To whom it may concern,
I am the co-owner and operator of a Part 61 flight school located in Jacksonville, Florida. I have been flying since 2001 and have logged more than 5,800 hours of flight time, including more than 5,000 hours of instruction in single engine aircraft including several makes and models of light sport and tailwheel aircraft. I have studied the NPRM in detail and am writing today to suggest some practical modifications to the proposal.
The stated objective of the proposed rule is to “modernize the regulatory approach to light-sport aircraft, incorporating performance-based requirements that reflect advances in technology and use cases for this type of aircraft. The proposal is designed to respond to the evolving needs of this sector and provide for future growth and innovation without compromising safety.” It also states that “the FAA bases the rigor of certification requirements and operational limitations on a safety continuum that assesses the exposure of the public to risk for each aircraft and operation; as the risk increases due to increased operating privileges and aircraft capability, the requirements and corresponding rigor of requirements and procedures for certification increase.”
However, this logic is inherently flawed and does not correlate with the FAA’s own data on aviation accidents, as evidenced in the NTSB aviation accident database. It is widely accepted throughout the aviation industry that the leading cause of all fatal aviation accidents is pilot error, not mechanical failure. This is true regardless of the level of pilot certificate held or the category and class of aircraft involved in the accident. The NPRM does not provide any statistical data to support its claim that the risk to the flying public increases with increased operating privileges and aircraft capability, and the limited data that is provided is skewed in an attempt to support the proposal. The safety related data offered in the NPRM is as follows:
- “Since the 2004 rule, light-sport category aircraft have shown a lower accident rate than experimental amateur-built airplanes.”
- “The fatal accident rate data compiled since 2011 for these aircraft show that light-sport category aircraft fatal accident rates fall between experimental and normal category aircraft, validating that the rigor of certification requirements and procedures of the 2004 final rule falls, as intended, between experimental and normal category aircraft.” (A footnote states “Light aircraft fatal accident trends are included on the docket at FAA-2023-1377. These trends are shown beginning in 2011 because of limitations on available data and since ten-year trends seem sufficient for this proposal.” )
- “The FAA has monitored the accident history of light-sport category aircraft since 2004. As of 2021, there have been 984 accidents or incidents involving light-sport category aircraft, with approximately half of those accidents or incidents occurring during the landing phase. Of the 501 landing accidents, seven resulted in a fatality. The second highest number of accidents or incidents, 164, occurred during an emergency descent.”
- “At the time of the 1989 final rule, the FAA received overwhelming support for the four-seat occupancy limitation for recreational pilots. Since then the NTSB has only recorded 49 accidents with a recreational pilot acting as PIC and only six of those accidents involved a fatality over a 30-year period.”
The following image is a screenshot from the 2020 AOPA Nall Report, which is included as a reference in the NPRM. Figure 1.8 indicates that among non-commercial fixed wing operations, 35.1 percent of the accidents involved pilots holding a commercial or ATP certificate, and 49 percent of accidents involved pilots who held an instrument rating. Those numbers seem to indicate that the experience level of the pilot is not directly related to where the operation lies on the FAA’s “safety continuum.”
The 2021 GA Survey, also referenced in the NPRM, does not provide any data on the total number of flight hours flown by pilot certificate held, only by type of aircraft.
I would like to address the flawed logic in considering any data related to recreational pilot certification. According to the FAA’s 2022 U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics, there were only 79 recreational pilots among a total pilot population of 756,928. This is down from 238 in 2013, still a low number relative to the total pilot population. Additionally, in 2022 there were only 6,957 sport pilots compared to 280,582 student pilots and 164,090 private pilots. So any conclusions related to the operation of recreational pilots are statistically insignificant.
The NPRM also states: “Specifically, based on the Practical Test Standards (PTS) for sport pilots and for recreational pilots, the FAA finds that the knowledge and skills that a sport pilot must demonstrate on a practical test are virtually identical to the knowledge and skills that a recreational pilot must demonstrate on a practical test. Considering these testing similarities and that recreational pilots have been safely operating four-seat airplanes with only one passenger since 1989, the FAA finds that permitting sport pilots to operate airplanes with four seats would not adversely affect safety.”
