Nobody would argue that the introduction of light-sport aircraft (LSA) changed general aviation in ways unseen since the golden era of Cubs and Luscombes. The Federal Aviation Administration introduced LSA with their ruling on July 20, 2004, creating a new category of aircraft intended to fill the gap between ultralight aircraft and general aviation aircraft.
Specifically, the FAA mandated that light-sport aircraft would carry a maximum of two occupants, have a maximum takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds (seaplanes—1,430 pounds), a 45-knot clean stall speed, a 120-knot top speed at maximum continuous power, a single, non-turbine engine and fixed landing gear (except amphibious floatplanes).
What has changed general aviation is the emergence of hundreds—literally—of LSA manufacturers. The category also created a new type of pilot—the sport pilot—with that certificate’s easier regulations, “driver’s license medical” and lowered training requirements. The combination of those things has created a market as dynamic as computers in their ’80s heyday, and just as volatile and interesting. This surge of popularity has driven technological progress, as well as innovation in design, creating some of the most interesting aircraft designs since the Beech Staggerwing.
What began as a cottage industry led by former ultralight aficionados has turned into a mature business sector with a decade of production under its belt. Designs have come and gone—some underfunded, some lacking performance and some downright ugly. A few surprised us, like Cessna’s ultimately doomed 162 Skycatcher, which never took off the way Cessna intended it to. Also, the promised “affordable” LSA price tag hasn’t dropped as low as many would wish, though in comparison to certified aircraft, LSA are still a bargain—especially for partnerships and flying clubs.
If there was one buzzword for 2014, it was “taildraggers,” as several manufacturers launched tailwheel versions of their most popular models or created new models featuring the little wheel in the back (where many argue it should be). For 2015, performance aircraft with sexy lines and efficient performers seem to be the trend. Electric aircraft still promise the best bang for the buck as technology starts to catch up with expectations. GreenWing’s Yuneec e430 will carry two people in vibration-free electric bliss for two hours (plus reserves), making it one of the early contenders in the electric LSA market.
As we write this, there are some 135 LSA models on the market, with that number changing weekly. Some will stir your loins, like the just-introduced SW51 Mustang made by Polish manufacturer FK-Lightplanes. It’s a mini-Mustang in every respect except the price and its Rotax 912 iS engine. If that doesn’t move you, try on the South African Sling with its fighter-like maneuverability, sliding bubble canopy and miserly fuel consumption. If there’s one universal truth emerging in the LSA world, it’s that there’s something for everybody.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY
AeroMobil 3.0. Okay, so it’s not a certified LSA yet, but if they can keep the weight down, it will be. Who hasn’t dreamed of a flying car? It’s true that Terrafugia has trod this ground before, but AeroMobil has turned the flying car concept into true beauty. Developed continuously from a concept that was born in 1990, the prototype is built and is flying. In fact, it has been flying since October. Using the ubiquitous Rotax 912 engine to drive a four-blade propeller, the AeroMobil will finally deliver on the promise of flying cars that started with The Jetsons six decades ago.
AeroSport (SkyReach) BushCat. The BushCat aircraft is available as a certified light-sport aircraft (S-LSA), or it may be built ELSA or as an Experimental Amateur Built aircraft (EAB). The rugged-looking utility aircraft can be ordered in nosewheel or tailwheel configurations and comes with the Rotax 912 engine in either 80 hp or 100 hp variations. The BushCat has a roomy cabin (47.5 inches wide) and a useful payload of 670 pounds. It even comes in an amphibious model. Price: $63,495 (ready to fly); $97,500 (amphibious model); www.aerosportplanes.com.
Astore. Italian manufacturer Tecnam started delivering this sleek and sexy beauty in September of 2014 to eager buyers around the world. Combining beautiful Italian styling, the latest technological innovations, and a comfortable and spacious cabin (46 inches wide), the Tecnam Astore is an all-new two-seat, low-wing, single-engine airplane that offers affordable performance and great handling. It offers the glass Garmin G3X touch-screen flight display system, features all-metal construction and includes an Apple iPad mini to run the Astore app that integrates with the aircraft’s avionics. Price: Starting at $147,500; www.tecnam.net.
