My thoughts on Sport Pilot

It should be no surprise to most folk who know me that I’m a huge aerospace buff. I mean, I drove out to see Space Ship One launch, got all emotional seeing the Concorde shortly before it was decommissioned, and mourned the loss of the Columbia.

I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. I think that my father being an aerospace engineer and a private pilot has something to do with it.

So, this week, the FAA announced the Sport Pilot rule.

Sport Pilot is the latest attempt from the FAA to pull itself out of a… ehrm… tailspin. See, people aren’t getting pilot licenses the way they used to. The first try was “Recreational Pilot” where you underwent slightly less training and underwent restrictions on your license. originally, it was to not require a class 3 medical, but in the end, it ended up being Private Pilot Lite, with all of the problems, expenses, etc. and no real point.

So, when I found out about it sometime last year, I was a little worried. They went farther than Recreational Pilot did, by creating an entire new regulatory structure around lightweight, simple aircraft. But they could always change stuff at the last minute.

Now, the thing is, for my purposes, Sport Pilot is perfect. Apparently, some of the ultralight and hang gliding folks felt like they got the shaft because the whole thing started out as an attempt for them to get an extra hundred pounds or so on their standard ultralights and a few other general purpose regulatory aids, before everybody else hijacked it and piled their dreams and hopes on it, turning it into the next best hope for saving the General Aviation market.

See, the problem with General Aviation, meaning flying things other than airliners and cargo planes, has been on a decline lately. Because the cost of aircraft has gone through the roof, fewer people can afford to buy a plane and, because replacement costs drive up insurance, fewer people can afford to even rent a plane. Furthermore, the existing pilots are getting older and not being able to pass the FAA-required medical examination.

Furthermore, a lot of people are ruining aviation. Developers want to take the land that an airport sits on and turn it into houses and condos and businesses. So they get civic groups up in arms about how dangerous the small aircraft are and how much noise they make and how the airports should be closed down and turned into really good housing. There are documented cases where the light airport that was the only thing that saved a small town from disaster gets turned into cheap apartments the next year.

People are suing aircraft manufacturers because they think they’ll get money out of it. Now, I can see some of them — like if the manufacturer actually screwed up. But the heirs of Aaliyah were talking about suing Cessna because the Cessna 402 that killed her apparently didn’t fly so well when piloted by a pilot who, incidentally, had cocaine and alcohol in his system, and where the aircraft was 700 pounds overloaded. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, but, in many cases they haven’t.

The problem, the way I see it, is that recreational flying really ought to be the same sort of fun pursuit as riding the motorcycle. It’s not necessarily the best form of transportation, but it’s a fun way to get places. There’s the same sort of rules. When you wipe out on a motorcycle, you wipe out. When you crash an airplane, you crash.

The part that’s going to be interesting, if it works out, is the Light Sport Aircraft rules. basically, they are creating a new set of aircraft categories to go along with the new license. These new aircraft will have a simpler process for certifying them, which hopefully means that it will be cheaper to get them.

Of course, there’s a lot of potential fun waiting in the wings, too. It hasn’t been established what the insurance rates are going to be like for pilots, nor who is going to make the jump to renting light sport aircraft, given that all of the popular light trainer aircraft are a tad too heavy.

I have wifely permission to take the written exam any time I want, although I’m not sure when I’ll actually be able to start taking flight training. My goal is to take the written exam the first time it is offered.