Is Technology Killing Sport Pilot’s Future?

By Scott Spangler on March 12th, 2008

Simplicity and affordable flying for fun were the driving forces that sustained the sport pilot/light-sport aircraft effort during its 10-year path to reality. In short, it was supposed to be flying unplugged — stick and rudder, look out the window and enjoy the view. 

That may be the goal of those who want to fly a light-sport aircraft, but it seems that technology is all that matters to those who are selling LSAs, and selling the idea of becoming a sport pilot. 

 LSA-GlassCockpit Don’t get me wrong. Glass cockpits in light-sport aircraft makes perfect sense to me. With fewer components and easier installation, glass costs less than steam gauges and their associated plumbing, and that helps contain the cost of a light-sport aircraft. But what about autopilots? It’s an easy addition in the world of glass, and at least one LSA manufacturer is offering it as an option.

Making technology the anchor of the SP/LSA marketing effort is, I fear, a mistake. It may work well when selling airplanes for IFR transportation, but that’s because the buyer, whether it be an airline, corporation, or individual who needs to go places efficiently and economically. LSA buyers and sport pilots are, I think, still motivated by the romance of VFR flying, and there’s not much romantic about flying a video game.

No disrespect to the industry leaders I listened to at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh last year, but as the father of pilot-age sons, a glass cockpit is not going to entice them skyward because it connects with their inner video-gamer. My boys fly often in virtual skies, and they’re always yankin’ an banking–with the instrument panel turned off.

Nor will it entice someone like me, who’s been flying for awhile. When I was flying IFR I would have paid almost anything for all that technology offers. But I stopped flying instruments long ago because it was too much like work. I fly for fun, not to play with the latest technology.  All I want is an easy and simple display of essential information necessary for safety.

To sell sport pilot/light-sport aircraft the industry should look at ads by the recreational vehicle industry. Instead of the mobile comforts of home, satellite TV, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing, the ads sell the idea of an unplugged RV life.

I can’t believe that people buy RVs to spend the weekend at some campground, crowded bumper-to-bumper and bathed in the never-ending white noise of belching generators. No, they buy them with the idea that one day they will park with a friend beside some remote, pristine lake, just like in the ads. 

Selling sport pilot/light-sport aircraft the same way seems like a no brainer, especially to the boomer generation, which really needs to unplug from time to time. They have the time, attention span, and financial resources to fly, and they can live the idea more fully than RVers.

By getting the boomers involved, they can share the idea to their descendants. Going after the pilot-age kids directly is, honestly, a waste of time and money. As a group they aren’t interested, perhaps because they don’t have the attention span needed to become a pilot. Maybe in a decade or two, but not now.

Naturally, some kids are becoming pilots. Many of them are pursuing a career, and a few are following the example set by the pilot in the family, because flying is how they had fun. It seems to me that a more effective–and economical–way to get the young eventually involved in flying for fun is to go after their role models, their parents and older relatives.

Selling the freedom that flying for fun offers seems to be the most effective lure. And because not everyone is doing it, it has a patina of adventure that appeals to many.

Recreational flying’s purpose is to unplug from the earthbound demands of over-tasked daily life, to mute its sharp-edged details by looking at the big picture from a lofty perch. So why are many in LSA-land suggesting that newcomers look no further than the instrument panel?–Scott Spangler 

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23 Responses to “Is Technology Killing Sport Pilot’s Future?”

  1. Ted Says:

    I agree, I got started flying young and it definitely wasn’t from a video game mentality. I’d just as soon have the bare minimum and a sunny day. Where I do see the glass panels succeeding is in the flight training arena. Inexpensive well equipped aircraft that make your transition to a G1000 type panel easier.

  2. James Says:

    I attended a lunch that you spoke at at FIT last semester and instantly subscribed to your blog. I’ve been waiting for something to disagree with you on and still haven’t found it! One thing I would like to say is I’m one of those kids learning to fly now, while glass is nice I really think basic steam instrument skills are crucial to becoming a safe pilot. Learn steam first then jump into the glass. What happens if youre a pilot who has trained on all glass/gps aircraft and you jump into your first job flying a king air with no glass? I would really like to see steam still have its place firmly implanted in training. Either way sport pilots don’t need all of that stuff, aren’t the limited to VFR conditions anyway? Pilotage and Dead Reckoning all the way!

