Fun Back in Flying

What's Mac's take on the proposed Sport Pilot and Light Sport Aircraft rules? You might be surprised.

The FAA has got it right this time with publication of its sport pilot and light-sport aircraft rules. These new rules finally recognize the crucial differences in the type of general aviation airplanes people want to fly, and how they want to use them.

Categorizing airplanes and pilots by intended use is actually an old, not a new, idea. Not long after the end of World War II the Civil Aeronautics Board, forerunner of the FAA, split airplane certification standards into major groups, with normal general aviation and transport categories encompassing most airplanes.

In the normal category are airplanes weighing less than 12,500 pounds. Transport airplanes-sometimes called large airplanes-have a maximum takeoff weight greater than 12,500 pounds. I have never read an exact reason that the CAB picked that weight between normal category and transport airplanes, but lore has it that it had something to do with the Douglas DC-3. The Douglas weighed around 25,000 pounds for takeoff, depending upon the model, so maybe the rulemakers divided its weight in half? Who knows?

For many years after they were issued, the airplane category rules made sense. Any airplane truly designed for “transport” use topped the 12,5000 cutoff, while general aviation airplanes remained far below that weight. Piper Cubs, Taylorcrafts, Aeronca Champs, Cessna 140s and other popular airplanes of the post-war boom weighed little more than 1,000 pounds max. Even the first Bonanza, with its unprecedented performance, weighed in at less than 2,700 pounds. The categories were clearly defined. Transport airplanes were for travel over long distances under most weather conditions, and light airplanes were intended for riding around on whatever limited mission their pilots wanted to attempt.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s light airplanes became more capable, and more and more people began to use them for travel. There were a number of retractable singles that came close to matching the performance of the DC-3, and light twins had arrived on the scene. When pilots began routinely leaving their home airspace to go places in these higher performance airplanes, they frequently encountered poor weather and unfamiliar airspace regulations where they mixed in with airline traffic. And, predictably, the bad-weather-related accident rate went up. A few collisions between airliners and general aviation airplanes really got the public’s attention. Something had to be done.

The FAA’s response was to impose more and more of the rules and procedures once reserved for transport airplanes onto light airplanes and their pilots. For example, to get a private pilot license pilots had to demonstrate knowledge of radio navigation, a big change from when the original rules were written because very few light airplanes had radios, or electrical systems, for that matter. Learning basic instrument flying abilities was another new requirement, along with expanded requirements for new equipment such as transponders and altitude encoders. As pilots began to use their under-12,500-pound airplanes more like airliners, the FAA imposed more stringent rules on the entire category. Before long a pilot who simply wanted to fly a Cub around the patch on sunny days had to meet most of the same requirements that applied to one flying a 180-knot retractable. And the complexity of the maintenance rules on the simple airplane grew to match that of the most complex traveling airplanes.

The proposed sport pilot and light-sport aircraft rules roll back the clock 50 years, removing the certification inflation that has impacted all airplanes weighing less than 12,500 pounds. The new category will apply to airplanes with a maximum weight of 1,232 pounds, a maximum stall speed of 39 knots, a max airspeed of 115 knots and a maximum of two seats. That’s a modern description of a Cub or Champ, plus a host of new designs that will now be eligible for certified factory production. The sport pilot license requirements are also designed for the daylight VFR flying mission with emphasis on controlling the airplane, not talking to controllers. And a new repairman certificate will allow greatly simplified maintenance procedures and record keeping.

When I’m in my Baron the flying challenges are the same as when I’m in a business jet certified in the transport category. There can only be one standard of performance in the nation’s IFR transportation system. But if I could find my old original Cessna 140 that taught me to fly none of those same factors would apply. But under today’s rules a Baron, a King Air or a Cessna 140 are treated the same. The proposed sport pilot and aircraft rules break that link and give us all a chance to take to the air at a minimum of cost and complication to ride around in uncrowded skies on sunny days.

The FAA’s mantra on rules changes is “equivalent safety,” meaning the new rules must not reduce potential safety. The agency has achieved that objective with the sport pilot and aircraft rules proposal because the complications of the rules intended for traveling airplanes are traded for a focus on basic airmanship in an airplane of limited performance. The low stalling speed and light weight of a sport airplane minimize the damage of any mishap, and the nice day weather restrictions mean sport pilots will avoid the lethal effects of low clouds, visibility and darkness. And the option for a sport pilot to use his valid driver’s license as evidence of his medical fitness to handle a 1,200-pound aircraft makes total sense. Anybody that a state finds is medically qualified to hurtle down the highway in a several ton vehicle is certainly qualified to pilot a light-sport aircraft.

The EAA has championed the formation of the sport pilot and light-sport aircraft rules and deserves all of the credit for getting to the official proposal stage. However, now is the time for pilots to pitch in with their comments to the FAA. All comments on the proposal must be made by May 6th. Log on to the EAA’s website,, for more information on the proposal and on how to comment.

Cheers for the WSJ I think the The Wall Street Journal does the best job of reporting on aviation of any national media. Of course, the Journal makes mistakes, and it has printed stories that have made me furious. But overall, it has been more fair to our passion for airplanes than the television networks or other major newspapers.

I was reminded of the Journal‘s reasonable treatment of aviation matters by two stories that appeared recently.

In the first article, Daniel Ford described how he flew his Cub over the New Hampshire countryside on a very nice weekend. Ford hopped from one tiny airport to another on a three-hour flight that consumed only 12 gallons of fuel. I have not read anything like his accurate description of the pleasure of fun flying in a simple airplane in any other national or major newspaper.

