Why LSAs crash so much

I have long held a view that Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) are not, as many people seem to think, just less expensive ‘mini’ GA aircraft.

For a start, they are built to much tighter weight tolerances than typical GA aircraft and thus need careful maintenance to ensure that they remain airworthy. Don’t get me wrong – a correctly maintained LSA can have a life span of many many years – but alas, in Australia, quite a few LSAs are quite legally owner-maintained by people who do not really have the skills, experience or knowledge to do so….but that’s another rant.

More importantly, LSAs have quite different flight handling characteristics from typical GA aircraft. This starts with taxiing, where dyed-in-the-wool GA jocks often describe them as ‘squirrely’, through to take-off performance: what typical school GA trainer will take off in 4-5 seconds after applying power, as many LSAs will? In the cruise, the light wing loading of most LSAs (remember, the regulation requires a stall speed limit of 42 knots ‘clean’) is more susceptible to turbulence – although the great upside of most LSAs is that they are a lot more responsive (to some, ‘fun’) on the controls.

This responsiveness, however, can potentially cause problems when it comes to the approach and landing phase of flight. For a start, approach and landing speeds of most LSAs are around 50 knots or even slower, a speed which feels dangerous to many GA pilots. Come in faster and you’ll likely over-control, and/or float or balloon the aircraft, with potentially disastrous consequences.

To further expand our thinking, Paul Bertorelli of AVweb has made a great little video on the subject of accidents in LSAs, which you can view by clicking on the picture above or here: Why Light Sport Airplanes suffer so many crashes

Most of Paul’s statistics refer to the USA market but all of his comments apply to LSAs the world over. Enjoy the video!

Light Sport Aircraft Maintenance

It is my belief that today’s recreational and light sport aircraft need more careful and meticulous maintenance than traditional ‘rag & tube’ ultralights and typical single engined GA aircraft.

Over the last 15-20 years or so, recreational and light sport aircraft have become much more GA-like in their looks and construction, compared with traditional utralights of old.

Their weight and complexity has increased almost beyond the imagination of early ultralight owners; their airframes have become more and more GA-like, with concealed control systems, engine bay ducting which hides many key engine components, digital instrumentation, auto-pilots and the like. Yet recreational aircraft owners and pilots are still permitted to ‘do all their own maintenance’*.

Crucially, recreational and light sport aircraft have to be designed and built to fit under a specific gross weight limit. There is also a maximum empty weight formula related to the maximum gross, which effectively limits the empty weight of a 2-seat aircraft to around half that of a typical 2-seat GA aircraft. As a result, manufacturers have to do everything they can to minimise empty weight – usually by using light weight materials and making components as strong as they need to be, but no stronger.

This lightweight approach is not in itself an issue – indeed it has enabled the design and manufacture of some wonderful aircraft. But in reality, ‘cheaper and lighter’ means you have to be much more thorough with your inspections and maintenance.

Why?

Because the metal is thinner all round; because so-called ‘carbon fibre’ aircraft actually contain very little carbon fibre (if they really were mainly carbon fibre, their cost would be astronomical); because cables are thinner, because engines are smaller/lighter/more highly stressed, because propellers are typically composite not metal; landing gear is lighter; bearings are smaller, tolerances are tighter; and because some of their systems are quite different from typical GA aircraft, and on and on…

Although RAAus is working wonders to improve the safety of aircraft registered with them – particularly focussing on maintenance issues and authorisations to maintain*, I still have considerable doubts as to the maintenance capabilities of many RAAus Aircraft owners, who likely have little or no aircraft maintenance knowledge and experience. I myself know the A22 and A32 airframes inside out but I do not feel at all confident I could safely maintain one.

