LSAs: Who’s Guarding the Henhouse?

Apr 1, 2016

Resources > Magazine Articles > LSAs: Who’s Guarding the Henhouse?

The new crop of factory-built LSAs are impressive and exciting, but the maintenance regulations for them are…ah…different

I recently returned from the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida, the foremost aviation event devoted to light sport, homebuilt, and ultralight aircraft. I was a first-timer at this event, having been invited by the show organizers to give a keynote address and a couple of technical forums. I accepted this invitation not because I had any expertise in this lightweight corner of the general aviation envelope—all of my prior knowledge and experience having been with standard category certificated aircraft—but because I sensed this was an exciting and rapidly growing segment of general aviation and this would be a great opportunity for me to learn about it.

And learn I did. I had the opportunity to spend quality time with such legendary experts as Prof. H. Paul Shuch (LSA maintenance guru), Phil Lockwood and Dean Vogel (Rotax engine gurus), Wally Anderson (who operates Synergy Air, the nation’s largest Van’s RV build-assist center and also the manufacturer of the RV-12), and Mike Schofield (Dynon Avionics marketing manager), among others. It was like drinking from a firehose.

How far we’ve come

In July 2004—just 12 years ago—the FAA approved new regulations that created Sport Pilots and Light Sport Aircraft. I recall wondering whether this would amount to much. After all, the FAA’s introductions in the 1990s of the Primary Category airworthiness certificate and the Recreational Pilot certificate both went over like proverbial lead balloons. I needn’t have worried. There are now more than 6,000 Sport Pilots and nearly 4,000 registered LSAs, making this the fastest-growing segment of GA.

The FAA defines an LSA airplane as having a max gross of 1,320 lbs. (1,430 for seaplanes), a max cruise of 120 knots, no more than two seats, a fixed-pitch prop, and a fixed landing gear. An LSA may be factory-built or kit-built; factory-built ones are called “special” LSAs (SLSAs), while kit-built ones are called “experimental” LSAs (ELSAs). Several LSA manufacturers offer their aircraft in both factory-built and kit versions.

Ten years ago, the term “LSA” conjured up images of small, tube-and-fabric designs (Kitfoxes, Quicksilvers, etc.) that always struck me as a lot more “sport” than “airplane.” But progress over the past decade has been astonishing—especially compared to the glacial pace we’re used to in the certified world. 

Today’s top-selling factory-built SLSAs—Czech Sport, Evektor, Flight Designs, ICON, Remos, Tecnam and Van’s—are sleek, sexy, sophisticated, high-tech designs with sophisticated powerplants and wall-to-wall glass cockpits. I must confess to spending hours gawking at these machines at Sebring, trying my best not to drool on them.

Two key contributors

A lot of this progress in the LSA world has been spurred by two component suppliers: Dynon avionics and Rotax engines. The Dynon Skyview seems to be the de-facto standard avionics suite for the current crop of SLSAs, and it’s an awesome system with capabilities that put to shame most of the TSO’d glass cockpit suites I’ve seen.

The 100-hp Rotax 912ULS powers about 80% of new SLSAs. Rotax engines are built in Austria by a subsidiary of Bombardier Recreational Products, a Canadian company perhaps best known for its snowmobiles, jet-skis, ATVs and outboard motors. Rotax started out building two-stroke engines used in these products, as well as in go-karts and ultralights. Those engines were famous for being cheap and light, but in aviation applications a bit cantankerous and dismally short-lived (three-digit TBOs). 

Rotax created its four-stroke 900-series as a clean-sheet design specifically for the aviation market, employing such modern technologies as Nikasil nickel-carbide cylinder barrels, liquid-cooled heads, and electronic ignition. The company has improved the engine over the years, increasing its original embarrassing 500-hour TBO to its present 2,000 hours, and achieving a track record of impressive durability and reliability. The 912ULS is substantially lighter and less expensive than anything Lycoming or Continental has to offer.

Who’s guarding the henhouse?

I was struck by the unusual way the FAA looks at LSAs from a regulatory standpoint. The FARs treat them very differently from either certificated or amateur-built aircraft in ways that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes bizarre. There’s a lot of confusion about LSA regs. Read on and you’ll understand why.

LSAs are not certified by the FAA in the traditional sense: They don’t have a Type Certificate and don’t need to meet FAA certification standards the way normal-category airplanes do. Instead, LSAs are required to conform to something called “FAA-accepted ASTM Consensus Standards.”

