Sport Pilot from Start to Finish
Meet two pilots who fly LSA
Seven years after its introduction, the sport pilot certificate is gaining traction and gathering converts—the number of student starts suggest students are recognizing the category’s benefits. That’s encouraging, because it implies that a population of potential student pilots is on the sidelines, watching and calculating while seriously considering a jump into the action themselves.
More student starts is good. More students successfully making the transition to pilot in command is even better. Yet that doesn’t tell the full story of the sport pilot certificate. Aside from its ability to put new pilots in the air, it also removes a regulatory roadblock, allowing experienced pilots at the far end of their career path to downsize the aircraft they’re flying and remain in the left seat.
What is sport pilot? For all its benefits, sport pilot remains one of the most misunderstood certificates the FAA has ever offered. New students will find sport pilot to be a quick, less expensive, and satisfying way to get into the cockpit. It’s also remarkably easy for those who hold a more advanced pilot certificate to begin exercising their privileges as a sport pilot.
Sport pilots are limited by regulation to flying only Light Sport category aircraft (LSA). Ironically, the parameters set out for an LSA have caused a wide selection of aircraft to be introduced to the U.S. market that approximate the simple trainers in which so many pilots learned to fly immediately prior to World War II, and throughout that war. But unlike those early, bare-bones trainers, these new models make outstanding use of technology in their powerplants, avionics, and even the materials from which the aircraft are built.
A LSA can’t weigh more than 1,320 pounds, although a 100-pound allowance is made for seaplanes—their weight limit is 1,420 pounds. The maximum stall speed is limited to 45 knots, and LSAs can’t cruise any faster than 120 knots in level flight with maximum continuous power.
ahead of time. Gardiner Mason Jr. is a retired airline captain from Georgia who did a stint in the United States Marines as a pilot. He flew the Douglas A–1 Skyraider, a hulking single-engine beast that packed 2,500 horsepower or better under the cowl and weighed more than 12,500 pounds. Mason didn’t learn to fly in that monster aircraft, however. He took his first lessons, and earned his civilian pilot certificate, in a much smaller, less powerful machine. “I had my license when I was 17,” he says. The future Marine aviator and airline captain was burning up the sky in an Aeronca Champion, a simple, steel tube-and-fabric-covered airplane with no electrical system, two seats, a docile stall, and a cruise speed slow enough to be considered sluggish by modern standards.
Mason was flying as a sport pilot long before the FAA ever considered introducing the certificate. When I met him on the grassy infield at Sun 'n Fun 2011, he was operating as a sport pilot again—and wasn’t even aware of it. Although it was built decades before the rules that brought Light Sport aircraft into being, the Aeronca Champ is a Light Sport-compliant aircraft. Private pilots, commercial pilots, and even airline transport pilots like Mason can fly the Champ to their heart’s content. But so can a sport pilot, because the Champ, along with a considerable collection of its peers, does not exceed the limitations set out for an aircraft that can be operated by a sport pilot.
Light Sport aircraft may be brand-new machines that have just rolled off the assembly line, or they may be 70-year-old classics that have been available on the ramp for our entire lives.
Live and learn. Unlike Mason, Aaron Menough didn’t learn to fly in his teens. He learned later in life, after his career was established, he was married, and had a growing family. He is a captain of a 630-foot bulk freighter on the Great Lakes. He is a sport pilot by choice.
“Cost was a huge factor,” says Menough about his decision to choose the sport pilot certificate over other options. The lower time commitment necessary to complete the sport pilot certificate was a consideration, too.
During the off season, Menough is a stay-at-home dad with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old seeking his attention throughout the day. That presented some issues when Menough made an attempt to settle down to do his ground-school work. “There wasn’t one minute when I didn’t have a toddler pulling on my leg.”
Like the newer Light Sport aircraft, Menough made use of technology to improve his situation. He studied using Gleim’s online ground-school resources—using his iPhone to log in and access the material. His studying was sporadic, but frequent. “Anytime I had a spare minute, I did it strictly online.”
Menough did his actual training in an A-22 Valor with Joe Crocker, an instructor at FlightLine Aviation in Sebring, Florida. The exceptional visibility the Valor offers shook Menough initially, as did the size of the aircraft, but he grew to enjoy the airplane and adapted to his training well.
“I was really nervous,” says Menough of his initial training flights. “I’d never been in a plane that small before.”
He overcame the nervousness, which is not at all unusual when beginning flight training, but Menough found out that his day job left him with a few bad habits that he would have to overcome if he was going to become a pilot.
One was his use of the rudder. Whenever Menough was just slightly off course, he would tend to revert to his training aboard ship and just bump in a bit of rudder. Breaking that bad habit and using coordinated inputs of both the rudder and ailerons took some getting used to, but he did it and was able to complete his training and earn his sport pilot certificate in an impressive 20.7 hours, at a cost of approximately $3,000. The FAA minimum training time required for a sport pilot certificate is 20 hours.
The right training. Menough’s success isn’t simply attributable to his focused determination. It is also a testament to the training he received. Joe Crocker is a flight instructor with a sport pilot rating, not a traditional certificated flight instructor. Crocker’s success, as well as that of his students, is the result of a solid training program designed by professionals who put customer service and quality instruction at the top of their priority list.
“Most of our students aren’t local,” admits Crocker. “We get a lot of accelerated training, and finish-ups.”
What Crocker is referring to is the sad reality of the flight training industry. Not all flight schools are exceptional, and not all flight instructors are dedicated to helping their students achieve their goals. Students committed to completing their training, but frustrated with their local school, will seek other facilities for completing their training—even if it means traveling to, in some cases, another state.
“They come here and they’re focused on doing it,” says Crocker. His students often view their flight training as a full-time effort, actually living and training on the field in order to compress their training time and minimize costs while still meeting the FAA’s standards.
Designated Pilot Examiner Janeen Kochan conducted Menough’s practical test. She’s doing an increasing number of sport pilot checkrides and openly admits that she’s impressed with the quality of the sport pilot applicants she sees. “They are, in general, exceptionally well prepared and exceptionally astute pilots.”
Menough was no exception. Not only did he successfully complete his practical test—he did it in two sittings. The first allowed him to get through the oral portion, but high winds convinced the applicant that it was not a good day for the flight test, so he made a command decision and rescheduled.
Displaying good decision making is an excellent way to show a designated examiner that you’re taking your role as PIC seriously. That first impression paid off when he showed up for the follow-up appointment and nailed the checkride.
Cool people. “The most satisfying thing, outside of getting a certificate, was being introduced to the community,” Menough says. “I’ve met some really cool people.”
Menough and Mason have a lot in common. At 78 years old, Mason spent five years building a Pietenpol Aircamper, which he flew to Florida for Sun ’n Fun 2011 to show off. Sadly, a rare but highly destructive tornado swept through the grounds of the show, crushing his beloved Piet and potentially dashing his plans to fly as a sport pilot. The Cessna 140 he owns does not qualify as a Light Sport aircraft because of its weight.
Before the tornado, Mason spoke glowingly of his earliest flying experiences, and how they related to flying his homebuilt airplane. “It’s the same thing. I’m still flying low and slow in the Pietenpol.”
There are plenty of misconceptions about what a sport pilot is, and how those rules and regulations affect us when we fly. Whether you’re training to become a pilot, or you’re using the sport pilot rules to extend the number of years you can fly, you can learn the ropes without undue stress or strain. The sport pilot certificate is designed to fill the needs of the exact people it’s named after—sport pilots.