For example do these owners know:
– how properly to lockwire a bolt, and what thickness and type of wire is required?
– how to measure and adjust the tension of a control or structural cable?
– how and when to use a torque wrench correctly?
– the standard torque settings for each size of bolt?
– how and when to check static and dynamic carburettor balance?
– how to check the friction on the Rotax gearbox clutch?
– how to make sure the ends of a cable are still securely swaged?
– how to measure correctly the strength of the fabric covering on a wing?
– how to open and examine properly an oil filter after an oil change, and what to look for?
– how to check a control or structural cable for internal abrasion and wear?
– how and where to look for cracks in metal/composite/wooden airframes?
– where to place a jack to raise their aircraft?
– how to decide when to replace an ‘on condition’ item?
– what constitutes ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ wear in an item?

Not to mention possession of all the tools needed to do these jobs properly?

Now, I’m aware of many aircraft in our Aeroprakt fleet with well over 3000 hours on them – with no particular problems. As I say, maintained properly, recreational and light sport aircraft can continue flying safely for many thousands of hours.

But if you are going to maintain your own aircraft, get proper training to do so – if you skimp on maintenance or try to save money by doing it yourself when you don’t really have the capability, at the very least your aeroplane won’t last as long as it should. And at worst, it will be your life (or that of the pilot) that’s threatened.

* Owners of RAAus registered aircraft may maintain their own aircraft provided they have an L1 Maintenance Authority (sometimes called an ‘Owner-Maintainer’ authorisation). Details of this are available on the RA Australia website at http://www.raa.asn.au  under the member section ‘Member Training’

Icon A5 accident

The Icon A5 is probably one of the most hyped aircraft of recent years – a stylish, amphibious  Light Sport Aircraft carrying over US$85 million in investment over the last 10 years or so.

It uses the ubiquitous Rotax 912ULS (100hp) engine in a 2-seat pusher configuration and sports a highly designed automotive style cabin. All in all, it appears to be a beautiful and unusual aircraft – although at US$389,000, there will be a limited number of people who have enough pennies to buy one.

The only problem is that out of a total of 22 delivered aircraft (so far), three have crashed, killing three people, including a couple of senior employees of the Icon company.

Here is a link to a YouTube video which, I think, fairly and in an unemotional way describes the aircraft and the three accidents very well. It also makes some suggestions as to what may be the factors which have contributed to this extraordinarily high accident rate in what is probably one of the most tested new aircraft on the planet.

Click on the photo above or here for the video: Icon A5 accidents

10 steps to buying a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)

Buying an LSA?Looking to buy a new or used Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)? Read on for FoxbatPilot’s exclusive guide on what to look for and how to do it. This might seem a bit of a long read but hopefully you’ll find it useful!

1. First and most important, decide your budget!
Like any other major purchase, it’s easy to stray above your limit but decide your budget in the clear light of day and don’t let the red mist of ‘wanting’ overpower the cool breeze of ‘needing’. Write your budget down on your buying checklist to remind you. Big red numbers are best!

Don’t forget that in addition to the aircraft itself, there are plenty of other costs to allow for:
– how will it be delivered/collected? Will that be your cost or the sellers?
– what about insurance?
– where will you keep it when you’ve bought it? At first sight, hangar/shed/ownership/rental may look expensive but aircraft can deteriorate very expensively when left in the Australian open for even moderate amounts of time.
– who will pay for the mandatory pre-purchase condition report and registration transfer?
– don’t forget running costs like servicing, fuel, oil, replacement of worn items like brakes.
– what about essential accessories like headsets and GPS? Are they included, or extras you’ll have to pay for?

2. Take a reality check.
Be realistic – what will you really use this aircraft for? Everyone wants the latest model with all the avionics trimmings but these can be very (very) expensive. If you fly mostly weekends and/or evenings and early mornings, with the occasional longer trip – maybe to an annual fly-in or other event – then save your dollars and get an aircraft that’s simple, less worry, enjoyable and fun to fly. The polish on the shiniest of trinkets can tarnish after even only a short while, so don’t over-equip. Like motor cars, you won’t get back the value of extras like digital screens, autopilots or fancy paint jobs when you come to sell. And more gadgets means higher insurance too. Finally, the more optional items, the more likelihood of something going wrong – aeroplanes are notoriously difficult environments for electronic and other sensitive equipment, even when they are not flying.

