Choosing the appropriate light sport aircraft (LSA) category is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a new sport pilot / LSA owner. The most popular LSA categories are fixed-wing aircraft (airplanes), weight-shift control aircraft (trikes) and powered parachutes (PPC).
You should consider your needs and lifestyle when deciding which one is right for you. Considerations will include aircraft speed, range, wind limitations, airport operations, portability, storage, cost, athletic ability, learning time and previous aviation experience.
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Explore Ultralight vs. Light-Sport Aircraft
An Ultralight is a “single-place” vehicle (the FAA does not officially call an Ultralight an aircraft) that requires no pilots license. Ultralight vehicles can only weight up to 254 pounds empty. There is very little regulation on the aircraft and the operator must except that they are restricted from flying in busier airspace. No FAA license is required to fly a single-place Ultralight.
The “Ultralight Trainer” two-place Ultralight evolved from the first ultralights. This is a heavier Ultralight used for dual training (instructor and student) until 2004, when these two place ultralight trainers were transitioned to Experimental Light-Sport Aircraft (E-LSA). If you want to fly an inexpensive, light weight single-place vehicle, an ultralight is your answer. See Ultralights for more information on single place ultralights.
We will generally cover the heavier aircraft that are in the five to eight hundred pound empty-weight range and two-place Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) categories. These Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) generally have similar flight characteristics and procedures as Ultralights.
Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA)
In 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enacted new laws that allow us the freedom to fly for fun with these new caterories of aircraft which are simple to fly plus have lower costs to own and operate. These new Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) can carry two people and be flown by a pilot with a new and easier to obtain FAA sport pilot license. The variety of new LSA categories allows everyone the ability to choose the aircraft that fits the lifestyle of their dreams.
An overview of the three most popular categories of aircraft
Airplanes are the most popular because their general aviation brothers/sisters have been used for transportation since the 1940’s. There is a wide variety of light-sport airplanes, from the slower open cockpit (ultralight looking) flying as slow as 25 MPH, to the fast and sleek high performance machine flying 140 MPH. With speed and fuel capability comes range.
The fastest high performance airplane, with full fuel, have a range of almost 1000 miles. The slowest airplane may have a shorter range of 150 miles. Airplanes can be flown in higher winds, so they can fly in a variety of fair weather conditions. Airplanes can operate out of small fields as well as airports.
Many airplanes do have enclosed cockpits which some people prefer. However, others have open cockpits which others prefer. Airplanes do provide this option.
The light-sport airplanes cost much less to purchase than larger general aviation airplanes, but are more expensive than the trike or PPC. Similarly, the fuel burned is about half that of the larger airplanes such as a Cessna 172, but slightly more than the trike or PPC. The high performance LSA airplanes fly about as fast as larger heavier airplanes (such as the Cessna 172).
Private pilot airplane pilots can transition to airplane LSA quickly. But for the new pilot learning to fly, controlling the airplanes three axis (roll, pitch and yaw) is more difficult to learn, taking the most time and costing more compared to the trike or PPC. However, obtaining the airplane sport pilot license costs about half what it takes to obtain the private pilot airplane license in the larger airplanes.
Weight-Shift Control Trike
Weight-shift control trikes are a unique aircraft category that have been evolving since the 1970’s. It is a very efficient design because it does not have the tail and the resultant added weight, cost and complexity. It is a very simple aircraft with minimum moving parts. Slow trikes can fly as slow as 25 MPH, and fast designs can fly as fast as 100 MPH. Slow designs would have a range about 150 miles, with fast designs having a range as high as 600 miles.
High performance fast trikes can operate in high winds similar to high performance airplanes. Slower trikes with big wings are limited to winds similar to airplanes. Trikes operate in small fields plus airports same as airplanes.
All trikes can be taken down and transported/stored in a trailer. This is a great advantage of the trike, it can be brought to a flying site, assembled, flown and then broken down easily and hauled/stored in a trailer. They cost much less than an airplane to purchase and burn less fuel than an airplane. Simply, with no tail adding to the initial cost and additional fuel requirements, the trike is the most efficient aircraft when it comes to fun verses cost.
The trike has only two axis to control (roll and pitch), which makes it much easier to fly reducing the training time and cost to learn compared to the airplane. Controlling the trike does take a certain amount of strength in more bumpy conditions since the wing in in your hand. However, the ride is smoother for the pilot and passenger in the undercarriage because the wing moves around while the cockpit/undercarriage stays more stable underneith the wing.
Powered Parachute (PPC)
Powered Parachutes are the easiest aircraft in the world to learn to fly. They fly at one speed, about 30 MPH. They are made for low and slow operations, not to travel and go somewhere. With only a 30 MPH speed, they can fly over 100 miles in four hours. Imagine flying 500 feet over the ground for 100 miles. What an experience. This is a new type of aviation never available until now.
However, they cannot taxi around on airport taxi ways with the deflated wing dragging behind it. They must be set up with the parachute/wing in a certain position before takeoff, they generally fly out of fields and not typically applicable to airports like airplanes and trikes. The PPC cannot takeoff in a cross wind and cannot fly in much wind at all, so it is generally made for fair weather flying in calm winds during the morning and evening times.
The PPC is the most portable aircraft of them all. The parachute/wing is stuffed into a bag and the propeller driven cart (mini dune buggy) can be driven into a trailer or home on a back road. This is the easiest and least expensive aircraft to transport and store.
Since it is only one axis of control (roll), it is the easiest and least expensive to learn. It takes about half the time and cost than an airplane or trike to learn and get a sport pilot license. It is the least expensive to purchase with a cart and fabric wing. It burns more fuel than the trike and less fuel than the airplane with its large wing and slow speed.
Overall, when you compare the three main types of Light-sport aircraft, you see the:
- Airplane is the most expensive and takes the longest to learn with three axis of control,
- Weight-shift control trike is medium priced and easier to learn with two axis of control and
- PPC is the least expensive and easiest to learn with one axis of control but is limited to flying in calmer conditions.
Choosing the aircraft for you
Video trailer on choosing the best category of aircraft for you. This also includes foot launched soaring ultralights for the full range of aircraft options as a starting point to choose.