By Ed Downs
No, not old tires, although many of us “re-treads” appearing in this month’s sonnet do have some “spare tire” issues. The re-treads being referred to are former pilots who have decided to give flying another go. Sport Pilot has opened doors that some may have thought were closed. This writer was reminded of the “re-tread” market, just the other day, while teaching a class at Yingling Aviation, an historic Cessna dealer located in Wichita, Kansas. During our lunch break, I wandered over to the Cessna Skycatcher final assembly hangar to look at new planes on the assembly line. While looking through a viewing window and talking with one of my students, a young line attendant approached us and asked if we would like to join a retired couple (in tow by the line attendant) and go into the hangar for a closer look. Of course, we joined them. It turns out, no sales personnel were available and the line attendant was doing his best to talk about the C-162. My offer to help promote the plane (very familiar to me) was readily accepted. Joe, the retired guest, was considering reentering aviation after a 40-year hiatus, but knew nothing about Sport Pilot or LSAs. Skycatcher pricing, performance and simplicity left Joe quite impressed, especially after we discussed just what he would have to do to re-enter flying. Of primary importance was the ability to get back into flying without the need to participate in the FAA medical bureaucracy.
Let’s take a look at “getting back into the game” from a broad view. First, about how many sport pilots are there today? Well, according to FAA statistics (perhaps up to two years old), there are approximately 624,000 current sport pilots. Does that number look like a misprint? Not really. With some 624,000 total pilots on record (those holding a pilot certificate and current medical certificate), it must be remembered that all existing pilots may automatically exercise the privileges of a sport pilot if their medical certificate expires. In all probability, all active pilots who read this article are already qualified to fly as a sport pilot. As a fully licensed pilot with a current medical certificate, you may already fly an S-LSA just as you would any other airplane. Let that medical expire, and you may fly as a sport pilot, limited to airplanes that meet the FAR 1 definition of a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). There are a couple of catches in flying as a sport pilot without an FAA medical certificate. First, you must hold a valid drivers license. Second, the medical certificate that you held must not have been suspended or revoked. Furthermore, you must not have applied for a medical certificate and had it denied. You see, all of us are basically one medical certificate away from being a sport pilot.
But what about our friend Joe, what does he have to do to get back into flying if he chooses not to obtain a medical? First, Joe will be limited to flying a plane that meets the FAR Part 1 definition of an LSA. Basically, we are talking about a two place airplane that will not fly faster than 120 kts at sea level, at maximum continuous power. This plane must be light, with a gross weight not to exceed 1320 lbs. It will have fixed landing gear and a prop with fixed pitch in flight. The SkyCatcher, certified as a Special Light Sport Airplane (S-LSA), meets all of these conditions. But as Joe learned, it also has advanced avionics, a cabin width and performance that exceed most contemporary, four place airplanes in the used price range that he had in mind. Now, let’s be fair, the SkyCatcher is not the only show in town. Some 60 manufacturers now import or manufacture LSA qualified airplanes to be sold in the LSA market. The choice of machines ranges from space age German plastic to classic tube and rag, with more contemporary, all aluminum options popular with many. Joe would have had virtually “0” (yep, the big ZERO) new, two-place airplanes to chose from less than six years ago. These are fun, exciting, affordable airplanes.
But, doesn’t Joe have to take a written exam to be a sport pilot, perhaps even a flight check? Nope, none of the above. Joe’s more than 40-year-old pilot certificate (and yours) did not expire. Sure, Joe needs to take some dual instruction and get his skills back. Doing this is a matter of common sense safety and will meet the requirement for an FAA flight review. Then there are the three take-offs and landings in the previous 90 days. Again, getting some “check out” dual takes care of that. At the end of the LSA “check out,” Joe will receive an endorsement in his logbook that states he has successfully completed an FAA flight review. He does not need a new pilot certificate or any licensing process. He is good to go! But doesn’t Joe have a lot of restrictions when flying as a sport pilot? Some, but not a lot.
Our “re-tread” will be limited to flying an LSA qualified airplane. Having flown many of these planes, this writer can affirm that this is not bad news. Of course, most of Joe’s flying will be with a good friend or, better yet, his wife. No unwanted “tag-a-longs,” complaining passengers or kids that would rather be at home playing computer games. The two-place limit is discussed most often as being a problem but statistics prove that those two seats in the back are most often used to transport air. He will get to his destination in less time than most low end used planes, he will fly further and have to put up with climb rates that are nearly double that of older, used options. With many LSAs, he will have the option to use cheaper auto fuel (GAG! $4 per gallon versus $6 per gallon AVGAS) at a rate of under five gallons per hour. Joe can fly into complex airspace, including Class B, but cannot land at a primary class B airport. No $100 hamburgers at JFK! He may not fly over 10,000 ft. MSL, unless within 2,000 ft. of the ground. See, no problem flying coast to coast, especially with some LSAs having a range that is three times further than the average “re-tread” can fly between “bio-breaks.” Now, Joe will not be able to fly IFR or with visibility of less than three miles. From a safety statistical standpoint, a good choice. The same restriction applies to night flying, where accident rates are almost five times higher than during daytime flying. Sport Pilots must be on the ground by the end of evening civil twilight to the beginning of morning civil twilight. That is the FAA way of saying, a sport pilot can be in the air up until about 20 minutes after official sunset and take off about 20 minutes before official sunrise.
The bottom line is that flying as a sport pilot is not a step down, but a step up into the world of modern, fun-to-fly airplanes that offer terrific usability and fun. One is able to step away from the FAA medical bureaucracy (but still be very responsible for personal health) and fly machines that are flat out exciting. Don’t miss out!