Non-profit ASTM International is a voluntary standards development organization. It has 30,000 members from 140 countries who work on numerous voluntary committees to create and maintain 12,000 consensus industry standards in such diverse areas as metals, paints, plastics, textiles, petroleum, construction, energy, the environment, consumer products, medical services, electronic devices, advanced materials and much more.

ASTM Committee F37 on Light Sport Aircraft came into being to develop standards for LSAs in response to the FAA’s LSA initiative. It meets each May and October, and is composed of about 200 members from the LSA community, representing manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and industry alphabet groups. It has seven technical subcommittees that have jurisdiction over 24 consensus standards ranging from minimum safety and performance requirements to quality assurance, flight testing and maintenance.

In essence, the FAA has stepped back from its traditional regulatory role and allowed LSA manufacturers and ASTM F37 to run the show. This strikes me as a mixed blessing. It has clearly been a boon to the LSA industry facilitating awesome technical progress that I doubt would have been possible in a conventional FAA-regulated certification environment. It has also put LSA owners in a situation where everything the manufacturers do or say has the force of law, and that strikes me a bit like having the fox guard the henhouse.

Operating limitations

The key FAR governing the operation of SLSAs is 91.327 (“Aircraft having a special airworthiness certificate in the light-sport category: Operating limitations”). It imposes a laundry list of operating limitations on SLSAs, many of them reasonable-sounding. For example, 91.327 prohibits the use of SLSAs for compensation or hire except to conduct flight training or tow gliders. It requires condition inspections every 12 calendar months (every 100 hours if the SLSA is used for hire). It requires owners to comply with applicable ADs. All commonsense stuff.

But 91.327 also contains a number of provisions that make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. For example, it requires that SLSA owners comply with “each safety directive applicable to the aircraft that corrects an existing unsafe condition.” These safety directives are issued by the manufacturer, so in effect they’re mandatory service bulletins. But while owners of certificated aircraft don’t need to comply with manufacturer’s service bulletins unless the FAA issues an AD compelling compliance, owners of SLSAs are required to comply with all safety directives issued by the manufacturer. So in essence, LSA manufacturer’s can issue their own “ADs” without having to jump through the statutory hoops that protect owners from unreasonable action by the FAA. If I owned an SLSA, that would scare the hell out of me.

But wait. It gets worse! 91.327(d) requires that SLSA pilots “must operate the aircraft in accordance with the aircraft’s operating instructions.” Yikes! If this rule applied to normal category aircraft, it would be an FAR violation for me to operate my engines LOP, because that’s not what the POH says to do! Nor would I be able to purchase GAMIjectors to make LOP operation practical, because 91.327 says that any major alteration to an SLSA must be approved by the manufacturer.

Stay out of clouds

The absurdity of this situation really hit home when I learned that SLSAs are prohibited from flying in IMC. Excuuuse me? I’m instrument-rated and current.  My new quarter-million-dollar SLSA handily outperforms a Skyhawk and is equipped with wall-to-wall glass, synthetic vision, highway-in-the-sky graphics, and a fancy autopilot. And you’re telling me I can’t fly through clouds? Says who?

I asked a few of the LSA gurus at Sebring to show me the FAR that prohibits SLSAs from operating in IMC, but I couldn’t seem to get a satisfactory answer. I researched the issue further and discovered something interesting: There is no such regulation! In fact, FAA is perfectly happy with an SLSA with an instrument-rated pilot flying in IMC. It’s actually the LSA manufacturers who have decided in their infinite wisdom not to allow their airplanes to be used this way. And in the crazy upside-down world of LSA regulations, the LSAs manufacturers actually have the authority to do this.

Originally, it was perfectly legal for an appropriately-rated pilot to fly an appropriately-equipped SLSA in IMC. The original ASTM Consensus Standards focused strictly on VFR operations and were silent on the subject of IFR. Then, in 2010, something bad happened: The ASTM F37 Committee voted to amend the Consensus Standards to prohibit flight in IMC. Every SLSA manufactured since then has had operating limitations prohibiting IFR operations.

At the time, the Committee said this was intended to be a temporary prohibition that would remain in effect only until it could develop an appropriate set of safety, performance, and equipment standards for IFR operation. But that was six years ago, and according to what I hear from folks who serve on the Committee there is no indication that the prohibition is likely to be lifted anytime soon.

Regulation by Rotax?

