the agency’s primary category airworthiness certificate. The FAA created the category as a low-cost alternative to designing an aircraft for the agency’s Part 23 airworthiness certificate, a standard of safety and redundancy for commercial aircraft. Many in the general aviation industry have argued for decades that the standard is burdensome and should not be applied to private recreational aircraft.
Already, the sport pilot certificate and light sport aircraft category are more successful than their rec pilot/primary category aircraft predecessors. After more than 10 years, recreational pilot licenses have been issued to less than 200 people. By contrast, from July 2004 through February 2007, the FAA issued 1,229 sport pilot licenses. And compared with two aircraft certified in the primary category, nearly 50 have been certified as light sport aircraft.
Most of the new light sport aircraft are manufactured by about 30 companies, a number of them based in Europe. Prices range from $40,000 to $130,000. Some vintage American favorites, such as the Aeronca Champ and the Pietenpol Air Camper, are small enough and slow enough to qualify as light sport aircraft. Last year an estimated 500 light sport aircraft were sold worldwide, and the manufacturers’ association hopes to double that number in 2008. The goal appears achievable, especially with industry giant Cessna entering the field.
In November 2005, Cessna appointed a small engineering team to build a prototype LSA. The team included engineer Neal Willford, who the year before had been part of a team given five days to build a flying car on an episode of “Monster Garage” for the Discovery Channel. (“It flew twice,” he says.)
“In many ways this [prototype] was a ‘Monster Garage’ project,” says Willford. “You have to be fast. You have to be decisive. You have to get it done. Nine months after they said, ‘Go build it,’ we flew it.”