The word mosaic can be a noun, meaning a beautiful arrangement of glass, or an adjective, as in the tablets that Charlton Heston brought down from the mountain. Whether you view the FAA’s recently released Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certification (MOSAIC) proposal as a work of art or a restrictive set of commandments, this 300-page document will definitely change general aviation. In fact, it’s quite likely to be the most important regulatory change for pilots in at least 20 years.
The initial goal for MOSAIC was to update the 2004 Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) rule, which created an entirely new industry, but one that struggled to find mainstream appeal. LSAs turned out to be a little too fragile for flight training and a little too limited for family transportation. Likewise, the Sport Pilot certificate found only modest success, used mostly for older pilots stepping down at the end of their career, not younger ones entering the industry. The FAA says estimates there are 7000 active Sport Pilots, compared with 164,000 Private Pilots (although the Sport Pilot number does not count Private Pilots using Sport privileges).
MOSAIC directly addresses these limitations by dramatically expanding the definition of LSA to include almost any airplane with a clean stalling speed of 54 knots or less. That adds well over 50,000 legacy airplanes, including the venerable Cessna 172, and make the Sport Pilot certificate much more useful.
But this new proposal is also a reaction to the huge boom in experimental airplanes, which seems to both excite and frighten the FAA. This segment of aviation has seen rapid innovation in construction techniques and avionics, all while keeping the cost of airplanes surprisingly low—and as a result, selling like hotcakes. A clue to the FAA’s thinking is right in the executive summary for MOSAIC: “The FAA intends for these expansions to increase safety by encouraging aircraft owners, who may be deciding between an experimental aircraft or a light-sport category aircraft, to choose aircraft higher on the safety continuum and, therefore, meet higher aircraft certification requirements.”
Only time will tell whether MOSAIC airplanes take market share from homebuilts. For now, the proposal offers enough details to imagine a GA industry that looks quite different in the 2025-2030 timeframe. Here are five trends I’ll be expecting.
1. The Sport Pilot will be the default certificate for flight training. In spite of the FAA’s attempts to introduce lower level certificates (before the Sport Pilot there was the Recreational Pilot option, which never took off), the Private Pilot certificate and the Third Class Medical is still the standard path for a new student pilot. While the Private certificate is loaded with privileges, it also requires longer training and the dreaded FAA medical. BasicMed has been a popular option lately that reduces the medical burden, but even that requires the pilot to have passed an initial FAA medical exam so it is rarely used by brand new pilots.
Under MOSAIC, that could finally change. Thousands of legacy airplanes, including the 152 and 172, would now qualify to be flown by a Sport Pilot, with the accompanying driver’s license medical. That means no trip to an Aviation Medical Examiner of any kind, a refreshing change for nervous newbies and a boost for flight schools, who can now offer Sport Pilot training without buying a new airplane. For career-track pilots, the medical exam may still be routine, but the majority of pilots learn to fly for fun. That should make the Sport Pilot certificate a much more popular option for new pilots. This will almost certainly spell the end of the Recreational certificate, and it might even put a dent in BasicMed’s popularity.
2. Older 4-seaters will get fixed up. The value of airplanes like the Cessna 182 (up to the D model, by my math) will probably go up, since even these high performance machines can be flown under MOSAIC. While a Sport Pilot can still carry just a single passenger, the option to fly a faster airplane and use the back seats for luggage will appeal to many. That should make restoring them and adding new avionics a smarter investment, creating some really nice airplanes in the process. Expect avionics shops to be even busier.
The raw numbers are compelling. The FAA claims that just over 5000 LSAs have been delivered since 2004, and with over 200 models on the market the average LSA manufacturer probably makes less than 20 airplanes per year. In comparison, Cessna has delivered over 60,000 airplanes that will now qualify for MOSAIC. In an instant, the no-medical-required fleet just grew by 10 times.