A more accurate and relevant comparison can and should be made between sport pilots and private pilots. As a flight instructor and the owner of a flight school for the last 10 years, I am intimately familiar with the FAA Practical Test Standards and newer Airman Certification Standards. If you compare the Sport Pilot PTS with the Private Pilot ACS, the required tasks and standards are nearly identical. Let’s look at the practical test maneuvers that are most closely associated with the most common causal factor of all general aviation accidents: maneuvering during takeoff and landing.
Sport Pilot PTS (2014 update)
Private Pilot ACS (2019 update)
|Task||Sport Pilot – Airplane PTS||Private Pilot – Airplane ACS|
|Normal and Crosswind Approach and Landing||
||Same as Sport Pilot|
|Short Field Approach and Landing||
||Same as Sport Pilot|
||Same as Sport Pilot|
|Power Off and
Power On Stalls
|Basic Instrument Maneuvers||
Despite the similarities between these two standards, one important distinction is evident in the standard for maneuvering during slow flight. In 2019 the FAA changed the Private Pilot ACS to ensure that applicants are recognizing the onset of a stall and recovering at the first indication of a stall warning; whereas the Sport Pilot PTS requires the applicant to maintain a stall warning. Given the NPRM’s emphasis on advanced technologies available in existing and future LSAs, and the FAA’s stated desire to enhance safety among the sport pilot population, why did the FAA not include in this NPRM a change to the Sport Pilot PTS to align the standard for this maneuver with the Private Pilot ACS?
To obtain some insight into the relative number of aviation accidents involving sport pilots vs. private pilots, I searched the NTSB CAROL database using the following criteria: Event date is on or after January 1, 2004 (the beginning of the sport pilot rule) and factual narrative contains “ private pilot certificate” or “ sport pilot certificate.” The space before the word private or sport is due to the fact that if you do not include the space, the search results will include the phrase “airline transport pilot.” It is necessary to search in this way because NTSB reports do not include a distinct data field to record the certificate level of the pilot in command at the time of the accident. My search produced 316 records where sport pilot was mentioned in the narrative, and 6,486 records where private pilot was mentioned in the narrative. If you divide the total number of records by the total number of pilots in each certificate group, you get a rate of 4.5 percent for sport pilots and 3.9 percent for private pilots.
Based on this information, it is reasonable to conclude that sport pilots are not substantially more likely to be involved in an aircraft accident than private pilots purely based on their level of certification. This is good news, but contradicts one of the key assertions of the proposal, that risk drops with each higher level of pilot certification (the “safety continuum” reference). This assertion is not supported by NTSB accident reports involving general aviation aircraft. I would suggest that the authors of this NPRM spend a few hours watching a few episodes of Probable Cause on YouTube to gain a better insight into this issue:
Let’s take a step back and consider the motivations for the development of the sport pilot rule 20 years ago. The FAA wanted to regulate all the pilots who were flying what it considered “fat ultralights” and aviation manufacturers saw an opportunity to broaden their market space, which was largely stalled. The 2004 rule attempted to address both issues simultaneously by creating a new pilot certificate and a new category of aircraft that those pilots could fly. The industry was abuzz with promises of a “half price pilot certificate” and the opportunity to fly “simple, affordable, new aircraft” which would offset the aging general aviation fleet. While the sport pilot industry has produced some innovations, it has largely failed to meet its original objective for the following key reasons:
- Even though the minimum flight time required to earn a sport pilot certificate is half (20) of that required to earn a private pilot certificate (40), the reality is that very few pilots are able to meet the proficiency standards for a sport pilot certificate in just 20 hours.
- New light sport aircraft were not as inexpensive or as robust as promised, making them less desirable by flight schools.
