Did the Sport Pilot rule forget its origins and true
purpose in and for the ultralight community?
By ANN Correspondent John Ballantyne
A number of writers have recently approached an understated
aspect of the Sport Pilot and Light Sport Aircraft regulation --
the crack-down on thousands of pilots and their aircraft
colloquially identified as "fat" ultralights.
Who is this group of pilots and instructors and will they be
helped or injured?
To properly answer these questions we must review the
development of ultralight regulation (FAR Part 103). It was begun
circa 1979 in an environment where hang gliders were increasingly
being powered. The ability to use modern materials such as
aluminum tubing and polyester sail cloth -- often manufactured
under the trade name "Dacron" -- was facilitating so-called
"designers," often without formal aviation design backgrounds, to
create simple, fun-to-fly aircraft of many shapes. All the
aircraft had one thing in common -- they were slow. Those
self-made designers are my heroes.
experience revealed that those who wanted to learn to fly these
early ultralight vehicles could do so much more easily than on
traditional aircraft such as the Cessna 152 or 172, whose cruise
speeds exceeded 100 mph. Ultralighters did not generally
cross through weather fronts, did not fly at night nor into
tower-controlled airport, and the pilots sought "Ceiling And
Visibility Unlimited" (CAVU). Honestly, ultralights sucked
when used for utility transportation to a business meeting in
Phoenix at 14:00 on Thursday. Forget it.
In 1981, the FAA was very interested and quite helpful to this
emerging group. Rather than treating them as outlaws who were
breaking the rules, FAA personnel recognized they were experiencing
how modern aviation pioneers were discovering a whole new use for
aviation in the regular person's life -- to fly for fun.
FAA representatives made many friends in the ultralight
community during that time. Because the FAA recognized the
recreational nature of these craft, they ultimately enacted an
unprecedented two page rule whose content was simple: it prohibited
ultralight "vehicles" from congested areas and night flight, and
limited them to single seat operations. Within eight months of
issuing the final ultralight rule, the FAA took the important step
of issuing exemptions to allow use of two-seat "ultralights" for
training purposes. That was 21 years ago, and two-seater
ultralights exist today under the same exemptions, but have never
been written into the ultralight regulation, FAR Part 103.
After Part 103 was published, those FAA personnel went on to
other assignments. The in-house attitude cooled and there
became a great divide between FAA and the ultralight
community. Fortunately -- or unfortunately as it may turn out
-- the ultralight community continued to develop the fun aircraft.
Two-seaters were a natural; after all, how many motorcycles have
only one seat? This was not an issue when FAA first got
involved, but weight-shift trikes and powered parachutes became an
increasing part of the community. The FAA was invisible,
unresponsive. What to do?
Ultralight groups began to petition FAA for modifications to
ultralight rules to permit the continuation of this segment of
aviation, but they refused to respond. Decades went by.
Studies were made at great expense to the ultralight volunteer
participants. Then -- and only largely under pressure to
answer the question of how to certificate pilots of trikes and
powered parachutes -- the FAA finally began to develop what we now
know as Sport Pilot. Sport Pilot is not at all what the
ultralight community originally proposed. Instead, it is aligned
with traditional rules for personal transportation aircraft.
Not surprisingly, 18 years later, this FAA response may fall
short of addressing the needs of the ultralight community.
Sport Pilot allows operation of 130+ mph aircraft over congested
areas into downtown airports. Who asked for that? Not
ultralight groups. Under the new Sport Pilot, a Powered
Parachute pilot, holding a private pilot certificate for powered
parachutes may have 6, 8, 10 or more seats and operated from the
local municipal airport. This operation may not be excluded
from public airports by federal anti-discrimination laws. Who
wanted that? Not powered parachuters.
But what of ultralight
"Pioneers?" Suddenly they are outlaws all over again.
Despite the fact that they paved the way by demonstrating the ease
of production of slow machines for aerial recreation, the
conventional aircraft lobby is strong. The new Sport Pilot
rules are directly tied to traditional aviation rules; Part 61 and
91, and not Part 103. The practical experiences of ultralight
training programs and safety issues are overshadowed by almost a
century of FAA historical data on airplane accidents. What
traditional FAA pilot would support pilots flying a two-seater over
downtown Anytown, USA at 130+ mph without an FAA medical? The
answer: only those pilots who can not obtain an FAA medical.
Why should training be significantly diminished for those who could
not fly at night? Answer: They won't be, except for night
The Sport Pilot certificate will be more difficult to get than
the popular press is promoting. Why would someone who
qualified to fly such aircraft not simply go ahead and get a
Private Pilot certificate? Answer: because they do not
qualify for an FAA third class medical. What message does
that send to the American public and other pilots who have medical
The point is that many real-life lessons learned by aviation
pioneers of ultralight aviation are being lost. Where are the
ultralight accidents really occurring? Pioneers know from
experience, but FAA has no clue because of confusion between what
is, and what is not an ultralight. What training syllabus is
most applicable? Pioneers know from experience, but FAA will
lean toward Private Pilot-Airplane because they have never audited
the training exemption groups for program content. Has
ultralight regulation Part 103 been wildly successful? Yes,
but then again mostly in the area of protecting the
non-participating public from damage and injury.
Let's step around to the other side for a moment. Some of
my friends in the ultralight community have taken too lightly the
need for proper training and participation in the FAA-recognized
training programs. Because the FAA regulation allows -- and
the planes are forgiving enough to tolerate -- pilot ignorance,
many have simply ventured into the air at great personal
risk. That is inexcusable, period. Many crashes and
inappropriate encounters with traditional private pilots illustrate
Public credibility with the ultralight community is below
zero. Organizational surveys show that less that 15 out of
100 ultralight pilots have actually completed the prescribed
programs offered by at least four national associations. As a
leading proponent of "self-regulation" during those informative
years of 1980-1982, I say this is a tragedy.
Why have so many ultralight pilots ignored the need to be
responsible to the public by passing written, oral and flight tests
to prove their knowledge of basic flight dynamics, aviation laws,
and even the specific laws for ultralights? Today it seems
stupid and self-serving. Conversely, those few who have
participated and become registered have my personal respect.
Thank you, and good work!
Meanwhile, the FAA has gone too far for ultralight
aviation. Nobody in ultralighting asked for 130 miles per
hour over downtown areas into municipal airports.
Unfortunately, ultralighters have set themselves up as targets by
generally refusing to comply with reasonable rules. The FAA
is also to blame for being out of touch with ultralighters and
accepting a disproportionate influence by general aviation groups
who changed the ultralight proposal into an escape for those pilots
who may not be physically able to meet FAA requirements.
Sport Pilot is viewed by general aviation groups as a way around
FAA airman physical requirements. This seems a miniscule goal
to this reporter who sees the continuation of recreational aviation
for medically capable folks as an overpowering, unpreventable,
unstoppable, and huge evolutionary step for all.
Will FAA have to try yet another regulatory chant to capture the
essence of fun, recreational aviation? Many say there is no
chance of that. Rule development is very expensive and
generally aimed at higher-end aviation. But that is exactly what
"they" said about the Recreation Pilot rule which, many years after
its enactment, has less than 400 participants. It was a huge
failure, and Sport Pilot is expected to correct the regulatory
inadequacy that has existed for decades. Will it?
This reporter is not yet convinced…