3. Existing LSAs will get a performance boost. So far, a lot of speculation has revolved around existing GA airplanes that are now included under the MOSAIC rule. That’s big news, but don’t forget the existing crop of LSAs—they aren’t going away, and the new rules apply to them as well. In fact, many will probably see a weight or speed increase, making them much more capable airplanes without the need for expensive modifications.
The existing 1320 lb. limit was completely arbitrary (based on the European 600 kg class), and many LSAs can easily carry more. Likewise, the 120 knot maximum cruise speed forced some manufacturers to artificially limit performance, with some even going so far as to publish maximum continuous power settings that were barely over 50% of rated engine output. Don’t be surprised if you see a new Cub with a 1600 lb. max gross weight or a sleek Kitfox with a 135 knot cruise speed. The only thing that might be different is the POH.
4. New high performance airplanes will arrive. What about the real goal of MOSAIC, which is to spur innovation in light aviation. Here things are more speculative, but it’s entirely possible we will see a new class of airplanes introduced in the second half of this decade. On the high end, these could compete head-on with the top-of-the-line experimental airplanes, with 180-knot cruise speeds, IFR avionics, and four seats. These would be attractive for Sport Pilots who want more performance, but they would also work well for Private Pilots looking for modern designs. Since MOSAIC airplanes will be approved by industry standards (ASTM), they should be less expensive than traditional Part 23 airplanes like the Cessna 182 or Cirrus SR22.
Some companies are already working on these mLSA designs (to use Dan Johnson’s phrase), in anticipation of this rule. These could come from new players, like the VL-3 from JMB Aircraft, or from established manufacturers—Tecnam, Van’s, and Flight Design have all teased future models that seem to be made for MOSAIC. The airplane business won’t magically become profitable with these new rules, but it certainly opens up a lot more possibilities.
5. Growth beyond piston airplanes. One of the most embarrassing omissions in the original LSA rule was electric motors, which were never even considered and so were not allowed. This set back the cause of electric aviation by probably a decade, but that has been fixed with the new rule: electric motors are allowed, as are FADEC and fly-by-wire controls. Such flexibility might finally allow for real engine innovation, which has lagged avionics badly over the last two decades. In the process, hopefully light airplanes become easier to start, quieter, and more reliable.
It’s not just systems that have more room to innovate; there’s even the option for multiengine airplanes and helicopters. A Sport Pilot flying a helicopter one day and a 200-knot airplane the next?! That might sound broad—what is the standard?—but it’s actually great news. The FAA seems to have learned its lesson with the LSA rule, which tried to be specific about definitions and ended up cutting off access to new technology. With MOSAIC, the approach is focused on using the ASTM process to maintain safety standards but adapt much more quickly as the industry changes. For example, the proposal has its eye on multicopters with the requirement that all powered aircraft (regardless of type) “must provide the pilot an ability to maintain directional control and controlled descent in the event of a powerplant failure.” How that’s done is up to the manufacturer and the industry standards.
Did we win?
Pilots are like field goal kickers on a football team: nobody knows we exist unless we mess up. So it’s hardly been a front page story that the LSA rule has been a qualified success. Sure, sales have not exactly boomed and many LSAs airplanes are still expensive compared to vintage models, but at the same time the lack of an FAA medical has hardly caused airplanes to fall from the sky (rest assured, if grandpa has a heart attack and crashes into a school playground, you’ll hear about it).
That “no news is good news” result has led directly to MOSAIC, with the grudging but welcome admission by the FAA that light aircraft can be both safer and less regulated. In their own words: “Since the 2004 rule, light-sport category aircraft have shown a lower accident rate than experimental amateur-built airplanes. The FAA considers that the successful safety record of light-sport category aircraft validates certification requirements established in the 2004 final rule and provides support for expanding the scope of certification for light-sport category aircraft and operations.” In Washington, that qualifies as a huge win.
MOSAIC won’t be perfect, but it’s a major step forward for a segment of aviation that needs a boost. We should all celebrate for just a moment, then get to work building a more innovative and affordable general aviation industry.
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