In 2014, I stirred up a hornet’s nest by proclaiming “the LSA rule is a failure.” My argument was that the new breed of airplanes were moderately successful in keeping older pilots flying, but they had done nothing to inspire a new generation of aviation enthusiasts. Many readers (well over 100 at last check) considered this sacrilege and weren’t afraid to tell me how wrong I was. Others thought it was outrageous to try to draw conclusions so early.
Six years later, some readers have asked for an update to that article. Have Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) taken off in popularity since then? Are Sport Pilot certificates more common now that the economy is stronger? At the risk of provoking another argument, my review of the data suggests no. The Light Sport world is still alive, but it’s a niche industry with few breakout winners. That’s not just a function of youth, either: the original Light Sport Aircraft rule has been with us for over 15 years now, plenty of time to get a read on things.
First, though, let’s be precise about what we’re measuring. Discussions about “light sport” flying include both LSAs as an airplane category and the Sport Pilot as a pilot certificate level. These are related ideas but separate; a commercial pilot can fly an LSA, but a Sport Pilot cannot fly a Cirrus.
As a certificate, the Sport Pilot certainly hasn’t set the world on fire. Less than 200 were added to the FAA rolls in 2019, compared to 27,000 Private Pilots. That statistic doesn’t tell the whole story, since many more pilots are flying under Sport Pilot privileges with a higher level certificate (for example as a Private Pilot “downgrading” to the looser medical standards). For those older pilots the new certificate is certainly welcome, but calling that a win feels like moving the goalposts: a key aim of the new rule was to welcome new pilots to the industry with lower training requirements. That’s simply not happening. In a typical year, a busy Florida flight school can add more pilots than the entire Sport Pilot training industry.
As a type of airplane, Light Sport Aircraft have been a little more successful. Just under 700 LSAs were registered last year, according to the always-interesting Dan Johnson website. That leaves the total LSA fleet at about 8,800, which sounds impressive. The footnotes matter, though. These numbers include “Sport Pilot kit aircraft,” a broad term that includes experimental airplanes that can be flown by a Sport Pilot—not true LSAs.
In fact, these kit aircraft account for the vast majority of LSA registrations last year. For “factory built” LSAs, the numbers are pretty small: only 41 Icon A5s, 60 Tecnam LSAs, and 63 Flight Design CTs were delivered last year. I’m not cherry-picking statistics; these are the best-selling models. The closing of the Sport Aviation Expo last year certainly isn’t a positive sign, either.
For comparison, Cirrus, Cessna, Piper and Diamond delivered over 900 piston singles last year. Curse those expensive SR22s and Skyhawks if you like, but they are selling much better than most factory-built LSAs. Heck, even Robinson helicopters sell better than most LSAs (142 piston model R22s and R44s were sold last year).
Why have LSA sales been so anemic? There are plenty of reasons, but three stand out. Most notably, prices have stayed stubbornly high, removing one of the key benefits the category was supposed to offer. The Icon A5 seaplane is the most dramatic example, with a price that has exploded from under $150,000 at launch to more than $380,000 today, but it’s not the only one. That sexy Carbon Cub SS can easily top $250,000 with popular options. Even utilitarian models typically cost more than $150,000 with standard equipment.
Are LSA manufacturers simply ripping off customers? It sure doesn’t seem like it: these are not high margin businesses, and most are small companies that struggle to break even. The typical complaints about product liability, low volume production, and regulation apply here, but another cause of high prices is that owners simply want these airplanes to do more than they were designed to do. “Needle, ball, and airspeed” makes a great catchphrase, but most buyers prefer “glass cockpits, datalink weather, and autopilots.”
Whether an airplane is a good value or not depends on what you compare it to. While a $250,000 LSA represents a significant savings over a brand new Cessna, that’s not the real competition. A prospective airplane owner is more likely to compare an LSA to a used Part 23 airplane, like a Piper Archer. A quick search finds some attractive models available for less than $70,000—and remember these are four place airplanes with modern IFR avionics. Yes, the airframes are older, but for the money invested they still offer a much better value.
Another reason for weak sales is flight schools, a key target for LSAs in the early days, since they were supposedly hungry for a new type of training airplane. Unfortunately, that market hasn’t really materialized. Some schools have found success with airplanes like the RV-12, and Sport Pilot-only training centers do exist. The current boom in pilot training, however, is powered by Cessna and Piper. In fact, Skyhawks are so popular right now that prices of used ones have skyrocketed (if you own a 172S, you should answer the phone!). Piper even introduced new training versions of their most popular airplane, years after cancelling a short-lived LSA program.
One final frustration relates to maintaining and upgrading LSAs, which has proven to be trickier than expected. Because the airplane manufacturer must approve most upgrades, owners are very much dependent on the factory for support. Many LSA owners have learned this lesson the hard way with ADS-B Out, a relatively minor upgrade that has required serious paperwork changes for some owners. So an airplane category that was supposed to offer flexibility has, in some cases, been harder to maintain than a 50-year old Beech.