Aviation industry journalist and seasoned pilot Paul Bertorelli recently wrote an article that echoes some of my critiques of the original light sport rule, while generally supporting the new proposal. However, in my opinion, he fails to address the ripple effects this proposal would have on the flight training industry, and on aviation safety in general, if the proposal were enacted:
The FAA does not maintain a public database that tracks the total number of flight hours reported on airmen certificate applications, even though this seemingly would be very easy to do given the fact that all airmen certificates are processed through the online portal IACRA. The FAA makes a reference to this on its public website but does not provide any data to substantiate this statement: “Though the regulations require a minimum of 40 hours flight time, in the U.S. the average number of hours for persons without a hearing impairment completing the private pilot certification requirements is approximately 75 hours.”
Without any data, it is difficult to analyze the relative success or failure of the sport pilot certification rule that was supposed to allow a pilot to obtain a pilot certificate in half the time it would take to earn a private pilot certificate. Anecdotally, at our busy flight school in Jacksonville, Florida, I can attest to the fact that it takes most students 20-30 hours just to gain the knowledge, skill and proficiency required to solo, and another 20-30 hours to complete their solo flight time requirements and prepare for the FAA private pilot practical test. My husband and I are the owners and operators and serve as the chief instructors. We have extensive experience over the last 20 years flying and instructing in LSAs and we can attest to the fact that it is virtually impossible to earn a sport pilot certificate in 20 hours, even under ideal conditions. The truth is that most customers who come to us wanting to earn a sport pilot certificate fall into two categories: They can’t get a FAA medical due to health complications, or they are trying to save money. In either case, it’s a losing proposition for the customer and they probably should not be flying airplanes, not even LSAs. Most of the training we’ve done in LSAs has been in furtherance of a private pilot certificate, which offers more utility and opportunities for the pilot.
One has to wonder, then, if the aim of this NPRM is to “decouple” light sport aircraft from the sport pilot certificate, why not simply sunset the sport pilot certificate entirely (along with the mostly defunct recreational pilot certificate)? Much like the FAA forced the owners of “fat ultralights” to either comply and register or lose the ability to operate their aircraft, why can’t the FAA require existing sport pilots to gain the additional training necessary to obtain a private pilot certificate?
The NPRM states that “the FAA proposes to eliminate limitations on classes of eligible aircraft, propellers, and landing gear; allow airplanes with up to 4 seats for increased utility and improved flight training opportunities; and increase the maximum airspeed for more practical personal travel.”
There is no data to support the assumption that carrying additional passengers increases risk by affecting the pilot’s ability to safely operate the aircraft or exercise his or her pilot in command responsibilities. The NPRM makes 33 references to the “safety continuum” that “assesses the exposure of the public to risk for each aircraft and operation; as the risk increases due to increased operating privileges and aircraft capability, the requirements and corresponding rigor of requirements and procedures for certification increase.” This, despite there being no data to indicate that private pilots are any more likely to be involved in an accident if they are flying a four-seat aircraft with more than one passenger onboard. If this were the case, the aviation insurance industry – which dictates virtually everything we do as pilots and aircraft owners – would assess substantially higher premiums for a Cessna 172 than for a Cessna 152, but this is not the case. Consider the commercial hull and liability policy for our flight school, which operates a fleet of seven Cessna aircraft. The annual hull and liability premium for our each of our two IFR certified Cessna 152s, with a stated hull value of $60,000 each, is $3,707; the annual premium for each of our three IFR certified Cessna 172, with stated hull value of $90,000 each, is $4,770.
The NPRM adds that, “With the increased utility because of four-seat designs, light-sport category airplane operations by pilots holding higher levels of certification would likely increase. The FAA anticipates an increase to the overall experience level of pilots that operate light-sport category airplanes, and this generally would have a positive safety benefit.” Again, the FAA here is not providing any data to support this assumption. We don’t know what percentage of light sport aircraft operations to date are conducted by pilots holding a private pilot certificate or higher. Also, as noted in Mr. Bertorelli’s article, light sport aircraft, specifically the S-LSA aircraft that are legally allowed to be used for flight instruction, have been priced beyond the reach of most flight schools. I can speak only for my flight school and the primary reason we have not incorporated a LSA into our fleet is that they are simply too expensive and have not proven to be as durable as certified aircraft. My two Cessna 150s have paid for themselves tenfold and have each endured more than four decades of student pilot operations. It never made any sense for us to own a LSA. It remains to be seen whether the market for new, four-seat LSAs will justify their development, given the existing market for used, four-seat certified aircraft.
