Lessons of LSA

What the rest of the aviation industry can learn from the LSA segment.



** While there have been challenges, the
successes of the LSA segment are noteworthy.
Is it time to apply the lessons of light sport to
larger airplanes?**

(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.

Enter LSA
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.

The new rules promised a few things: the creation of well-constructed, less expensive airplanes through more realistic certification standards; easier pilot certification through the companion regulation creating the Sport Pilot certificate; and an equivalent level of safety even given the relaxed safety standards of both LSA and Sport Pilot.

Safe Enough?
LSAs have a safety record that isn't bad by light GA standards. It's worse than the admittedly disappointing record for Part 23-certificated airplanes, though not by a lot. The fatal accident rate for LSAs is probably better than the FAA had hoped for, though everyone agrees there's room for improvement.

While no one really knew if self-regulation would work, the method the FAA chose was ingenious: Instead of having LSAs meet FAA standards as inspected and enforced by the FAA, they would meet their own industry-consensus/ASTM standards. The message was not that there would be no regulation but that the industry could regulate itself.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle toward improving LSA safety is in preventing runway accidents. By regulation, LSAs are light airplanes and very lightly wing-loaded on top of that — in order to meet their low-stall-speed requirements. The end result is almost unavoidably an airplane that can be challenging to control near the ground, especially under windy conditions. Improved training and better transition training for pilots coming from larger GA models are the most promising remedies.

The Cost Predicament
When Light Sport regulations were adopted, the dream of many was to have LSAs go for around $50,000 nicely equipped. You know how that went.

Manufacturers failed at getting the prices down to even half that level, and others, including Piper and Cirrus, have abandoned their LSA programs altogether.

Moreover, three of the most popular LSAs, the Cessna Skycatcher, Remos GTX and FlightDesign CTS, go for around $150,000 typically equipped. It’s rumored that, at its former selling price of $110,000, the Skycatcher was losing a lot of money for Cessna every time one of them went out the door.

If the dream of a $50,000 LSA was silly, the notion of a $100,000 model is pushing the envelope, as Cessna discovered. The price of a Rotax 912 engine alone pushes $30,000 installed. Throw in the avionics — most buyers are insisting on flat-panels in their LSAs — the airframe, the prop, fuel tanks, landing gear, seats, glass and a hundred other components, and see how quickly those costs add up, even before you’ve worked in labor or other overhead costs, without even considering profit.

Is it possible to build an airplane for $50,000 and still make a profit? Maybe. But for further guidance, I’d refer to FAR Part 103: Ultralights.

There’s no question that the LSA industry will have to hold the line on prices. At the same time, it will need to keep improving its products to answer customer expectations. But the overall story of LSA is that regulation “lite” really can work. While the regulations and the process need some tweaking, the framework is solid, the products are good and the need is there.

I’d go a step further. I hope the FAA sees the successes and realizes that many of the lessons of LSA could be applied to larger, faster, more capable airplanes. A four-place LSA-like segment, along with a new companion pilot certificate for such airplanes would make great sense for all involved and help stimulate another cost-challenged market segment.

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