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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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.”

Aside from the company logo and signature high wing, what Willford and his teammates came up with looks very different from a traditional Cessna. Power comes from a 100-horsepower Rotax 912 engine, for decades a favorite powerplant for homebuilt airplanes and ultralights. The control yokes are gone, replaced by sticks. “The goal of this airplane is to put a smile on your face,” says Willford.

Cessna unveiled the prototype at last year’s Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After the show, Willford received a letter and deposit check from one prospective customer. He kept the letter but returned the check. On July 10, Cessna announced that it was taking steps to put its LSA into production. “We believe this aircraft will make a major contribution to stimulating new pilot starts,” said CEO Jack J. Pelton.

Sport aircraft marketer Dan Johnson believes a Cessna entry will increase sales across the board. “It’s tremendous validation,” he says. “And it will create instant infrastructure, because Cessna already has a large distribution network and a large number of places that already service their airplanes. For the customer out there, they should say, ‘Well gee, if Cessna’s doing one of these, LSAs [sport aircraft] must be okay.’ ” Certainly, Cessna, which has been building airplanes since 1916, has relationships with the general aviation industry, with pilots, and with the FAA that new companies have not yet had time to cultivate.

Sport flying does have its skeptics, among them Mike Carzoli, co-owner of the Blue Skies Flying Service flight school in Lake in the Hills, Illinois, 38 miles northwest of Chicago. “We’re a pretty busy airport,” says Carzoli. There are three flight schools there, and not one operates a light sport aircraft for flight instruction. “While we do get the occasional inquiry about sport pilot, it is not like [prospective students] are knocking down the doors,” he says.

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