20 Hours to Solo

Will a new pilot category restore the glory days of general aviation?

Sport pilots who choose to build the SeaRey kitplane can take off from and set down on both land and water. (Jim Koepnick/EAA)
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When Jim Hazen’s wife of 37 years died two years ago, he felt adrift. His only child, a son, was grown and long gone. And Hazen had struggled with health problems, undergoing heart valve replacement surgery in 2001. The 61-year-old avuncular copier company sales manager realized that he needed to do something to get out of his funk.

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For Hazen, that something was flying. He had wanted a pilot’s license for much of his life, ever since he served on the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany as a self-described “scope dope,” or radar operator, during the Vietnam War. “Back then I didn’t have the time and the money,” he says. But in 2005, when he did have the time and the money, he learned that because of his valve replacement, the Federal Aviation Administration would not give him an airman’s medical certificate, which he would need to get a private pilot’s license.

Then Hazen heard about the new sport pilot certificate, instituted by the FAA in 2004, which would allow him to fly with either a third class (the lowest physical standard) medical certificate or a driver’s license. Hazen would still have to log a minimum of 20 hours of flight instruction with a certified instructor and pass written and practical exams. He would also be limited to fair-weather, daylight-only flights under visual flight rules. His flights could not exceed an altitude of 10,000 feet, and he would have to fly in a new category of aircraft known as light sport aircraft (see “What’s an LSA?” below).

In October 2005, Hazen started flying lessons, and the following February, by then having spent about $4,000, he received his sport pilot certificate. He took his time and ended up completing nearly twice the necessary training hours. “I just got back from a trip to California,” says Hazen, who lives in Arizona. “I’ve logged something like 160 hours of cross-country time. It’s fun. It’s everything that I expected and more.”

Hazen represents a previously untapped pool of customers that general aviation proponents hope will propel the industry back to the popularity it enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s. As current pilots age, some are in danger of losing their medical certificates. The Light Sport Aircraft Manufacturers Association estimates that in the coming decade, as many as 100,000 pilots could develop medically disqualifying conditions.

Meanwhile, a sharp rise in costs for traditional flight training and aircraft operations is discouraging many potential customers. Obtaining a private pilot’s license is approaching $10,000, much of which goes to pay for the minimum 40 hours of flight instruction the FAA requires. And the price that flight schools must pay for a new training aircraft—such as a Cessna 172—is now close to $250,000; sportier single-engine airplanes like the Cirrus SR22 and Columbia 400 cost upward of $450,000 and $550,000, respectively. And then there’s insurance.

The numbers tell the tale. According to the FAA, over the last decade the total hours logged by general aviation aircraft are down 20 percent. Of those who start flight training, only 30 percent actually get a license. “They do five or 10 hours of Cessna training and then they are out of money and can’t do it anymore,” says Dennis Carley, who owns U-Fly-It Light Sport Aircraft in DeLand, Florida.

Compared with a private pilot’s license, the sport certificate can be gained for about half the money and in about half the time. While many in general aviation are optimistic that the sport pilot category will revive their industry, they’ve had high hopes before: During the 1980s, when general aviation hit its nadir, with light aircraft plants shuttered and flight schools closed, the FAA and industry collaborated on developing the recreational pilot certificate and the primary category aircraft program. Both were designed to reduce the regulatory and financial barriers to flying, yet both failed.

“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.

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