  3. Ron Says:

    I train all my glass panel instrument students to also fly with steam gauges (usually via a Frasca 131 FTD) for just that reason.

    As far as the sport pilot thing goes, it’s somewhat of a mystery to me. I think this marketing of glass will work because people just getting into aviation don’t understand what they’re looking at and aren’t aware that they don’t need all that technology in the cockpit if they’re day-VFR only.

    I wonder… if sport aviation is really where it’s at, why isn’t IAC membership on the rise, especially in light of their increasing focus on non-competition (aka “recreational”) aerobatics? I recently wrote an article on this topic in “Sport Aerobatics” magazine.


  4. Mal Gormley Says:

    Scot: Amen & Well Put!

    Your insight re the attention span of young pilot-could-be’s is absolutely true. The sport aviation OEMs have to go after the impulse that makes kids want to get on a snowmobile, a trail bike or motor-cross, not MS FlightSim.


  5. Jess Sightler Says:

    I understand where you are coming from, but I don’t agree.

    Many years of experience have shown us that VFR pilots get themselves in trouble chiefly by two paths.

    1) Running out of gas
    2) VFR into IMC

    Some of the accident data that we are seeing from TAA (glass cockpits) are indicating that the more advanced monitoring and range prediction systems are saving a lot of people from themselves. Similarly, how many vfr into imc disorientation cases could have saved themselves with a flip of a switch on a simple autopilot?

    No, responsible pilots do not need crutches like this, but the bottom line is that we are seeing real improvements in safety trends from their implementation. Ultimately convincing much of the world that these machines are safe is just as important as anything else.

    You’re right, though, we need to sell the experience, not the equipment to reach new pilots.

  6. Mal Gormley Says:

    Well said, but here’s another thought: in an inadvertent VMC into IMC situation, instead of flipping a switch to turn on the magical glass cockpit, hit the button that deploys the ballistic chute. That way the cost of owning a sport plane doesn’t require installing a lot of costly avionics the operator most likely will never need. The the old KSS rule .

  7. Scott Spangler Says:

    VFR into IMC is a separate discussion. Honestly, it will always be with us because nothing, not even technology, will cure pilots of making poor decisions. Bad weather is rarely a surprise, yet pilots continue to head into marginal consitions rather than returning to earth–and safety.

    Prevention through training is, perhaps, the only solution. And it might work with new pilots who earn a sport pilot certificate because they do not receive the introduction to instrument flying required for private pilots. One would hope that SP training reinforces the decision to stay earthboud when the weather is less than ideal. Remember, sport pilot is about flying for fun, not transportation.

    Only time will tell if sport pilots exhibit better judgment, and to make it accurate the data must clearly indicate whether the pilot is a pure sport pilot, or a private pilot exercising SP privileges. It’s my guess that the more easily understood attitude information glass provides might entice those with private pilot training (read, limited knowledge of IFR flight) to push the weather.

    If we don’t entice more newcomers into aviation, the safety question is moot because non-pilots don’t have to make this decision. And marketing sport pilot’s advantages and the rewards of flying for fun by adopting the strategies most often used in the private pilot market will yield, I fear, less than desired results.

  8. Bill Says:

    When I was a light airplane instructor I used little 3 inch plastic stickers to cover the instruments so the studentd would look outside (and thus hold headings within 1 degree instead of 10. I guess the difference with this system is that I’d need a MUCH bigger sticker!
    I don’t see anything inherently wrong with having the instrumentation in there. They are great tools – but with any tool you have to know when and how to use it – so you bang the nail-head and not your thumb.

    I wonder if the wider horizon line depiction isn’t signigicantly better – especially for non-IFR pilots in maintaining control in IMC. Maybe it could have saved the likes of JFK jr.. Heck, even the B-787 will have a wide horizon line.

    Anyway, the pilots just need to be taught the basics, even if the cockpit is loaded with gee-whiz stuff. Then they need to be taught when and when not to use them.
    – Saving your ass when running into unexpected IMC: Good.
    – Heads down in the traffic pattern: Bad.

    When VORs first came out it was poo-pooed as “radio trickery.” Yeah, it’s not your daddy’s J-3, but maybe it’s not all evil just because of that.

