(February 2012) On Oct. 4, 1982, the FAA did something that federal bureaucracies almost never do: The agency deregulated an entire segment of an industry that it previously oversaw. The legislation that did this, Part 103 of the FARs, defined ultralights (empty weight of 254 pounds, max stalling speed of 24 knots and a single seat, among other restrictions) as aerial recreational vehicles that required no certification and that could be “piloted” by a person with no training whatsoever.
The ultralight movement, which had started growing outside of government oversight before Part 103, expanded twentyfold seemingly overnight. Hundreds of manufacturers of ultralights arose, many with no previous aircraft design experience whatsoever, offering a wide variety of models. While some of those early designs were so good that they are still around today, a number of others proved downright deadly. With no mandated training and no good way for single-seater pilots to get training, the safety record of this new segment was predictably abysmal.
A year into the Part 103 experiment, the ABC news magazine show 20/20 aired a piece on the movement it called “Ultralights, Flying or Dying.” While the coverage was sensationalistic in every respect, it did capture an industry out of control with no statutory safeguards for consumers. Unfortunately, the 20/20 episode didn’t distinguish between responsible manufacturers and fly-by-night firms. Consequently, every one of them suffered.
It was Part 103 that had failed. With no rules to guide manufacturers and no safeguards to protect the consumer, people acted like people. A number of unscrupulous ultralight makers came out with colorful, cheap and flimsy designs, and many consumers, not knowing any better, practiced wishful thinking rather than healthy skepticism. Part 103 had been created not to benefit safety but for the FAA to be able to wash its hands of the segment. Safety hadn’t been worked into that equation and, as a result, many suffered.
A decade ago, when FAA started work on a new category to encompass airplanes more substantial than ultralights but less so than most Part 23 airplanes, the agency was in no hurry to repeat the failure of Part 103. So it came up with not deregulation but an easier, industry-consensus path to certification. In 2004 it issued regulations creating the Light Sport Aircraft category and the companion Sport Pilot certificate.
Seven years down the line, the Sport Pilot certificate is a nearly unqualified success story, but the lessons of the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category are still unfolding. The FAA is making changes, the LSA industry is reacting, and the marketplace is taking a longer look at what this category is and what it means to customers and potential customers.