Regarding the proposed four-seat limitation for sport pilots, the NPRM states that “Allowing sport pilots to operate four-seat airplanes (even with only two persons aboard) would ease barriers in flight training for sport pilots given the availability of legacy, four-seat airplanes in flight schools.” It is true that one of the primary drawbacks of most LSAs is their limited useful load. Let’s face it, many of the guys who need to fly light sport for medical reasons are also overweight. Even with our Cessna 150s, weight is a limiting factor for instruction because you have to factor in whether the student will be able to take his practical test in that aircraft with a 230-pound DPE. Allowing sport pilots to fly heavier, four seat aircraft would solve this problem but also presents a new one which is not addressed in the NPRM. If a student pilot pursuing a sport pilot certificate wants to fly an IFR equipped Cessna 172, it makes no sense, and is inherently unfair, for him to be able to earn a certificate in 20 hours without a medical while everyone else flying that same airplane needs 40 hours and a medical. Why does the NPRM, then, not propose eliminating the FAA 3rd Class Medical Certificate entirely and allowing all general aviation operations to be conducted with a valid driver’s license, as is allowed under the current sport pilot rules?
It is also completely contradictory to the FAA’s alleged focus on safety to allow sport pilots to earn certificates without any instrument training whatsoever. Most if not all of the LSAs that were manufactured after 2004 are equipped with at least basic attitude instruments. A sport pilot is just as likely to be involved in an inadvertent IMC encounter as a student pilot or a non-instrument rated private pilot. If the FAA was really focused on safety, the agency would revamp the ACS across the board to incorporate scenarios that address the primary causal factors of general aviation accidents. This concept is known as Advanced Qualification Program and it is standardized for Part 121 airline operations. We have incorporated this concept into all of our training curricula from student pilot forward. For more information visit my website, https://www.holladayaviation.com/aqp4ga/.
Finally, I would like to note that the NPRM acknowledges that one of the reasons for allowing sport pilots to fly heavier aircraft is that “heavier aircraft tend to be more stable during turbulent or windy conditions and, in turn, reduce the workload on the pilot attempting to maintain control and a desired course. Specifically, lighter aircraft get jostled around more in turbulence, which causes the pilot to work harder to maintain aircraft control.” This is exactly why I’ve said from the beginning that the 20-hour minimum for a sport pilot certificate is absurd, given that the light aircraft they are limited to fly tend to be less stable in all phases of flight than heavier, certified aircraft. I have given hundreds of hours of instruction in the Czech Sport Cruiser LSA (aka the Piper Sport) and thousands of hours of instruction in the Cessna 150 and I can say unequivocally that the Cessna 150, even though it weighs just a few hundred pounds more than the Sport Cruiser, is markedly more stable and can handle crosswinds better than the Sport Cruiser. The Sport Cruiser is extremely pitch sensitive and students had much more of a tendency to overcontrol it than the Cessna 150. However it’s also true, in my opinion, that the Cessna 150 is more capable and nimble in strong crosswinds than its larger cousin the Cessna 172, but this has more to do with the airframe design than gross weight.
The last issue covered in the NPRM that I’d like to address is aircraft certification and maintenance. I am not an aircraft mechanic, nor do I have any desire to ever build an aircraft from a kit. However, as the owner of nine aircraft who writes the checks to keep these aircraft safe and “FAA compliant” I can say that it is absurd that “FAA approved” parts cost so much more than similar parts for a LSA. I’ll give you my classic example. It costs about $250 to replace a simple, 2-inch, metal window latch on a Cessna 150. This is for a part that is not critical to flight safety and could easily be substituted with a durable, functional window latch that I could buy at my local hardware store for $10.
In conclusion, my recommendation to the FAA would be to abandon this NPRM and all of its convoluted amendments to the sport pilot regulations. A simpler and more effective strategy would be to simply sunset the sport pilot certificate and provide some period of time wherein all sport pilots would be required to obtain the necessary training to earn a private pilot certificate.
Thank you for your time and consideration.