3. Get your money lined up before you start looking.
If you are selling an existing aircraft to (help) fund the new one, get it on the market as soon as you can – remember, many printed magazines can take several weeks from deadline to publication. Even online markets can take several days to get going.
If you have the cash in the bank and ready – great! If not, a preliminary application to your bank or finance company will (hopefully) line up the funds so that when you find that gem of your dreams, you’re ready to go. Having the funds ready helps to show the seller that you are a serious buyer. Procrastinating statements like “I need to settle on a property before I can go ahead” or “I need to sell my current aircraft first” might suggest you’re not serious. Worst of all, avoid the “I just have to clear it with my partner/colleague/treasurer” etc, all of which suggest you aren’t really the decision maker, or, worse, are just a tyre-kicker.

4. Start looking.
In Australia, there are several magazines (some are online) with small (and big) ads for new and used aircraft. In particular, for LSAs, try the monthlies – Aviation Trader or Sport Pilot; both are available at newsagents. Also search the internet – you can enter the type of aircraft you’re seeking; alternatively, ‘light sport aircraft for sale’ (maybe followed by your country name) will bring up a host of options. Once you start following the links, you’ll find there is a huge number of organisations selling aircraft. But beware – unless you really know what you’re doing, you should probably avoid buying from overseas. Attractive as the big USA sites are – Barnstormers, Trade-a-Plane, Controller and others – there are many expensive pitfalls when buying and importing an aircraft!
Be thorough in your research; for example look at typical used values for similar aircraft to establish the right price for that model. Search for incident/accident reports to see if there’s any pattern for that aircraft. Talk to other people about your preferred aircraft – but beware, many people have their own favourites (both to love and hate) so listen to everything with a pinch of salt.

5. Go and inspect your selection.
If at all possible, take someone with you – a second pair of eyes is really worth it when it comes to looking at aeroplanes. A suitably qualified engineer is a good choice, even if you have to pick up their expenses.
Before you go flying – patience! – have a thorough look at:
– all the paperwork; are the airframe, engine and propeller logbooks up to date?
– are the serial numbers in the paperwork the same as on the aircraft? Particularly, check the airframe, engine and propeller serial numbers.
– where are the Pilot Operating Manual and Maintenance Manual? Are they the originals? If not, why not?
(It is mandatory for all LSAs to be delivered with a Statement of LSA Compliance, Factory Flight Test Report, Factory Weight and Balance sheet, Pilot Manual, Maintenance Manual and Flight Training Supplement. Without these documents, the aircraft does not technically conform to LSA regulations and may be demoted to ‘Experimental’ status.)
– look for any record of damage repairs and regular service information. If no damage is reported in the books, will the owner give a written guarantee of NDH (no damage history) if you decide to buy?
– check the weight and balance. Aircraft are notoriously willing to put on weight! Ask the owner to guarantee in writing the figures in the aircraft records are correct. If not – will they pay to weigh it?
(Flying an aircraft overweight is probably the most common offence in Light Sport Aircraft. You don’t want to find out through your insurance company when they decline a claim or – worse – through a ramp check, that what you thought was a 325 kilo empty aircraft was in fact a 375 kilo aircraft and you were, for example, 35 kilos overweight.)
– check if there is any significant service work coming up – eg the Rotax 5-yearly rubber, carburettor diaphragm and fuel pump replacement requirement.
– inspect the whole aircraft for damage, leaks, wear, signs of neglect etc. If it’s flown a thousand hours, it’s not going to be perfect but it should still be reasonable for its age and completely airworthy.
– finally, check if the aircraft is on finance, ie: is the owner legally able to sell it?

6. Prepare for the test flight.
Before going for a test flight – let alone deciding to buy, look out for red and amber signals. You’re going to be spending thousands, so make sure you are buying what you want!

