February 9, 2010
The United States Ultralight Association (USUA) is concerned that industry safety is at risk because the FAA is not allowing a way for their own CFI's to train in experimental light sport aircraft (E-LSA's). On January 31st, 2010, the "final" deadline for transition to the Sport Pilot/Light Sport Aircraft rules passed. Until then, flight instructors were able to provide students primary training using E-LSA equipment. With the passing of the deadline, many CFI's will be forced out of the training business since it will not be financially viable for them to purchase newer S-LSA aircraft as is currently being demanded by the FAA. The resulting loss of practicing instructors will reduce opportunities for those wanting to learn to fly light sport aircraft as well as ultralight aircraft.
In 2004 the FAA approved a major change in how light aircraft would be registered, flown, and trained in with the set of rules commonly known as "Sport Pilot". Until that point, training in ultralight and two seat "ultralight-like" training aircraft was accomplished through an exemption program managed by three different organizations: USUA, EAA and ASC. The programs were generally looked at as successful since there were relatively few injuries and fatalities. That success can probably be at least partly attributed to an abundance of flight instructors who trained pilots regularly, if only part time.
The Sport Pilot rules allowed for a fairly low-cost way for instructors to transition from the exemption programs. However many still chose not to and dropped out of the flight training business to the detriment of students and potential students. Though most instructors dropped out, many did stay with the program by accomplishing the knowledge testing and practical testing needed to become certificated pilots and instructors under Sport Pilot.
When the Sport Pilot rules were written, they were created with some basic assumptions. Some of those assumptions were correct, some were incorrect, and some of them were correct five years ago but are no longer valid. An example of a correct assumption was that the quality of individual instructors has improved. The CFI's who came from the exemption programs were for the most part challenged to learn more and accomplish more to get those FAA certificates. An incorrect assumption was that most of the ultralight instructors would make the transition. That has proven to be very wrong with what has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of opportunities for people to get instruction of any kind.
An assumption that may have been valid five years ago, but which is no longer valid was that most instructors normally fly newer equipment. That was true half a decade ago when instructors would sell their trainers almost yearly in order to purchase newer aircraft. If that had remained true, then we would not be at the crisis point at which we suddenly find ourselves with many instructors realizing that their days of introducing people to a safe, fun sport may already be over.
Unfortunately, the economy is no longer what it was five years ago. There are also fewer people involved in the sport which has helped create a surplus of used aircraft on the market. That surplus combined with the soft economy has worked to depress used aircraft prices. That in turn means that CFI's can no longer sell their existing trainers for a price that will pay for a large portion of a new S-LSA aircraft. Of course it also does not help that the new prices of S-LSA aircraft are higher than similar existing E-LSA aircraft. All of these factors are combining to force instructors, who have already made a commitment to transitioning to Sport Pilot, to reconsider whether they can afford to remain instructors. Of course this is a loss to the instructors, but more importantly it also impacts safety because the sport is now threatened with a new wave of losses to its instructor corps.
The good news is that the solution to the problem can be found right in current FAA regulations. The same section that disallows training for hire with an aircraft having an experimental airworthiness certificate, 14 CFR 91.319(a)(2), also allows for that rule to be deviated from if someone applies to the FAA for a "Letter of Deviation Authority" and has it approved, 14 CFR 91.319(h). The bad news is that the FAA has been dragging its feet on establishing guidelines so that their own flight standards district offices can evaluate applications and issue LODA's. This delay in establishing guidance is inexcusable. Every day that the FAA delays is another day where another instructor may make the decision to get out of flight instruction and not turn back, where an individual may use the excuse of not finding an instructor to attempt to learn to fly an ultralight on his own, or where pilots will choose not to remain current since the travel and expense will become too great.
The USUA calls on the FAA to act and publish an order so that their own FAA safety inspectors can evaluate applications for LODA's. This way the FAA's own certified flight instructors can provide flight instruction (including primary flight instruction) in aircraft with FAA issued E-LSA airworthiness certificates. Effectively blocking flight instructors from providing training for no good practical or regulatory reason will negatively impact flight safety.
USUA is the oldest ultralight organization in the United States, representing pilots and instructors flying ultralight and light sport aircraft.