Why do you suppose LSA manufacturers, distributors and suppliers vote to prohibit these aircraft from flying in IMC, thus relegating these amazing aircraft to $100-hamburger missions and making them useless for serious transportation? The odd tale of the Rotax 912ULS engine may offer some insight.

I mentioned earlier that the Rotax 912ULS powers about 80% of today’s SLSAs. It’s not FAA-certified, but conforms to the ASTM Consensus Standards. Rotax also builds a fully-certified 912S version (without the “UL”) for use in certified normal-category airplanes such as the Liberty XL. The 912S is built in the same factory on the same assembly line by the same technicians using parts from the same parts bins as the 912ULS. In fact, it’s identical to the 912ULS except for three things: (1) its data plate is a different color, (2) its paperwork is different, and (3) its price is about $11,500 higher.

This allows Rotax to have its competitive cake and eat it, too. It can sell premium-priced certified 912S engines to manufacturers of certificated aircraft, while competing aggressively in the price-sensitive SLSA market with a physically identical engine at a much lower price.

Earlier versions of the Rotax 912-series Operator’s Manual clearly stated that the 912ULS was prohibited from being used for IFR, but the current manual is silent on the subject, probably because it no longer needs to say anything. You don’t suppose perhaps Rotax had any influence the ASTM F37 Committee’s decision in 2010 to prohibit operations of SLSAs in IMC? Hmmm.

Maintenance wrinkles

Here’s another oddity: When your certificated Rotax 912S in your Liberty XL reaches its 2,000-hour TBO, you can keep on flying as long as the engine remains in airworthy condition, because TBOs are not compulsory for non-commercial operators of certificated aircraft. However, if you own an RV-12 SLSA powered by a uncertified Rotax 912ULS, you are required by regulation to overhaul it at the 2,000-hour mark because that’s what Rotax says to do…and in the strange new world of SLSAs, the manufacturer’s Word is The Law. 

Unlike certificated aircraft, SLSAs must be maintained strictly in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and on the manufacturer’s timetable. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable, because in my experience manufacturer’s maintenance guidance almost always involves gross overkill, and I’m a well-known as a maintenance minimalist.

In contrast, FAR 91.327 is very lenient about who is allowed to maintain and inspect SLSAs. It doesn’t need to be an IA or even an A&P. All it takes is the holder of an FAA Repairman Certificate with a Light Sport Aircraft Maintenance Rating, and anyone can obtain one of those simply by passing an FAA-approved three-week course. So an SLSA owner who wants to do his own maintenance and even his own annual condition inspections can do so with only a modest investment of time and effort. And if he wants to swing wrenches on his buddies’ SLSAs, he can do that, too.

The great escape clause

As an aircraft owner for nearly 50 years and an active combatant in numerous struggles over ADs and maintenance requirements, if I have to be regulated by anyone, I’d much rather be regulated by the FAA than by the manufacturer of my aircraft or engine. We all love to complain about the FAA, but at least they are primarily motivated by an honest concern for safety and are subject to numerous laws (notably the federal Administrative Procedures Act) intended to protect us from overzealous regulation. In contract, my experience with aircraft and engine manufacturers are that they are primarily motivated by concerns about being sued, and frequently act in ways that are harmful to those of us who own their products.

One evening over dinner in Sebring, I was talking to EAA’s Charlie Becker about my grave concerns over the seemingly unfettered powers of coercion granted to LSA manufacturers. With a twinkle in his eye, he said “Mike, that’s why we got the FAA to include the great escape clause.”

Charlie explained that under the new LSA rules, the owner of an SLSA who doesn’t care for how he’s being treated by the manufacturer of his aircraft has the ability to “opt out” by surrendering the aircraft’s SLSA airworthiness certificate and applying for an ELSA certificate to replace it. By doing so, he converts his LSA from “special” to “experimental” after which he can basically ignore the manufacturer’s instructions and operate and maintain his factory-built LSA as he sees fit, almost as if it were an amateur-built experimental.

By doing this, he probably gives up any remaining warranty and factory support to which he might have been entitled as an SLSA owner. He also gives up the ability to use his aircraft for compensation to give flight instruction or tow gliders. But what he gets in return is the ability to operate and maintain his LSA pretty much however he sees fit. Engine and prop TBOs would become mere suggestions, the way they are for certificated aircraft. If the LSA is appropriately equipped, it can probably become legal to fly in IMC (assuming the DAR who approves its new operating limitations is good with that).

Seems to me if I bought an LSA, this might be one of the first things I’d do.

You bought a plane to fly it, not stress over maintenance.

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