Sport Pilots and Airworthiness Certificates
In the world of the Light Sport Airplanes, there’s two defining categories. Those two categories, Experimental and Special, define most of the same information. There’s a few differences, however, that a Light Sport Pilot must be aware of. Those differences often lead us to questions about the two classes.
In a standard category aircraft, the FAA takes a large role in determining the airworthiness of the plane. The standard category aircraft receives a type certificate for its airworthiness. This isn’t the case for any light sport aircraft. In the special light sport aircraft (SLSA), a manufacturer designs the plane around “consensus standards.” There’s no minimum amount of flight-testing time, as there is in the ELSA (5 hours). Because of these standards, it’s cheaper to produce a light sport aircraft. Furthermore, the FAA doesn’t need to get involved in the design process to the degree that it does for standard category aircraft.
So, then, what is the difference between an ELSA and an SLSA? For most, it boils down to nothing but maintenance. A sport pilot may not perform any maintenance on a SLSA other than specific maintenance items explicitly approved by the manufacturer. If the manufacturer fails to provide documentation releasing the owner to maintain the those items, it must be done by a Light Sport Repairman (LSRM). In addition, the annual inspection must be performed by an LSRM or an A&P.
The benefit to the experimental category is the exact opposite. As with a traditional experimental airworthiness certificates, anyone can maintain an experimental light sport. This means that maintenance of an ELSA is cheap provided you possess the knowledge and skill to perform the tasks. Cheaper still, a short course authorizes you to perform your own annual inspection.
Now, it’s important to note that there are two additional classes of Light Sport airworthiness certificates. The normal certificate is less common, and relatively few planes hold that type of classification. These are basically normal category aircraft (think of a J-3), that fit the rules for a light-sport pilot to fly. These planes can be converted to an LSA airworthiness certificate, but until that happens they must be maintained by an A&P.
The amateur-built certificate is getting more traction thanks to the advent of cheap and reliable light-sport kit planes on the market. The big issue with an amateur-built aircraft is resale value. For the ALSA airworthiness certificate, it’s almost nonexistent.
The Certificate Trap
Only a special light sport aircraft is able to be used for compensation or hire. So if you’re looking to leaseback your plane to a flight-school or FBO, make sure you buy a special light sport. And when you buy it, ensure that you see the most current airworthiness certificate. Some owners, seeking cheaper maintenance cost, will have their SLSA reregistered as an ELSA. Once the change has been made, only the manufacturer can recertify the airplane as an SLSA, and that’s big bucks.
Of course, if you’re looking to buy a plane for yourself, there might be benefit to converting the SLSA to an ELSA. What you must consider, though, is the devaluation of the airplane based on the airworthiness certificate. ELSA’s have a lower resale value than SLSA’s, so depending on your plans, it might be worth it to take a cheap-and-quick Light Sport Repairman course.
Which Should You Buy?
That’s a hard question. It’s really based on your goals with the plane. If you’re looking to have something for yourself, that you can fly long-term, an ELSA or even ALSA might be worth it. But parts cost money and planes require insurance. If you’re hoping to monetize your airplane in some way than the only way to go is an SLSA. Compared to a Normal category aircraft, the maintenance is far cheaper (LSRM versus an A&P).
So when you write the check, make sure you’ve read the papers. Do your research, and you’ll bag yourself a nice bird.