Here are some red flags:
– any ‘missing’ paperwork, whatever the reason
– gaps in registration and/or servicing
– owner refuses to warranty the empty weight in writing
– owner refuses to confirm NDH (no damage history) in writing, or details of repairs if carried out (how? by whom? when?)
– unexplained smells, noises, cracks, high wear on a supposed low time aircraft, other defects
– your own gut feeling that something’s not right

Amber signals, where you may be re-assured and/or the issues can be dealt with in the sale price:
– expensive maintenance coming up (eg Rotax 5-year rubber replacement)
– flight hours over about 250 a year (suggests use in flight training)
– only a very limited number of this type of aircraft in the country, which means you may be the flight test dummy!
– more than one owner every couple of years (might indicate problems of one kind or another)
– outstanding loans or other bills on the aircraft (get written information)

In Summary, unless everything is to your satisfaction – WALK AWAY! There will always be another one along soon.

7. Test fly the aircraft.
If you’re flying with the owner, be sure s/he is (a) qualified to fly this aircraft, (b) with you as a ‘passenger’ and (c) is current with medical, BFR etc. Personally, I like to see the licence and flight logbook of anyone I fly with if I have never met them before…In extreme circumstances, your life may even be at stake, so check and double check everything before you fly an unknown aircraft!

The test flight itself could be the subject of a whole book, just on its own. But here are a few pointers:
– will it be easy to exit the aircraft in the event of a problem?
– can you move the controls fully and easily throughout their range?
– does the owner give you stuff like ‘it’s a characteristic of this plane…’ (is that a good or a bad one?) or, ‘I’ll fix that before it’s sold’ (why didn’t they fix it already?)
– listen to the engine and the airframe at every stage – taxiing, engine run up, take-off, climb, cruise, etc etc.
– watch the engine dials, particularly oil pressure and temperature
– can you easily see out while you’re flying? for example, some aircraft have seats which put your eye-line well above the bottom of the high-wing, meaning you’ll really have to duck your head to see out before turning that way.
– watch the owner fly the aircraft before you take the controls. Does s/he inspire you with confidence or blind you with b******t?
– fly for at least an hour; many problems can be hidden for 20-30 minutes

8. Make your decision.
This is important – do not let your heart rule your head! You’ll have a long time to repent a bad decision and it may also cost you big money.
Agree a price with the seller and make it subject to a full and detailed inspection by a qualified engineer – in fact, if the aircraft is registered with RA-Aus, it is a regulatory requirement for registration transfer that a written ‘condition report’ is carried out. Make sure this is done by an independent engineer – ideally someone you know and trust, not one of the seller’s friends.
Whether RA-Aus or GA registered, include a pre-transfer, full 100-hourly/annual service in the deal. This service legally requires all current & applicable service/safety bulletins to be carried out, so you’ll know the aircraft is all present and correct; and if a discrepancy is found later, you’ll have a comeback on the seller. Any problems should be fixed by the seller before you buy the aircraft.
Pay the seller a small deposit to hold the aircraft until you can settle. ‘Small’ means a lot of things…maybe $5,000 is enough to confirm your intent. ‘Until you settle’ shouldn’t mean more than a a week or two.

9. Get your money and insurance finalised.
If you’re taking out a loan to buy the aircraft, it is usually a loan pre-condition that the aircraft is properly insured. As per the very first step – see above – you will already have checked out loans and insurance, so now is the time to finalise them.
A word of caution – depending on the size of the loan and the security you are offering, some finance companies (in particular banks, it seems) require their name to be listed as a part owner on the aircraft title. It is important to clarify this with your loan provider at the outset, as (from experience) I know that this requirement can present last-minute hitches while RA-Aus or CASA reconsider your registration application with an additional name added.
Agree with the seller how you will pay the final amount – some people are OK with bank cheques, some prefer cleared EFT funds before they will handover the aircraft. Cash can be acceptable but tens of thousands in used notes is likely to be both inconvenient and inadvisable!

