Monday, September 20, 2004 FAA's plan to regulate 'light-sport' aircraft takes off STANDARDS: The rules will affect "ultralights" and could raise number of pilots. By PETER PORCO The Anchorage (AK) Daily News The federal government early this month created a new rule for certified pilots and aircraft that officials say will take aviation back to the stick-and-rudder flying of an earlier era but is tailored to the recreational needs of today and tomorrow. The rule, they say, will develop new pilots and encourage others who have dropped out to fly again. The change will affect more than 15,000 Americans, including hundreds of Alaskans, who fly so-called ultralights, powered parachutes and other light aircraft that were until now unregistered and somewhat unregulated, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Now these will be licensed pilots flying FAA-certified "light-sport" aircraft. The new rule sets federal standards for the manufacture, repair and inspection of light-sport aircraft and for the training and testing of sport pilots. It allows time spent flying light-sport aircraft to count toward hours needed for advanced certificates. It also requires less time and money to get a certificate as a sport pilot than one as a private pilot, thereby lowering the bar for entry-level flying. "It's certainly opening up the field for more people to get involved," said Felix Maguire, a director and past president of the Alaska Airmen's Association. "It's an expensive business to start flying, to buy your plane ... (and) get your private pilot's license. But this will give them a chance to get started at about a quarter of the price." For a private pilot's license, students currently spend an average of 70-75 hours in flight training and about $10,000 in tuition and fees, said Sue Gardner, the FAA's national program manager for sport aviation and a pilot who helped shepherd the rule through the agency. Under the new regulation, a license might be had after a minimum of 20 hours of flight training, including 15 with the instructor, for about $2,600, Gardner said. Meanwhile, the several types of light-sport aircraft addressed by the rule are priced about the same as sport-utility vehicles, roughly $15,000 to $60,000. Over the next decade, according to FAA estimates, 12,000 more Americans will become pilots flying light-sport aircraft. The rule took effect Sept. 1 and will be phased in -- with different dates set for the first training courses, the first sport-pilot certificates, and other milestones and deadlines -- mostly over the next half-year. The FAA justifies the reduced training necessary by saying the aircraft available to entry-level pilots are simpler to operate and slower. Light-sport aircraft covered by the new rule are small, low-performance, low-energy, single-engine, fixed-landing-gear machines, and some others, in several categories: light fixed-wing aircraft, gliders, powered parachutes, gyroplanes, weight-shift-control aircraft (known as trikes) and lighter-than-air craft (balloons and dirigibles). They are generally limited to daylight hours with at least three miles' visibility, a maximum airspeed of about 135 mph, a single passenger and small airports. Maximum takeoff weight ranges from 660 to 1,430 pounds. People have been flying motorized ultralights and their cousins since the 1970s under standards set, with FAA approval, by the industry. Manufacturers have turned out ever more inventive, airworthy designs. But until the new rule, the FAA regulated the field pretty much at arm's length, granting exemptions to accommodate some innovations but restricting ultralights to the margins of aviation. The agency didn't even refer to the machines as aircraft. In FAA parlance, they were "vehicles." One type of ultralight -- the single-seat hanglider and paraglider, powered or not -- remains a vehicle, not a light-sport aircraft, restricted to uncongested airspace, daytime-only flying and other limitations and not addressed by the rule. The FAA says the rule promotes safety through stringent government standards. "These 15,000 pilots are already out there flying," Gardner said. "Now these will all be FAA-certificated pilots flying FAA-certificated aircraft that will all be maintained by FAA-certificated repairmen, and the products coming out will be built to FAA standards." New pilots coming into general aviation will thus enjoy better access to insurance, financing and airports, according to the agency. The ultralight and experimental-aircraft industries appear to be delighted with the change. "The Light Sport Aircraft rule was finally approved today after 10 years of tuning, pruning, delays, tweaking, prodding, slamming, more delays and generally slow but steady progress to the finale," the Ace Aircraft Company, maker of a type of home-built aircraft that qualifies as light sport, said on its Web site Sept. 1. Others in general aviation are more cautious. The manager of Merrill Field, Dave Lundeby, said it was too early to tell what practical changes the new rule would bring. It would not automatically be the case, Lundeby said, that ultralights would begin operation at the busy Anchorage field, where airplane speed and optimal, safe traffic flow are strongly linked. "If you have low-speed aircraft trying to mix in with faster aircraft, it doesn't work," Lundeby said. The National Transportation Safety Board, chief investigating agency for aircraft accidents, does not yet have a sense of what the rule will bring. "There's no way to know," NTSB investigator Scott Erickson said. "This is a new aspect of aviation just coming on line." Erickson conceded that the rule will "offer an opportunity to fly at a lower cost." But in Alaska, where winter can only discourage pilots from flying in planes open to the elements, it's possible the financial incentives will not be strong enough. "It remains to be seen how people will embrace that," Erickson said. A popular provision of the rule, said FAA officials and others, lets private pilots fly even if their FAA-authorized medical certificates have lapsed. A medical authorization may have lapsed, the officials said, because aviation had become too expensive and complicated for a pilot or because of treatment for a medical problem. The new rule allows such a person to fly light-sport aircraft using a state driver's license in lieu of the medical certificate. "We figured there's about 40,000 pilots that ... now have a major door opened for them," said Jeff Myers, a vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which had urged the FAA to adopt the "driver's license medical." When they start flying again, these pilots will rise into the skies in 21,000 planes -- aircraft like the classic Piper Cub and the Aeronca Champ -- that are certified and available now, Myers said. In Alaska, the number of pilots with lapsed FAA medical certificates could be as many as 1,000, said Dan Billman, a safety inspector in the FAA's new Light Sport Aviation Branch. "There may be some older pilots who can come back to aviation and maybe fly a J-3 Cub, a (Taylorcraft) or a Champ with a valid driver's license," Billman said. "I know there are inspectors in the FAA within that realm." Could safety be compromised by the lower standard? Those favoring the rule say all pilots must self-certify before they step into the aircraft by asking themselves if they're fit to fly. "The incidents of medical incapacitation in those (light-sport aircraft) are less than among pilots with FAA medical certification," said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association. "If you're well enough to drive a 6,000-pound SUV at 70 mph, you're certainly well enough to fly a 1,000-pound aircraft," Knapinski said. The greatest benefit of the new rule, its backers say, is that it can introduce more people to the skies in a manner that's closer to aviation basics. "It is an easier and less expensive way for pilots to get into or return to their roots," said Myers of the Owners and Pilots Association. Myers, 54, said flying the smaller, slower aircraft is "kind of like going back to your old Schwinn bicycle." Billman, 54, has been flying for 36 years and has 22,000 hours in standard as well as ultralight aircraft. He said people who enter aviation by flying light-sport aircraft will become better pilots because they will be closer to the subtleties of stick-and-rudder flying. "If you're flying a very light aircraft, which has a light feel, you're more prone to be aware of wind and micro-weather conditions," Billman said. "It takes us back to the era of the 1930s and '40s, when flying was simpler," said Gardner, the FAA sport aviation manager. Gardner used to fly a 50-seat commuter plane for Air Wisconsin out of Chicago and is familiar with complex avionics and crowded airspace, she said. After work, however, she would jump in her own Aeronca "just to go back to the basics of flying," she said. "I didn't have to talk to anybody. I just flew over the cornfields for the pure joy of it." Attached Photo's: Rick Hugget, an advanced flight instructor, maneuvers his Challenger II aircraft above the Birchwood Airport. The Challenger II will be covered by the new sport pilot license, created this month by the Federal Aviation Administration.