Rising Stars: Light Sport Universe

What makes a great LSA? To find out, we flew six very different light sport models.

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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

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Tecname P92 Eaglet

From the start Tecnam designed the P92 Eaglet as a trainer, and it shows. The Eaglet has a high wing, metal flaps and side-by-side seating, all reminiscent of a Cessna 150 — and that’s pretty much what it flies like. The addition of a glass cockpit and electric trim make it clear that this is a 21st-century machine, but as far as LSAs go this one’s pretty docile.

The Eaglet’s cabin is a touch wider than a Cessna 150 at shoulder height and is comfortable once you settle in. The inflight adjustable seats are on sloped rails, so if you’re not tall you can slide the seat forward and upward into the optimum flying position.

I flew a P92 demonstrator that’s part of the fleet of Nassau Flyers at Long Island Republic Airport with instructor Keith Pulian. It was a cold and blustery March day with strong winds out of the northwest gusting above 20 mph. “I’ll warn you,” Pulian said as we buckled in. “It’s extremely light on the controls.” With the strong headwind and power from the willing Rotax, we’d be airborne in seconds flat, he promised.

Pulian was right. The takeoff run was extremely short. In no time, the Tecnam was climbing at close to 1,000 fpm. I made certain not to overcontrol during rotation and initial climb — and found to my pleasure that the airplane flew quite nicely. The control forces were light, but not annoyingly so.

I performed steep turns and stalls, climbs and descents, and all of it proved that the P92 is a forgiving airplane — at least as far as LSAs go — and, most importantly, it’s a blast to fly. Landing into the stiff wind was no problem, although the touchdown speed was so slow that I’d be almost completely stopped on the runway as soon as the wheels touched. On my first landing I had to add a good amount of power after touching down just to get us to the nearest turnoff.

Tecnam appears to have gone the minimalist route to save on cost and weight, but this is still a well-built airplane. The fuselage construction is simple but rugged with welded chromalloy tubes, riveted skin, a spring-steel main gear and a low-maintenance rubber-in-compression steerable nosewheel.

Like all LSAs fitted with the high-rev, gear-reduction-drive Rotax, the Eaglet delivers a healthy dose of power and idles at an eye-popping 2,400 rpm. In cruise it’s closer to 5,000 rpm. The airplane has an empty weight of 717 pounds, leaving a reasonably generous 600 pounds for fuel and occupants.

The verdict? If a modern interpretation of a classic GA trainer is what you’re after, it’s hard to imagine you could do much better than Tecnam’s P92 Eaglet. — Stephen Pope

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Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey

The SeaRey amphibian first flew as an experimental homebuilt in the early 1990s. According to Kerry Richter, founder of Progressive Aerodyne, two key end goals served as the impetus for the design: fun and versatility. In the 20-plus years that have followed ­SeaRey has used that recipe to cultivate a stable customer base, with more than 600 kits sold, about 500 of which are flying.

This year the SeaRey reached a new milestone when the FAA approved a production-built LSA version of the airplane, freeing prospective buyers from the demands of the building process. The standard LSA is powered by a Rotax 912, while the elite version, which is still awaiting FAA approval as of this writing, will receive the added muscle of the 115 hp Rotax 914.

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Sliding the canopy back and climbing aboard the SeaRey at the company’s factory in Tavares, Florida, I was first struck by the roominess of the cabin, which is actually as wide as a Cessna 182. After a quick start-up, we taxied down the ramp and into Lake Idamere. On land, as on water and in the air, handling the airplane’s minimal controls was an easy and intuitive process.

After throttling up for takeoff, we were on step in a matter of seconds and airborne moments later, climbing to 1,500 feet at about 750 fpm. As we settled in at a cruise speed of about 90 mph, I took in the expansive visibility afforded by the panoramic windscreen and canopy. For a high-wing airplane, the SeaRey provides an unparalleled view of the horizon, and with the ability to open either side of the canopy while in the air, fliers can opt for their preferred amount of that breezy, outdoor feel.

