Rising Stars: Light Sport Universe
The light sport category has come a long way in eight short years. What began as an FAA initiative to bridge the price and performance gaps between ultralights and certified general aviation airplanes has evolved into a bona fide market segment all its own. Incredibly, more than 50 manufacturers around the world build light sport aircraft today. Not all of these companies are thriving, but a few successful ones are turning decent profits and, just as important, making good airplanes.
If you’re looking to buy a light airplane, why should you consider an LSA? That depends in part on what you plan to do with it. When the FAA created the LSA classification in 2004, it laid out some restrictions on weight, performance and equipment that hamstring all models pretty much equally. Still, there’s enough differentiation to keep things interesting. Whether you want an LSA for splashing down on a Florida lake or flying into a tiny farm strip or maybe hitting the gravel bars in Alaska, there’s likely an airplane well suited to your needs.
To provide a sense of the market today, we selected six LSA models that we expect to be around for the long haul. You’ll notice that each is quite different in outward appearance, yet they all have at least one thing in common: They’re designed, first and foremost, for flying fun.
And, boy, did we ever have fun flying them.
Van's Aircraft RV-12
When the LSA category was announced there was a lot of interest — some of it fleeting — among traditional GA manufacturers, including Cessna, Piper and Cirrus. Then there was Van’s, which quietly began work on an LSA version of an RV. As with just about everything else that Van’s does, the RV-12, designed and prototyped by Van’s namesake, Dick VanGrunsven, was spot on. The result was predictable: many hundreds of orders.
In terms of general construction and materials, the RV-12 is very much in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the lineup. The RV-12 is built from riveted sheet metal with a lot of the subassemblies, including the spars and ribs and such, already constructed for the builder when the kit arrives. The RV-12, which started life as an Experimental LSA (E-LSA), is now available as a ready-to-fly LSA (S-LSA).
Those who do choose to build the airplane are in luck. It comes with pre-drilled and indexed holes, so assembling parts is easy. The construction manual is very comprehensive, and there’s a huge online Van’s community ready to help with the build. Ballpark build time for a newbie is 800 hours, or about six months of sweat equity.
LSAs are all designed to be what the name says, “light sport” aircraft, and the RV-12 is just that, with modest but respectable performance, light controls and diminutive ramp presence. But it transcends the category in a couple of ways. In addition to its roominess, it’s a passable cross-country performer. There’s plenty of useful load, with enough capacity for two 210-pound occupants, 20 gallons of fuel and 50 pounds of baggage. It’s also happy on a grass strip, thanks to rugged gear and enviable short field capability. Like all RVs, it’s stick-controlled, and the design is simple, rugged and utilitarian. You won’t think you’re in a Porsche.
I found the RV-12 a delight. It’s light on the elevator, but predictable and very pleasing to fly. There are some quirks. Taxiing is straightforward, using differential braking and the rudder, once you get going. For takeoff, it’s easy to keep it going straight down the runway with rudder, and once you rotate, you get a quick hovering climb that registers around 700 fpm on the VSI. For an LSA, the RV-12 handles crosswinds well — better than any I’ve flown — probably because it has slightly higher wing loading than many other LSAs, though there is some technique involved that might take a while to master.
The RV-12 kit version comes with everything you need, other than paint and fluids, for $64,500 to $67,000. The ready-to-fly S-LSA version goes for $115,000. Van’s has already sold more than 750 RV-12 kits, and recently began delivering S-LSA versions. For buyers looking for a low-wing, tricycle-gear LSA, the RV-12 is a tough package to beat. — Robert Goyer