Each month, Flying answers questions about the new Sport Pilot/Light-Sport Aircraft rule with assistance from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), the authority on the opportunities available within the category commonly known as "Sport Pilot":
Q: Can the owner of a light-sport airplane add new equipment such as avionics, instruments or additional lighting?
A: New equipment and accessories can be installed in normal-category airplanes through the FAA's STC process or by FAA field approval. The FAA issues an STC (supplemental type certificate) to describe exactly how new equipment, avionics for example, can be installed and in which models of airplanes. Licensed mechanics make the installation and record in the logs that the work was performed in accordance with the STC specifications. Another method is the field approval, which can be difficult to obtain, in which an FAA inspector examines the modification and approves it just for that individual airplane.
In an LSA it is the original manufacturer that affirms that the airplane meets the ASTM standards that define the category. Because an LSA design is not specifically certified by the FAA as a normal-category airplane is, the FAA cannot issue an STC for the airplane. That means only the original LSA manufacturer can approve adding new equipment or making other changes in the airplane. If some equipment, avionics for example, are offered as options by the LSA manufacturer but were not installed when the airplane was delivered, they can be added later without additional approval as long as installation is the same as used by the manufacturer.
Q: Why do LSA cost so much? Most are priced over $100,000.
A: The regulations governing design and manufacture of LSA are less complicated than for normal-category airplanes, and an LSA by definition must be quite small with a maximum takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds. However, LSA are still aircraft and must possess the structural integrity to carry the expected loads of turbulence and maneuvering. For safety, the quality of every component must be high, and careful inspection of each step of the manufacturing process is a must. This all adds man-hours to building an LSA, and the cost of the materials is higher than, say, for a boat, because failure is just not an option when you are hundreds or thousands of feet in the air.
LSA, like normal-category aircraft, are hand-built in very low volumes, so the efficiencies of mass production are not available. It is clear that the LSA rules make it possible to manufacture modern airplanes at a price lower than a normal-category airplane's, but all airplanes will be more expensive than similar vehicles are because flying is so unforgiving.
For more information on Sport Pilot, visit EAA's sportpilot.org. EAA, which also hosts the annual EAA AirVenture fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, provides in-depth information on the website, as well as a sport pilot hotline and complete membership services for all aviation enthusiasts. Call 800-564-6322 for membership information. Visit oshkosh365.org for discussion boards on this and other aviation topics.