Is the Sport Pilot NPRM Too Late?

By Scott Spangler on May 29th, 2008

FAA-PPL When the FAA issued the sport pilot rules in September 2004, it was clear that the new certificate was a stepchild to the FAA family of “real” pilots, you know, the private, commercial, and ATP certificates.

The clues? “Real” pilots don’t have to carry their logbooks on every flight to prove their qualifications. “Real” pilots don’t need make-and-model endorsements to fly different aircraft in the same category and class. And the dual instruction “real” pilots receive for one certificate counts toward the requirements of the next one up the line.

Now, almost four years later, the FAA has accepted sport pilots and invited them to join the family of “real” pilots. On Tax Day, April 15, it published a notice of proposed rulemaking that covers 22 “fixes”  that would eliminate the things that separated sport pilots from “real” pilots.

If approved as proposed, all sport pilot certificates will carry category and class ratings, just like “real” pilots, so sport pilots will no longer need to carry their logbooks on every flight and have make-and-model endorsements in them. And the dual instruction they receive will count toward the requirement of the other certificates in the FAA family because sport pilot instructors would be covered by the same regulatory subpart as “real” CFIs.

As a whole, the 22 proposed fixes are good, but I wonder if they are too late to give this entry-level pilot certificate any chance of a viable life. Remember that the FAA adopted–and most of the industry supported–sport pilot and its light-sport aircraft because together they would make it to easier and less expensive for the average person to own and fly their own aircraft. In short, it’s an effort to simulate growth in the pilot population and increase the industry’s customer base, both key to GA’s survival.

Remember  the recreational pilot certificate? It was created for the same reason, and it worked within the existing GA infrastructure. Sport pilot and light-sport aircraft started from scratch; it’s survival and viability depended on those already in aviation getting on board.

Like thoroughbreds in the gate, there were a number of light-aircraft manufacturers waiting for the bell to sound. They quickly created, approved, and embraced industry consensus certification standards and went to work. Their first customers were “real” pilots, because they can immediately fly these efficient, economical aircraft. To join in the fun, newcomers must find a flight school that offers sport pilot training.

Like it or not, flight schools make or break any effort to recruit new pilots because they are the newcomers’ first impression of aviation. There are exceptions, but as a whole flight training is a parochial industry that doesn’t like change, doesn’t like things different from the way they’ve always done things.  

To be blunt, if it isn’t private ticket, in the school’s mind it isn’t worth the effort. And that’s exactly what they tell prospective students, itemizing every difference in their sales pitch that pounds prospects into a private pilot training course. 

I heard this at flight schools nearly two decades ago, when the FAA introduced the recreational pilot certificate, which also had, if I remember correctly, requirements that set it apart from the family of “real” pilots. And I heard it two months ago from a school that offers sport pilot training to meet customer demand but only after trying to talk newcomers into a private ticket.

We in aviation have until August 13, 2008 to comment on the NPRM (at www.regulations.gov), and in 12 to 18 months, the FAA will issue the final rule that makes sport pilot part of its family of “real” certificates.

But only we can undo the damage  done to the new born certificate while it was a foster child in our care, and the care of the flight schools who made us. If we care about the future of aviation, that is.

Before deciding on the comfort of the status quo, consider this: with increasing costs, for avgas especially, the average cost of a private ticket, often quoted at $6,000, is rapidly approaching $10,000. If we had to do it over, how many of we “real” pilots could afford it today?  — Scott Spangler

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11 Responses to “Is the Sport Pilot NPRM Too Late?”

  1. Jess Sightler Says:

    I’m a low time PP, and early on I wondered if LSA would have saved me money (had it been available). From looking at it, I don’t see where it would have saved more than a few hours of flight training in the end, but I would have had a much more limited ticket and a lot less flexibility. From that perspective, I can readily understand a flight school selling students on the advantages of going straight to the PP.

    To me, getting the SP only makes sense if you are one of a few narrow groups:
    1. Buying an LSA yourself, and you know that it will meet all of your flying needs.
    2. Medical requirements cannot be met, but you are able to meet the drivers license medical requirements
    3. You want to fly the old-style “fat” and “trainer” ultralights

    I can’t really see why a student coming in to rent a CTsw or Cessna 162 would choose SP.

  2. Scott Says:

    You’re right, the sport pilot doesn’t have the same privileges as a private pilot certificate. But here’s the rub, how many pilots who earn a private use it to its fullest extent? Most of the private pilots I know are like me, day VFR fun flyers who have a good year if they log 30 to 50 hours.

    A sport pilot certificate would meet my current needs perfectly. And earning one in an LSA would, in round numbers, cost me half of the $6,000 or more a private ticket would cost me. The remaining $3,000 would buy a lot of flight time for my weekend day VFR excursions.