  9. Jess Sightler Says:

    “Prevention through training is, perhaps, the only solution. And it might work with new pilots who earn a sport pilot certificate because they do not receive the introduction to instrument flying required for private pilots.”

    I understand what you are saying, but remember VFR students didn’t always get 3 hours of instrument training. That was added as a result of people getting themselves into IMC without _any_ instrument training at all (and often in airplanes with much less equipment than even the lightly equipped sport planes of today).

    AOPA demonstrated that a few hours of instrument training could save lives and as a result the rule was changed.

    “Well said, but here’s another thought: in an inadvertent VMC into IMC situation, instead of flipping a switch to turn on the magical glass cockpit, hit the button that deploys the ballistic chute. That way the cost of owning a sport plane doesn’t require installing a lot of costly avionics the operator most likely will never need. The the old KSS rule .”

    That has happened before with the Cirrus, and has saved lives. Having said that, it makes you wonder what the pilot was thinking. Why didn’t he engage the autopilot upon entering the cloud instead of coming out with major injuries (broken back if I recall) and a very damaged airframe?

    I think the insurance would rather you have the AP than a deployment as well.

    Having a chute and knowing when to use it never hurts, though. :)

  10. Eric Says:

    Hey Rob, once again a very nice article and on-point as usual.


  11. From Canada Says:

    You may, or may not be right, but my bet is that the next generation of pilots, sport and professional, will be intrigued by the introduction to advanced cockpit avionics if available at a reasonable price.

    In any event, the market will decide, not the product planners!

  12. Robert Says:

    “With fewer components and easier installation, glass costs less than steam gauges and their associated plumbing, and that helps contain the cost of a light-sport aircraft.”

    Uh, pardon me? I guess most of you are GA pilots that hold your noses when you move “down” to SP/LSA flying. I’m an ultralight pilot who was forced, kicking and screaming, into SP/LSA, who’s primary focus is on flight, not instrumentation. UL pilots collectively shake their heads in disbelief in the approach GA-to-SP/LSA pilots approach LSA flying… it’s not the same thing: you’re much slower, you’re rarely going somewhere, you’re just enjoying the view. Talking about VFR-into-IMC in a LSA may not be silly, but if you’re doing that kind of flying, invoking “get-there-itis”, that would put you into IMC, then you’re not really doing LSA flying, and you should really get a faster, more capable aircraft (and training) to go from Point A to Point B.

    It IS all about the flying, and it’s the LSA manufacturers that are all trying to sell top-of-the-line GA-wannabe aircraft with glass cockpits that are spoiling the idea. GA pilots may look at $100k LSAs and think, “oh, how inexpensive!”, but UL pilots look at the same aircraft and think, “how absurdly expensive.” We managed to have more fun than almost anyone else with craft that cost in the range of $10k-$25k. Plus we fly for less — I use 4 gal/hr — and we fly more often.

    So, show me a glass cockpit that costs less than an ASI and a CHT/EGT gauge — which is all we need to fly — and I’ll eat my headset.

  13. Scott T Says:

    It’s not the instrumentation that matters – its the cost.
    I’m only 38, and want to start flying again, but the costs of a new LSA doesn’t compete with a decent used Cessna 150 in costs, even if the ride (and the view) are better. Also, most of the less-expensive LSA’s are fabric covered, which usually means you need a hangar to put it in, a good $200 to $300 per month cost(in most suburban areas) that an all-metal 150 doesn’t have.
    Fancy electronics I think aren’t the driving factor in the desires of most average (non-wealthy) people. We’ll take the glass screens if they’re cheaper (basic models frequently are), but it isn’t a huge factor. The current US dollar to Euro ratio (up to 1.56 from 1.00) is another huge cost driver with the imported models from Europe. That’s why a new Rotax 912 will set you back $17 to $19k alone.
    Hell, I’m not asking for much – I realized long ago that IFR wasn’t for me. If you can’t see the ground and the blue sky, how much fun can it be?
    But putting my kids through college (well, at least maybe part of the way) and paying hte mortgage comes before plunking down even only $50k for a new LSA. That’s why the old folks and childless, two-income families are the onlys ones playing with airplanes for the most part.