The new cool kids
In a practical sense, the ultimate verdict comes from customer attention and business investment. In both cases, the industry has moved on from LSAs and Sport Pilots. Electric airplanes and vertical takeoff (VTOL) designs are the hot new ideas, with venture capital flooding into new companies with futuristic designs. The solution for “democratizing aviation” seems to be cheap octocopters and urban heliports, not two-seat sport airplanes. And pilots? The future envisioned by the most starry-eyed tech boosters involves no pilots at all. Don’t get me wrong: I find these proposals to be outlandish and naive. Most of these are probably years off (and many won’t make it at all), but they are where the action is right now.
While we await our Jetsons future, it’s worth recognizing the real winner in personal aviation: experimental aircraft. This is where low cost innovation is taking hold and where general aviation pilots are most excited. You can go a lot faster than 100 knots, you can fly IFR, and you can even carry four people in some models. The most exciting new Cub design isn’t the LSA model, but the souped up Carbon Cub. For traveling, the Van’s RV-10 offers performance similar to a Cirrus but at 1/3rd the price. There are plenty of other options too, from the SubSonex personal jet to the Zenith CH750 bush plane.
Customers are voting with their wallets. More than 10,000 RVs are flying today, a number that has more than doubled since 2008. The LSA registration numbers above show a long list of kits, not factory-built S-LSAs. They are kit airplanes first and foremost, and if they happen to satisfy the LSA rule, so much the better.
A silver lining
It’s not all bad news. One reason LSAs haven’t found momentum is that, like a good football coach at halftime, the rest of the general aviation industry has reacted. In this sense, the Sport Pilot and LSA rules have been successful—because they have inspired meaningful change elsewhere.
BasicMed is the most obvious example. The “driver’s license medical” that comes with the Sport Pilot certificate hasn’t proven to be a major safety risk, so the FAA felt a lot more comfortable extending this concept to Part 23 airplanes in May 2017. No, BasicMed isn’t quite as relaxed as the Sport Pilot rules for medical certification (one reason Sport Pilots will hang around), but it’s a major step in the right direction. AOPA estimates that over 50,000 pilots are flying under BasicMed—impressive adoption for a relatively new rule, and lots of pilots who don’t have any use for a Sport Pilot certificate.
Beyond BasicMed, the looser airplane certification standards also helped usher in a new era of avionics. The concept of industry consensus standards was pioneered by LSAs, and once again the industry provided good evidence to regulators that a new certification approach could lower cost without reducing safety. The steps were tentative at first, but the last five years have seen a flood of new avionics, from affordable primary flight displays to “non-certified autopilots” in certified airplanes. This is real progress for thousands of airplane owners, breathing new life into older airframes.
The LSA industry isn’t dead. A recent Flying magazine edition features an ad for the Colt from Texas Aircraft, a new LSA that looks to be well made and practical. Another newish LSA is the Vashon Ranger, a $100,000 LSA designed by the founder of Dynon Avionics. I had the chance to fly one last year and enjoyed it—it’s fun and well-made, with some innovative design choices. But the Colt still costs well over $150,000, and fewer than 30 Rangers are flying. Hardly revolutionary numbers.
There is some hope for regulatory relief, which might spur a new round of airplane designs. The FAA seems serious about updating the LSA rule to potentially raise the maximum weight, increase the maximum speed, and allow electric powerplants (a critical shortcoming right now for innovative companies). These are desperately needed to prevent LSAs from being passed by traditional certified airplanes in terms of flexibility, but any such change is likely years away from being reality. By the time it comes into force, new Part 23 certification standards themselves might unlock some of the same potential as an LSA—but with fewer restrictions on performance.
In fact, the ultimate goal for industry groups and airplane manufacturers may be to eliminate the clear lines between experimental, LSA, and certified in the first place. The FAA wants to move to “performance- and risk-based divisions for airplanes.” As the airplane goes up in performance or as the type of operation goes up in risk, the requirements for aircraft and pilot certification will tighten, but without today’s arbitrary categories. At that point, LSAs might cease to be called LSAs.
No matter how you look at it, LSAs have not transformed flight training or reinvented recreational aviation. They are and probably always will be a fairly small niche. Likewise, the Sport Pilot certificate has not played much of a role in the growth of student pilots—for that we mostly have the airlines to thank. Apparently a pilot hiring boom is worth a lot more to the industry than a new certificate level.
In spite of all the disappointment, though, there is reason to celebrate. The typical GA pilot has more options for equipment and medical certification than he did ten years ago, and the Light Sport industry deserves some credit for that. US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called states “laboratories of democracy” for their ability to test out new ideas at a small scale before being adopted at the federal level. Maybe that’s the legacy of LSAs: laboratories for the FAA.