Flying Light! Managing Expectations with Light-Sport Aircraft

--by William Dubois, FAA Safety Briefing Guest Writer

Have you ever taken a close look at a light-sport aircraft? Even if you’ve flown GA your whole life, you might be hard-pressed to tell an LSA from its standard airworthiness certificate-toting siblings. Although they may pass the “duck” test at first glance, LSA really are birds of a different feather. They may look like the planes we fly all the time, but in fact handle differently than what we may be used to. If LSA flying is in your near future, I urge you to get schooled on some of the differences.

The nearly 15-year-old Light-Sport Rule created a new class of airplanes, and pilots. The defining characteristics of the LSA are as follows (see 14 CFR section 1.1 for a full list):

  • light weight (maximum takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds, or 1,430 if it’s an amphibious or seaplane),
  • one engine,
  • fixed gear (for land planes),
  • fixed or ground adjustable prop,
  • maximum stall speed of 45 knots, and
  • maximum speed (Vh) of 120 knots in level flight.

Limited to two seats, some are factory built and some are kits. A few legacy airframes qualify, mostly some models of the Champ, Cub, Ercoupe, Luscombe, and Tayorcraft, but most LSAs are modern “carbon-fiber” airplanes — although the category technically embraces everything from two-person powered parachutes and weight shift trikes up to the sleek and sexy all-metal Sling, which I ask Santa for every Christmas to no avail. I guess I haven’t been a good enough boy.

LSAs aren’t just for light-sport pilots. Pilot certificates, like those Russian nesting eggs, contain within them all the privileges of certificates below them, so all licensed pilots (with the appropriate category and class) can legally fly light-sport aircraft. Got a recreational license? A private ticket? A commercial? You’re also legal to fly a light-sport aircraft. Yes, even Airline Transport Pilots qualified in 737s are qualified to operate light-sport aircraft.

Why would pilots accustomed to flying heavier general aviation airplanes want to mess around with LSAs? Well, partly because they’re new — not the old beaters that have been baking in the sun for too many decades — and partly because many LSAs have drool-worthy, glass cockpits. But the main reason is because it’s less expensive to operate an LSA. With its quiet Rotax engine sipping less than 5 gallons per hour, it’s about the same cost as operating a motorcycle. All that adds up to more plane for the money when it comes to rentals, making LSAs a tempting source of flying fun for many pilots who are used to flying larger, heavier airplanes. Many flight schools have at least one LSA in their stable now.

But these featherweight aircraft will likely require more than the legal minimum, three-times-around-the-patch checkout to master, regardless of the weight of your logbook because they just don’t fly like what you are used to flying.

The first LSA I flew was a Remos, a modern German-made miniature, 152ish-looking airplane. The flight was shocking. The light wing loading let us feel every bump, eddy, ripple, and bubble in the otherwise calm-looking sky. As it happened, I was coming out of one of those lapses in flying that had lasted a couple of years and my main thought was: I don’t remember flying being this rough. I learned later that many LSA owners fly their light birds only in the morning hours.

In addition to riding the chaotic atmosphere in a kite-like manner, LSAs also takeoff and land differently than their heavier cousins. Some offer impressive climb rates, levitating off the runway and climbing like homesick angels. At the other end of the flight, in general, they tend to float more on landing. Oh, and because of their lighter carbon fiber feathers in the wind, crosswind landings can get … exciting. In fact, for pilots used to heavier birds, any landing in an LSA can get exciting until you learn their flight characteristics.

Flight Instructor Louis Mancuso spends a lot of time teaching in LSAs. In a safety piece he penned for Aviatiors Hotline, when it comes to landings he notes that, “the LSA lacks mass to maintain inertia. They quit flying quickly when there is a headwind and will not stop flying when there is no wind.”

This is not what we are used to.

In addition, that light wing loading, which makes an afternoon flight in an LSA good practice for being a rodeo cowboy, makes the plane susceptible to any swirl of wind churned up by crosswinds over hangars, trees, buildings, or other obstacles — as well as heat radiating off of the threshold of the runway — potentially destabilizing the best stabilized approach. Plus, in addition to being light in mass, LSAs are remarkably nimble, requiring a light touch on the controls. Until you get the hang of the minuscule movements that net big results, they can be easy to over-control.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t partake of an LSA. They are fun and economical to fly. But the bottom line is that being safe in these birds takes more than the simple new aircraft checkout that you are accustomed to. You’re going to need to log a few hours of dual learning to fly light right. But it’s a change of pace that will keep your skills sharp, regardless of the size — or kind — of bird you take up next.

Learn More

William E. Dubois is an aviation writer, world speed record holder, and two-time National Champion air racer. He teaches Rusty Pilot seminars for AOPA, blogs his personal flying adventures at www.PlaneTales.net, and has one hour of helicopter time in his logbook.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
Created By
FAA Safety Team

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.