  14. Marc Avery Says:

    I’m a GA pilot who flys an Experimental AB that’s on the simple side. No glass, no electrical. I’ve looked at the glass and the new plenora of gadgets available. It ends up so many are now spending most of their time with their eyes inside on their vidio games than outside scanning for traffic or keeping track on where they are. I work the ground traffic at the Arlington fly in. Last year I marshalled one ot the distributors out for departure, it was hot so he left the door open on his Cirrus. In the 5 minutes it tool to get him from his display area to the active, he looked out the windows maybe a total of 45 seconds. He spent the entire time he was taxing punching buttons and playing with his vidio games inside. Had something happened and I needed to stop him there was no way I could have communigated the need to this idiot. He could have run over a fuel truck and never known it.

    I’m seeing too much dependance on the fancy electronics and the skills of basic pilotage is going by the wayside. I wonder how many now are flying by GPS only, with out even having a chart on board, much less open and following their progress on it? I feel the electronics are doing a disservice too a large segment of the flying community. Heck kids now days can’t even read an analog clock.

  15. Scott Spangler Says:

    If you look at the range of comments above, you sure get an idea of the challenges facing general aviation, and by GA I mean everything from powered paragliders on up. And they also are an indication of the hopes being pinned on SP/LSA. But, hey, no pressure .

    What’s been most interesting is that each commenter’s slant on my original post is related to their particular take on flying. Cost is a common theme, modified by their interests. Some want SP/LSA to be, in effect, private pilot light, which is was not intended to be. And coming from ultralight end of the scale, SP/LSA introduces cost and complexity they would rather not deal with.

    The reality is somewhere in the middle, but I know this for sure. The pilots who give SP/LSA life, whether they be private pilots flying to SP requirements, or ultralight pilots stepping up, they will determine the success–or failure–of the effort. Right now, it seems that private pilots flying SP/LSA seem to be calling the shots because they appear to be the primary LSA customers. And for more on that subject, check out my next post (on 3.20).

    And, yes, SP IS all about the flying. No matter what is in your panel, steam, glass, or otherwise, remember to look outside. Isn’t that why we fly?

  16. Jess Sightler Says:

    “Uh, pardon me? I guess most of you are GA pilots that hold your noses when you move “down” to SP/LSA flying. I’m an ultralight pilot who was forced, kicking and screaming, into SP/LSA, who’s primary focus is on flight, not instrumentation. UL pilots collectively shake their heads in disbelief in the approach GA-to-SP/LSA pilots approach LSA flying… it’s not the same thing: you’re much slower,”

    Slower? I think many of the GA-to-SP pilots are wondering what you are talking about.

    I’m a private pilot, and the fastest plane that I have ever flown was a 172 that would do about 117 kt. Most of my training was done in an Alarus, which could sometimes top out at just under 95 on a warm day.

    SPs are quite a bit faster than that. :-)

    The people who see LSA as PP-Light are just basing that on the rules as they exist, because the rules offer much flexibility for these guys that didn’t exist before.

    Of course, the other side of the coin is that there’s a lot of flexibility from the ultralight stepup crowd that is now legally sanctioned, and that isn’t a bad thing either.

    But don’t forget that these “low-speed” lsas will outrun the 152, 172, archers, and cherokee 140s that make up so much of our fleet.

  17. Owen Says:


    Your statement: “The reality is somewhere in the middle” is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    The reality is the middle, the low end, the high end, and all points in between. Yes, Flight Design and Cessna get a lot of attention for selling new S-LSA airplanes that are much more capable than the FAR 23 2-seaters we all know and love. But that doesn’t stop Allegro, Indy Aircraft, or CGS from producing delightful open-air ultralights. And it doesn’t stop the Trikers either.

    LSA is NOT a zero-sum game.

  18. Owen Says:

    I wish I could edit that. Of course Allegro isn’t actually open-air, and I can’t tell if the CGS offering is either. Neither is actually in direct competition with the CT or 162 though.

    It does no good for Flight Design to sell ultralight style flying when their product will never, ever fit that profile.

    And the fact one company is very successful selling “fast & sleek” doesn’t stop any other company from selling “simple & cheap”. There’s no point at all in blaming Cessna for the fact the Quicksilver hasn’t sought approval for the MLXII Sport trainer.