Glasair Merlin. Kit plane manufacturing leader Glasair recently entered the LSA market with their Merlin, a two-seater aimed at the training market and reminiscent of Cessna’s now-defunct SkyCatcher. The spunky, high-wing Merlin is powered by the Rotax 912iS engine, stalls at just 39 knots, has a useful load of 530 pounds and uses under-panel mounted control sticks, a la SkyCatcher. Merlin’s interior is less Spartan than the Cessna and has a roomier, more modern feel, with nicer seats and a wider cabin. The panel features a Dynon SkyView touch-screen EFIS. Buyers can opt for a second SkyView Touch screen, an autopilot and an airframe parachute. Base Price: $149,000; www.glasairaviation.com.
GreenWing e430. The e430 is a two-seat, single-engine, electric LSA-class aircraft designed to be easy to fly, economical and quiet. With a projected flight time of around two hours (not including reserves), the e430 makes electric flying practical, affordable and fun. The fast recharging system and the ability to quickly swap batteries between flights allows the e430 to keep flying while a backup battery is charging. The sleek aerodynamic design of the e430 maximizes the efficient power system. Made by Chinese electric-flight pioneer Yuneec Aircraft. Price: TBD; www.greenwing.aero.
Icon A5. The Icon A5 is a longtime placeholder in many “best of” LSA lists. However, in September 2014, Icon announced the first production-ready aircraft at Oshkosh, opening the door for its long-awaited production. The A5 is an amphibious LSA, designed to bridge the gap between watersport enthusiasts and pilots. Icon’s first production aircraft (dubbed ESN-1) is the first plane built to the final A5 design specs. The production aircraft features an interior designed with Lotus Engineering USA. It paves the way for FAA approval and planned customer deliveries starting in May 2015. Price: $189,000; www.iconaircraft.com.
MVP Model 3 Amphibian. Competing head-to-head with Icon’s A5, a new LSA from Minnesota’s MVP Aero is turning heads. The two-seat LSA is an A5 look-alike with a carbon-fiber hull, fabric-covered wing and carbon-fiber spars. Powered by a 100 hp Rotax engine, the factory-built version will sell for $189,000, and a quick-build kit version will be offered for $169,000. Its coolest feature is a foldout flat floor that turns the LSA into a bass boat, with hardware allowing a hammock to be slung across the tail. Price: $189,000; www.mvp.aero.
Pitman Air Dragonfly. An airy, purpose-built LSA specifically designed to aerotow hang gliders at the speeds hang gliders want to fly (30-35 mph), this aircraft now boasts Rotax 912 power. The Dragonfly was created with huge ailerons and a large tailplane that work at slow speeds. It also has a special rig on the tail that permits towing of a weight-shift aircraft. Price: $78,753 (100 hp 912 S-LSA version); www.pitmanair.com.
Quicksilver Sport 2SE. Quicksilver’s factory-built two-seat LSA received the S-LSA airworthiness certificate from the FAA in July. One of the least expensive LSA at $39,999, its tubular steel fuselage with side-by-side seating lets riders experience the open air as unobtrusively as possible. The Chinese government fell in love with the sport-LSA aircraft and ordered 77 units. The aircraft are factory assembled and delivered to customers from three U.S. facilities. Price: $39,999; www.quicksilveraircraft.com.
Renegade Lil Rascal LS1. From the “Pitts Look-Alike” file comes this 100% American-made beauty. Renegade has elected to build an all U.S.-manufactured airframe with the AE-IO-233 Lycoming LSA engine configuration offering 116 hp. The fully aerobatic biplane comes in two models—the single-seat LS1 (weighing in at just 650 pounds empty) and the two-seat LS2. Both models will be certified as S-LSA. Buyers will receive aerobatic instruction in a Pitts aircraft. Price: $125,000; www.renegadelightsport.com.
Sling TD. South Africa company The Airplane Factory has blown the roof off the LSA concept with their amazing two-seat Sling 2. All-metal construction, fighter plane handling, sliding canopy and the feel of a much heavier airplane have endeared the good-looking aircraft to everyone who flies it. Now, The Airplane Factory is introducing the Sling 2 Taildragger. This latest LSA model designed by Mike Blyth and The Airplane Factory team is identical to the Sling 2, but with a tailwheel. It’s scheduled to arrive in the U.S. by Christmas. Price: About $135,000; www.airplanefactory.com.