10. Go and collect your aircraft.
Notice –  I say go and collect it. Ideally with a friend for moral support in the event of problems and companionship on the way home. There are a few reasons for this advice:
– if things are not exactly as agreed when you get there, you can turn round and head home if needed. If the seller has flown the aircraft to you, s/he may be unwilling to take it back home if you’re not happy with it.
– you can take it for a final test flight before accepting it. This ensures everything is as it should be; there’s no “It was alright on the way here, I can’t understand how that’s happened” stuff to deal with.
– the flight home is a great opportunity to enjoy your new acquisition and get to know it in all phases of flight. That return trip is likely to be the longest flight you’ll do in the aircraft for a while, as you get to know it.
– particularly if it’s a new aircraft, you’ll be the first person to fly it any distance. Ferry pilots are usually responsible people but you’ll never know if they explored the Vne along the way or ignored the rough air cruise speeds….or had a couple of ‘heavy’ landings.

11. Have fun!
I know the title is ’10 steps to buying a Light Sport Aircraft’ but now you’ve bought it, go out and enjoy it. But take it easy until you have flown at least a hundred hours in it and got to know all its individual characteristics. It may be capable of 130 knots cruise – but that’s no reason to thrash it every flight. It may be able to land and take off from short strips – but not every take off and landing has to be a demonstration of this capability (which almost certainly is greater than yours!). Hopefully, you’ll experience a long and loving relationship – treat your aeroplane right and it will look after you.

This article is intended only as a guide. The opinions are only my own and others may think differently. If there’s anything with which you fundamentally disagree, please tell me directly.

Choosing a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) – 2 – speed vs range

speed vs rangeAfter weight, speed and range are two important aspects of specification to consider.

First, a short story to illustrate. Many years ago, a group of us were flying from an airfield near the Gold Coast to the annual ‘Natfly’ event – then held at Narromine in New South Wales. It’s about a 4-5 hour flight, depending on your speed. My aircraft would cruise at around 95-100 knots; there were others in new 120-knot hot ships. So it was lots of ‘see you when you get there Pete, we’ll be in the bar’. All that sort of thing. So they were a bit surprised to find me parked and tied down when they arrived, just over 4 hours later… And it all came down to range. My little plane carried almost 120 litres of fuel and still left weight for a passenger and baggage. And there was plenty of reserve fuel for the flight. The speedy aircraft carried much less fuel and for safety had landed about halfway to refuel. So overall, although a slower cruiser, I got there first – a bit hare & tortoise-ish.

However, it isn’t a simple matter of more fuel or more speed…

To go faster you need a sleek aircraft with less drag. How’s that achieved? A slimmer fuselage profile – less space for people, baggage and fuel. A thinner sleeker (and probably smaller) wing – potentially trickier handling and less room for fuel. Possibly a composite airframe, with no exposed rivet heads to slow you down. Lots of aerodynamic work in the engine bay to reduce drag – more expensive, more chance of overheating on a long climb to smooth air or when you’re not cruising flat out?

And it’s no good being able to go fast in still air if you have to back off the speed by 30% (sometimes more) when the air gets rough. Which means the airframe has to be stronger, which means more weight, which means less for people and fuel. It can be a vicious circle of diminishing gains.

To go further, it’s relatively simple: you need more fuel. But more fuel means bigger and/or more tanks, leaving less space for people and bags. It also means the wings can’t be too slim or small as they are potentially needed for fuel. And in light sport aircraft with their maximum 600 kilos take-off weight limit, more fuel invariably means less weight available for people and bags.

As we used to say in marketing: ‘You can either have it fast, or cheap or high quality. But not all three’. So it is with aeroplanes – every manufacturer is trying for that elusive combination of high speed cruise, slow speed safety & handling, high weight carrying capacity and, last but not least, lowest possible cost. Unless you have an almost unlimited wad of cash (then, surely, you wouldn’t be in the light sport market?) you have to choose your own priority requirements and be prepared to compromise on the others.

Next – something you should never compromise: Safety