  3. Jess Sightler Says:

    Oh, I suspect its true that very few do use it to its full extent. If an LSA were available for rental around here at a reasonable cost, I’d certainly be happy about that. But with the purchase price factored in, they aren’t really a practical option for most infrequent pilots. The high initial cost pushes rental prices up close to that of the old 172s and Cherokees, so why not just fly them?

    I also really question the savings for exactly the same reason. Has there been any real study on what the average # of hours is for SPs vs. PPs? My suspicion is that the difference in cost is more like 25% than 50%.

  4. Owen Says:

    The SP instructors on sportpilottalk.com and on groups.yahoo.com/group/sport_aircraft have pretty consistently said that SP candidates average about 30 hours, which is half the real world PPSEL time of 60 hours. So, yeah.

    Comparing new airplane costs with old airplane costs is never going to make any sense on paper, whether it’s for rental or purchase. The same exact calculus applies to cars and somehow people keep buying new ones. Where do you think old airplanes come from?

    And really, how many rentals do you know of that are over 10 years old and not ratty old fleabuckets? Yes I know they are perfectly mechanically sound, but do you think your mom, your wife, or that new young lady is really going to be impressed?

  5. Jess Sightler Says:

    I guess that’s good that they are managing 30 hour averages. I’m still surprised, though, considering the number of 20+ before solo people around here.

    But my point with the cost isn’t one of preference, but of cost (shocker, eh). As a practical matter, which do you prefer… a PP in a 152 (that can then be used to impress people with an LSA) or a SP in an LSA for approximately the same cost?

    There’s more than one right answer to that question, but I don’t think its surprising that many people would prefer the private ticket.

    I’d still be really surprised if the difference in actual hours is 30-60. Do the few requirements that SP takes away really take 30 hours to execute?

  6. Owen Says:

    I like SP over PPSEL largely because of my bad experiences with training. I basically started over three times. I ran out of money the first time, ran out of time the second (overtime at work), and the third time I went through 4 different instructors because they kept getting “real” jobs and disappearing on me. Of course each instructor made me demonstrate all the manouvers all over again.

    It took me over 100 hours to earn my ticket. I would’ve been eligible for SP before I had to stop the second time, might even have made it through the first time.

  7. Scott Says:

    Many factors determine the total time it takes to earn any certificate, but how often a student flies is the most important. If too much time passes between lessons part of the each flight is dedicated to removing “rust” and refreshing knowledge and skill.

    Flying at night and under the hood are the primary differences between the private and sport pilot certificates. They are obviously quite different from day VFR flight, so it takes many students more than the minimum time to achieve checkride proficiency.

    Another important factor is where a pilot learns to fly. Many private pilots learn at tower controlled fields with a fair amount of traffic, which adds to the time it takes to make a circuit of the pattern. From what I’ve seen, a lot of the sport pilot training happens at less busy non-towered fields where it’s possible to fly two or three times as many circuits that build the skill–and cut time–needed to solo.

    Having new aircraft on the training and rental line does make a huge difference, especially to newcomers. (For further dicussion on this see my post on the Cessna Pilot Centers).

  8. Owen Says:

    My point was just that the road to a PP cert can be interrupted for lots of reasons – some of which you won’t have any control over. The SP will give you a midpoint goal/reward, and a “saved game” to work forward from.

    FYI, not to make this about me, but I was flying 2-3x per week, at a part 141 school. It was a very busy airport though – the tower would regularly force me to extend my downwind up to 3.5 miles past the threshold due to cross traffic.

  9. Jess Sightler Says:

    “Flying at night and under the hood are the primary differences between the private and sport pilot certificates. They are obviously quite different from day VFR flight, so it takes many students more than the minimum time to achieve checkride proficiency.”

    I was right at the minimum for my night flight requirements, and had about 5 hours of instrument. From what I have seen this is fairly common around here (if anything, many do even less hood work).

    I was nowhere near the minimum for total hours, though, as most of the time was spent on landings.

    Perhaps my experience is extremely atypical, but based on this, I don’t see a huge savings for SP.

  10. charles Says:

    The one over riding reason I fly light sport a/c is that they are FUN! Especially the J3 and Evektor Sportstar.
    CM

  11. Paul Says:

    I like the sport pilot concept and have had instruction in light sport aircraft. However, I have decided to go the Recreational Pilot route. It does require a medical certificate, but that’s not a problem for me. LSAs are relatively rare, even in large metropolitan areas. And, in my experience, have too much down time for maintenance or waiting for parts to arrive from Europe. Recreational pilots can fly real airplanes that are reliable, well supported, available everywhere, and often cost less to fly. I think that eventually the Sport Pilot/LSA system will work out alright. Its just not there at this time.

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