GA’s Secret Weapon for Growth?

The Van’s RV-12iS is one of the most popular light-sport airplanes on the market today. Van’s Aircraft/Aric Krause

As a pilot since 1996 and aviation journalist since long before that, I’ve always kept an eye open for what’s new and exciting, looking for innovation that we as an aviation family and industry can use to propel general aviation forward. Sometimes that means learning about the latest and greatest new aircraft, avionics, and programs that will push the GA envelope out a little farther.

At other times, though, inspiration comes when I least expect it, such as one time when I was fueling the 1964 Piper Cherokee 235 I owned for eight years. I can remember with clarity the first time I spotted a Van’s RV-12 light-sport airplane taxi up while I was loading up Katy with 84 rather costly gallons of 100LL avgas. My 235 was a serious load hauler, and could legally lift 933 pounds of payload and full fuel, but she was thirsty. It took a lot of engine to lift all that weight on her big “Hershey bar” wings, and at cruise, she went through about 12 gallons an hour to feed her Lycoming 0-540. While the 235 was perfect for a medium-range mission of hauling a load, chasing the occasional $300 hamburger became a rather expensive endeavor.

Dan Pimentel Contributed photo

So as I watched this sleek RV-12 taxi up and park while the total price for those gallons of avgas filling Katy’s four tanks continued to climb, I found myself thinking how great people with a sport pilot certificate have it flying LSAs.

With many using ROTAX engines burning around four gallons per hour, I knew they represented a much more economical form of flying. Sure, you only get to take one person with you and cannot fly quite as fast as a big four-place cross-country cruiser or carry a lot of load, but as pure recreational flying, it is hard to ignore the much lower operational costs of a light-sport airplane. I couldn’t help but think that this pilot in the RV-12 was having all the same flying fun I was having, only for about one-third the cost.

From that day, I was sold on the concept of light-sport aircraft and the incredible value they deliver.

As FLYING’s new writer/contributor covering light-sport aircraft and the sport pilot certificate, I will now have the golden opportunity to showcase this sometimes overlooked segment of general aviation. There is an enormous number of gorgeous makes and models in this category, with nearly all of them offering the latest in digital, glass-panel avionics. There are also some very capable backcountry LSA offerings that can give the owner superb short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities.

And best of all, these airplanes can be flown with a sport pilot certificate, using a valid driver’s license as the only medical requirement.

Dan Pimentel and his capable but thirsty 1964 Piper Cherokee 235 before stewardship of “Katy” moved on to a new owner. Michael Connolly

Gazing at the Future

Looking a bit off in the distance, the FAA’s Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates (MOSAIC) project will bring changes to the light-sport regulations that should come more into focus in the next year or two. While nothing is close to being etched in stone yet, it’s possible that MOSAIC will open up this category of general aviation in many advantageous ways, creating more excitement and opportunity.

The FAA is holding its cards close on what is coming in MOSAIC, but you can be assured that as any significant news breaks on this massive regulatory overhaul, FLYING will be there to present the news.

My task now will be to find the interesting people behind some of these models, the key players in light-sport that have been inspired to innovate and deliver LSA makes and models that can make flying fun and affordable for more pilots. I will be searching out these stories, diving deep to uncover why these innovators, engineers, and entrepreneurs choose the light-sport category as the focus of their work.

My motivation for covering this segment of GA is based on my desire to grow aviation, much like everyone reading this right now. I have always believed that light-sport aircraft and the sport pilot certificate are GA’s secret weapon for growth, because they can get someone into the air at a cost far less than a private pilot certificate.

I have done some unscientific surveys of people I know who are not in the aviation world, and most think a pilot’s license is very expensive to achieve—usually their guess is in the neighborhood of $20,000. When I tell them about how they can earn a sport pilot certificate for somewhere between $5,000 and $8,000, their interest piques and they always want to know more.

Dan before his first demo flight in a light-sport airplane at the 2014 U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida. Contributed by Dan Pimentel

So here’s what we as an industry need to do.

Using any and all forms of digital and human communications, we need to let the adventure sports crowd know about the lower cost of admission that the sport pilot certificate represents, and the economy and exhilaration that light-sport airplanes can deliver. We need to show them photos of today’s super cool LSA glass panels, talk up the advanced technology, and heap on a thick tantalizing layer of just how much fun flying can be.

Think about this: Many of these adventure sports people—cyclists, skiers, surfers, rock climbers, kayakers—have probably considered learning to fly at some point, but probably thought the costs were too high. When they learn that earning a sport pilot certificate costs about the same as their last ski week in Aspen or their new top-of-the-line carbon fiber road bike, learning to fly now becomes something attainable. They already like things that are “cool,” and what’s cooler than flying your own airplane?

And when these adventure seekers become licensed sport pilots and start posting their light-sport flights to their favorite social media platforms, they’ll be wearing big smiles on their faces because they have now found an awesome new thrill. When that happens, it is my hope that the idea of “learning to fly airplanes” will catch fire and become the next big thing.

One can only hope, right?

So onward I go, in search of stories that will attempt to push GA forward in small but steady increments. If you are reading this and have an idea of someone in the light-sport/sport pilot community that deserves mention for the exemplary things they are doing, please send them my way at editor@airplanista.com.

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot and former airplane owner who has been flying since 1996. As an aviation journalist and photographer, he has covered all aspects of the general and business aviation communities for a long list of major aviation magazines, newspapers and websites. For 10 years until 2019, he hosted the popular ‘Oshbash’ social media meetup events at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot and former airplane owner who has been flying since 1996. As an aviation journalist and photographer, he has covered all aspects of the general and business aviation communities for a long list of major aviation magazines, newspapers and websites. He has never met a flying machine that he didn’t like, and has written about his love of aviation for years on his Airplanista blog. For 10 years until 2019, he hosted the popular ‘Oshbash’ social media meetup events at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.
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