On September 1, the FAAs new rules implementing the Sport pilot certificate and Light Sport aircraft category (LSA) went into effect. This long-awaited set of regulatory changes is designed to make general aviations lower end more affordable and accessible by relaxing rules on pilot training and aircraft certification in exchange for certain specified operational limits. It represents the culmination of many years of work by industry and the FAA, especially the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Asssociation.
Given the current regulatory and political environment, its a miracle the new rules ever saw the light of day, much less made it all the way through the governments Byzantine process. Now, its up to industry-you and me-to make this work. And that is very important, since this could be GAs last, best hope in the foreseeable future to inject new people, new ideas and new money into what has been, at best, a static industry.
Three key features of the new rules deserve attention. The first is the long-awaited ability for a Sport pilot to self-certify his or her medical condition. With a current and valid U.S. drivers license as evidence of medical eligibility (provided the individual does not have an official denial or revocation on file with FAA), a certificated Sport pilot is good to go. Hopefully, once enough experience with this change is accumulated, it will be expanded to Private pilots flying under a Third Class medical.
Another feature concerns the aircraft themselves. The LSA is about as simple as it gets: Maximum gross takeoff weight of 1320 lbs (599 kg.) for landplanes (1430 lbs for seaplanes); maximum stall speed of 51 mph (45 knots); maximum speed in level flight of 138 mph (120 knots); a two-seat maximum and fixed landing gear are some of the characteristics defining an LSA. This means some existing aircraft may be operated by a Sport pilot, giving them a new role.
At the same time, new and innovative aircraft will be produced to meet whatever demand develops. Their design and engineering details will inevitably trickle up to Normal category aircraft, perhaps making them more efficient and more capable. These are all favorable developments that will well serve the industry over the long run.
However, there is also the potential for an increase in the number of less-skilled aviators flying less-capable aircraft alongside the rest of us. This is not snobbery. The Sport pilot rules have a 20-hour instruction minimum before flying an LSA in the airplane category, less for a glider or powered parachute. While a Sport pilot may not operate in Class A airspace, operations in Class B, C or D airspace would be allowed after appropriate training and a logbook endorsement. In the Class E and G airspace where most GA operations are conducted, an LSA could be found under the low overcast through which a King Air makes an instrument approach. While the local Student pilot can also be found there now, the new rules hopefully (for the industry) will mean more of them. Since many LSAs are not likely to have lights or radios, seeing and avoiding them may be more problematic than it is under existing rules.
Less regulation and fewer restrictions on aviation is a good thing. Lets all just make sure that common sense prevails and safety doesnt suffer.