While a good enough airplane on terra firma, the SeaRey is in its natural element when it gets wet. Conditions were choppy as we lake-hopped around central Florida, but the SeaRey’s fiberglass hull proved its brawn as it maneuvered atop the larger waves. Step taxiing in the airplane is just pure fun, as the SeaRey pivots atop the water’s surface with a level of agility reminiscent of a Jet Ski. After you’re done playing around, you can take advantage of another key SeaRey characteristic — the ability to taxi directly out of the water. Simply deploy the gear, pull the stick back, add power and taxi on out.

Like any LSA, the SeaRey isn’t the fastest airplane around, but for those pilots seeking a scenic flyer rather than a no-nonsense traveler, it’s a ton of fun. For more than two decades the amphib has offered pilots looking for a little adventure an affordable avenue for a low-and-slow brand of escape. Now, they’ll build it for you too. — Bethany Whitfield

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CubCrafters Carbon Cub SS

The Carbon Cub pulls from the heritage of the legendary Piper Cub, with essentially the same wing and fuselage shape. Where the airplane really shines is on short, unimproved surfaces. The 180 hp CC340 engine — a modified version of the Lycoming O-320 — has no trouble bringing the Carbon Cub to the sky. The empty weight comes out right around 900 pounds, and even if you fill it to the LSA weight limit of 1,320 pounds, the power-to-weight ratio is excellent.

The Carbon Cub can be fitted with a variety of tire sizes, but the one I flew had 29-inch tundra tires. They were ideally suited for our mission — landing on the sand dunes near Pismo Beach, California. Ben Hodges, general manager of California Cubs, which sells CubCrafters airplanes, was at the controls, and his landing was surprisingly smooth, likely because of his skills but also partially thanks to the Carbon Cub’s optional landing-gear upgrade, which uses polyurethane donuts as opposed to bungees. After enjoying the beach for a few minutes, we switched seats, and it was my turn to fly.

I enjoyed the feel of the Carbon Cub — easy to control, no surprises. I comfortably rested my hand on my leg to hold the center stick, but I would have liked it to be an inch taller.

The strong power-to-weight ratio gives the Carbon Cub an impressive climb rate. Published figures are 2,100 fpm at max gross weight, which we exceeded by a couple of hundred fpm while climbing out at around 75 mph with a light fuel load. Playing around with stalls, we never saw a real break. And with the Dynon showing 29 mph indicated, we were just about able to maintain altitude with 1,000 rpm worth of power. Slow flight felt stable while straight and during turns, which also made landing the Carbon Cub easy.

Another feature that helps with landings is the good visibility. Despite the tailwheel configuration, there is no need to slip the airplane during the final approach phase, and the forward visibility on the ground is sufficient to eliminate the need for S-turns on the ground.

At $172,990, the Carbon Cub’s biggest drawback may be the price. With the panel, landing gear and tire upgrades that were installed in the one I flew, the cost approaches $200,000. — Pia Bergqvist

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BRM Aero Bristell

Italian airplane designer Milan Bristela’s all-metal Bristell might be one of the newest LSAs to enter the market, but it’s quickly becoming the one everybody is talking about. Built in the Czech Republic by Bristela’s company, BRM Aero, the Bristell stands out not only on the strength of its solid performance and sleek looks but also because it has the roomiest cockpit of any LSA we’ve seen. At 51 inches wide, there’s more elbowroom here than in a Cirrus SR22.

I settled into the Bristell alongside Lou Mancuso of Mid Island Air Service at Long Island MacArthur Airport, and the LSA felt very much like a full-size airplane, but with the back seats lopped off. The Bristell offers decent performance, managing better than 800 fpm on the climb-out at 65 knots, and around 110 knots in cruise at 75 percent power. With its 34-gallon fuel capacity and efficient 100 hp Rotax 912 ULS engine, the Bristell can stay aloft for more than six hours.