In a story a few days later, the parent of a child who had died of cancer wrote a moving description of the Corporate Angel Network, which coordinates transportation to medical centers on business jets. Patients who need to travel for treatment are placed in otherwise vacant seats in business jets. Part of the Angel Network code is total anonymity for the companies who offer the rides, so the writer could not name the company that had donated its jets. But that was, in a way, the most important aspect of the story. When the parent described how the top-level executives of a major corporation sat in their Falcon waiting for the child’s treatment to be finished you couldn’t feel anything but good about corporate aviation. The pilot told the parents that his passengers would have waited all day if that’s what it took to help.

I believe that the Journal‘s editors are doing their best to report aviation events and news in a balanced way, and that’s all I can ask for. I’ll try to remember these stories the next time I read something that is way off base.

Where is “Char”? So much frequency time is taken up by pilots and controllers identifying themselves on each call that some controllers are making up new names for their locations.

One of the more extreme examples I have heard lately is Charlotte, North Carolina, controllers calling themselves simply “Char.” This is not an isolated individual, but a facility wide procedure. When controllers from adjacent facilities hand you off to Charlotte Approach, they tell you to call “Char Approach,” and that is exactly how the controllers at Charlotte respond.

I have noticed the same thing from some Washington Center controllers calling themselves “Wash.” For years Jacksonville Center has gone by the handle “Jax.” And Baltimore controllers knock off a couple syllables and call themselves something that sounds like “Balmore.” Pittsburgh is often “Pitt”; Durham gets short shrift because it is always “Raleigh Approach” into the Raleigh-Durham Airport, and everybody knows that “Indy Center” is really Indianapolis.

I’m all for it. Just because an airport or Center is located in a place with a long name doesn’t mean that we have to waste a lot of frequency time saying that name over and over. That’s why people call me “Mac”.

Continental Is Shrinking Every time I have visited the Continental Motors factory in Mobile over the past several years the manufacturing facility is smaller even though engine production has remained the same, or even increased. The reason is that Continental is modernizing and bringing piston-engine manufacturing into the 1990s and is closing the gap on the best quality techniques used by the automotive leaders.

Where rows and rows of milling machines, grinders, drill presses and lathes once led to a finished part, now stands a single complex machine to produce, for example, a finished connecting rod. Dozens of individual machining steps are consolidated into one computer-controlled machine that spits out rods that are perfectly polished and matched within two grams of each other. Because one machine performs dozens of individual tasks, the chance of human error slipping in each time the part moves from machine to machine is eliminated.

Last winter Continental was installing a massive new device that could perform virtually every task in assembling an engine cylinder. Some of the most exciting prospects for this machine are in valve guide and seat alignment. Because the same machine presses the valve seat and valve guide into the finished cylinder head and then bores the valve guide, the alignment of the seat to the guide will be perfect, something that is not possible with different machines performing each step. Perfect valve guide to seat alignment means the valve seals better and there are no side loads on the valve stem and guide from an imperfect match between the edge of the valve and the seat. The results should be longer valve service life.

The key to quality is elimination of every variable. Hand building is the antithesis of production quality because we humans are not capable of doing the same task identically over and over. Handmade is a good thing in the kitchen, or in the artist’s studio, but it must be eliminated to create manufacturing quality, and that’s exactly what has been done in mass produced consumer products, but not, until now, in aviation.

In another step that starts to catch up with other industries, Continental has installed computer-controlled torque wrenches to tighten critical bolts during engine assembly. For example, the two bolts that hold the connecting rod to the crankshaft remain in place and thus retain their integrity because they are torqued to a precise value. No human with a wrench can match the repeatability of the computer wrench that looks up the correct torque value in its memory, tightens the bolt to that value, records the torque value and the angle at which the bolt reached that value. This technology has been common in other industries for many years, but it is new to aircraft piston engines, and its benefits are obvious.

The production volumes of aircraft piston engines are too low to ever reach the degree of automation, and thus quality, achieved in the automotive industry, but I am impressed with the progress at Continental. Piston engines, when adjusted for inflation, actually cost less than 20 years ago, and overall reliability is improving despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

Weight Gain My friend and colleague Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver magazine, has spotted the same weight gain in road vehicles that many pilots have noticed in new airplanes.

Csaba did an analysis of the best-selling vehicles-which includes both cars and light trucks-and found that each has put on pounds over the past few years. Some of the weight gain can be explained by required safety equipment, such as improved air bags and other crashworthiness equipment, but that is only a small part of the story. The real weight increase comes from drivers demanding more and more features and luxuries.

The same is true in airplanes. Long-running production models such as the Piper Saratoga or Beech Bonanza all weigh more now than they did a few years ago. And when Cessna put its singles back into production, each model was much heavier than the ones built in 1985 when production faded. Readers are constantly writing to us complaining about the manufacturers’ inability to provide a decent payload, when it is really us, the pilots and our desires, that are piling on the pounds.

When the A36 Bonanza was introduced it had painted metal around the inside of the cabin windows, fairly thin carpet and seats that were sturdy but far from plush. And the Bonanza was the most luxurious of the category. Pipers and Cessnas were coated inside with flimsy plastic that everybody hated. But they were lightweight. Air conditioning was a rare option, soundproofing was minimal and interior and exterior lighting was marginal.

Now we have the quality interiors we want, with thick carpet and leather, air conditioning is the norm on most high-performance singles, and the cabin has most of the creature comforts of a fine automobile. And the airplanes now weigh about as much as a fine automobile. It turns out we have, in fact, copied the auto industry and paid in terms of payload and performance. I am pleased with the trade, so I’m not going to whine as I enjoy the new interiors, lower sound levels and cabin climate control. If you don’t believe me, go look inside an airplane from the 1960s or 1970s and you will see how far we have come and where all of that useful load went.


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