From Ultralight to LSA

Evolution of Light Sport Aircraft

The quest for "everyman's airplane" has taken some peculiar turns. In the mid-1970s, for example, some U.S. hang gliding pilots began attaching small two-cycle go-kart engines fitted with propellers to their gliders, eliminating the need for a hill. Faced with this and similar deve-lopments, the U.S. Federal Aviation Admin. (FAA) ruled that as long as such aircraft were "foot launchable," meaning the pilot could run with it and take off, it would be considered a "nonairplane" and its pilot didn't need a license. That determination paved the way for a whole new class of unregulated flying vehicles called Ultralights.

Ultralight enthusiasts grew in number and there was much talk about how it was going to be "like the Wright brothers all over again." Unfortunately, the early 1980s replayed not only the best but some of the worst chapters of that earlier era, as the "non-airplane" field ran the gamut from safe and well-engineered to downright dangerous.

The FAA soon decided it needed to erect some kind of regulatory structure around the Ultralight category. The result was FAR (Federal Aviation Regulation) Part 103. While aircraft airworthiness and pilot certification were not required, Part 103 imposed the FAA's right to inspect Ultralights and require proof of compliance, and set forth fairly restrictive operating rules (e.g., daylight-only flight). Further, a powered Ultralight could weigh no more than 115 kg/254 lb empty, have a maximum fuel capacity of five gallons, a top speed of 55 knots/60 mph, and a maximum power-off stall of 24 knots/27 mph (calibrated air speed). With the advent of Part 103, the Ultralight class improved overall, and some of the better designs achieved cult status.

In the '90s, however, the FAA recognized a need for an intermediate class of aircraft, to bridge the fairly large gap between Ultralights and Light Planes (maximum 5,670 kg/12,500 lb empty weight) that required formal certification, registration and licensed pilots. The Experimental Aircraft Assn. (Oshkosh, Wis.) held "Town Meetings" at its EAA AirVenture (a/k/a Oshkosh Fly-In) events to foster communication between its members and the FAA. Near the decade's end, EAA, FAA and other aviation-related organizations formed a working group to find a way to make recreational flight more accessible. On Feb. 5, 2002, the FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for both a Sport Pilot License and a Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) category. There was little negative response, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was an early and enthusiastic supporter, despite having to deal with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. After announcing and then canceling several launch dates, the FAA finally inaugurated the LSA category with only minor modifications to the proposed rules, at the EAA AirVenture show in July 2004.