    LSA isn’t one just thing – whole different categories are built right into the reg. Would anybody expect a hot-air balloon to be the same experience as a glider, or a seaplane, or a trike? So why does anyone expect a Cessna to appeal to somebody who’s looking for a Kolb?

  19. Scott Spangler Says:

    Owen, you’re right, it is not a zero sum game. And SP/LSA includes powered parachutes and trikes (pardon me…weight shift), but the greatest interest seems to be in the fixed-wing category. As my post this morning shows, there are fixed-wing LSAs at the lower end of the price and performance spectrum.

    I’m not “blaming” either the supply or demand side of the equation. My purpose is to make people aware of the challenges the diverse needs of pilots bring to SP/LSA. And, I hope, to make pilots think about their decisions, and the affect they will have. Looking at the comments up to this point, I’m heartened by the ongoing conversation.

    By the “reality in the middle,” I was referring to SP/LSA’s fixed-wing mission, that at a whole, it will be somewhere between the low-and-slow worlds of what were two-seat UL trainers and the practical VFR transportation possibilities of the LSAs at the top of the performance spectrum.

  20. Owen Says:

    Sorry, I shouldn’t have switched from the specific “you” to the general “you” without warning. I didn’t think you SS were blaming anybody, I was just reacting to comments I’ve seen here and elsewhere.

    Your new post wasn’t up when I commented. I will leave further thoughts there.

  21. M Bateman Says:

    …and I say the glass cockpit is half full! While I’m perfectly content to fly across country with a six pack, a radio, transponder and my Garmin 496 w/ weather info, there are two market segments that you have to address here, not just the medically challenged octagenarians that are ready to give up their Beechcraft Bonanzas for an LSA. The future success of the LSA market will depend on the second market segment–new student instruction and training. The cost effectiveness of LSA as trainers cannot be disputed and as these are placed into flight schools as trainers a different attitude emerges. These young men and woman pilots of the future are stretching their wings with the forward view of working for the airlines or as a corporate pilot some day. Airlines do not have junk radios and antique avionics in them–they have glass cockpits and our new, young pilots need to learn this new technology. You take a young student pilot to an old Cessna 172 and then to a new LSA with an all glass cockpit and tell them that you are going to charge them $125 no matter which plane they fly and see which one they choose. I guarantee it will be the LSA nine times out of ten. So I have to differ with you on this topic. I’ve been there, seen it, done that, and I can assure you that the market is indeed driving this glass cockpit phenomenon. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

  22. category b aircraft Says:

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  23. Keith Martin Says:

    I guess I need to say that you sound a lot like some of the “older pilots” that I used to hear complaining when radios became more commonplace and then they complained when the transponders and ELTs were added! Now it seems that you are complaining about glass cockpits? Give me a break! Are you sure you are up to flying? Don’t you find it a little too disconcerting that they are using aluminum instead of fabric? What about the use of brakes? Is that much technology for you, too??!!

    I am sorry, but at 52 years of age, I think flying is finally headed in the right direction thanks to the Europeans with their rotax engines and lightweight but fast microlights. Some of those things go 200+mph on Rotax power!! I guess it is no wonder the Wright Brothers got fed up with the “unwilling to modernize Americans” and took their planes to France and Germany to sell.

    Glass cockpits are finally making instruments reliable and therefore affordable. In a few years, there will be one screen in front of each pilot and you will be able to configure it to even look like the steam gages you so much want for less than $100! Then what will you say?

    BTW, engines should all be electronic ignition, fuel injected, blown, single power lever. it is time aviation caught up to 1990 cars technology – no matter how anti-change old pilots get!

    BTW, my 16 year old son soloed in 5 hours to the amazment of all the old pilots training at the local airport in spite of a horendous cross wind. After they came over and slapped him on the back and ranted on what a find job he did with the wind, he said, “Yeah, I was a little worried about that this morning when I checked the weather conditions, so I fired up my PC and shot about 20 approaches with the max wind until I had it nailed. The real thing was pretty docile by comparison.

    There are old pilots and bold pilots, and both will be beaten every time by the new pilots that are embracing technology.

    If you don’t believe me, then just ask today’s Air Force.

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