Where the Bristell really shines is in its top-notch construction. For instance, the wing’s main spar extends about a foot past the fuselage on both sides, giving occupants a sturdy place to climb aboard that Bristela told us is designed to ensure that the airplane will still be flying “50 years from now.” He made some sacrifices to save on weight, he admitted, but not where it counts. The Bristell is constructed from aluminum with a stainless-steel firewall and pushrod controls. There’s even a waterproof storage locker in the wing.

BRM Aero has made a ballistic parachute standard in the ­Bristell ­— a change that ups the purchase price to $156,000. That’s not exactly cheap, but it’s in line with many other LSAs. Other standard features include dual LED landing lights, an iPad cockpit mount and a three-blade ground-adjustable prop that yields an impressive 14 inches of ground clearance.

The wind for the landing back at Islip was gusty but right down the runway at about 18 knots. We carried power all the way through the flare, a technique that LSA pilots have found helps with making smooth touchdowns. The low inertia of the light aircraft can cause the airplane to drop in if power is reduced to idle too soon.

The only black mark during the flight was an uncommanded pitch-down of the TruTrak autopilot, a situation that was remedied only by pulling the autopilot circuit breaker. This autopilot isn’t offered any longer in the Bristell, and the avionics maker has been made aware of the issue.

The Bristell is a great choice if you’re looking for an LSA for longish cross-country trips. The cockpit is roomy and comfortable with a spectacular view. That the Bristell flies so well and is constructed with longevity in mind are pluses that put it firmly in buyers’ “must consider” category. — S.P.

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Cessna Skycatcher

The first Cessna 162 Skycatcher light sport aircraft was delivered in December of 2009. Under much controversy, Cessna opted to produce this clean sheet design in China in an effort to keep the price at a minimum — a price that was $109,500, but today starts at $149,900.

The side-by-side-configured Skycatcher is a high-wing, all-metal airplane with tricycle gear. It is powered by a Teledyne Continental O-200D engine producing 100 horsepower and equipped with a Garmin G300 PFD, SL40 comm and 327GXT transponder on the panel. The MFD is optional, as is the autopilot.

Strapping into the Skycatcher with Rich Manor, president of Pacific Air Center, an Authorized Cessna dealership in Long Beach, California, I found the seats very comfortable, but the leg position felt flat. This was particularly apparent during taxiing when I had to lift my legs a little to reach the brakes on top of the rudder pedals. And while the hamstring workout I received during the runup may have had some unintended benefits, the positioning is not optimal for ground operations.

While the yoke/stick combination (some people refer to it as the “stoke”) feels good in the hand, I was not able to get into a position where I could rest my arm on the armrest or my leg to hold the grip. The trim is electric, a decision made by the engineers partially to save weight, and it is located on top of the control stick.

The way the airplane flies is much like a Cessna 150 or 152, not counting a huge improvement in the climb performance. Climbing out of Long Beach Airport on a cool, clear morning, we saw more than 1,000 fpm — far superior to the Skycatcher’s predecessors, some versions of which I’ve had to push to get 300 fpm.

The Skycatcher flies beautifully in slow flight. It is very stable and I could only detect a slight bump in the stall with no tendency for a wing to drop. The docile stall characteristics can be credited partially to the strake under the empennage — an addition Cessna made after a test airplane was unable to recover from a spin during the development process. Cessna put its first LSA through the wringer with flight-testing that exceeded the requirements for ASTM approval.

While the safety benefits of the strake come with a weight penalty, weight was a consideration during each step of the airplane’s development. Even the primer is optional. Paneling is minimal and the rudder pedals are hollow. The total useful load for a standard Skycatcher comes out at 490 pounds, leaving 346 pounds with the fuel tanks filled with 24 gallons. The airplane I flew had a 470-pound useful load due to upgraded avionics.

The initial success of the Skycatcher, with somewhere around 1,000 deposits taken before the first delivery, has waned. Many customers canceled their orders after Cessna announced that the airplane would be manufactured in China and when the big price increase hit. As a result, there are many available Skycatchers in Cessna’s inventory today. The future of Cessna’s LSA remains to be seen.

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