By Robert B. Schultz, Attorney at Law
There was a dizzying array of aircraft types on display this year at Oshkosh. Light-sport aircraft, ultralights and kits made up the majority. What are the differences?
Ultralights are defined in FAR Part 103 as “vehicles,” not aircraft, and throughout the Federal Aviation Regulations, special exceptions are carved out for them. The General Operating and Flight Rules do not apply to ultralights (FAR §91.1). The pilot certification requirements of Part 61 do not apply, nor do the aircraft certification, registration or marking requirements (FAR §103.7). Since Part 91 doesn’t apply, the annual inspection requirements of Part 91.409(a) are inapplicable as well. Anyone can maintain or modify an ultralight. There are no maintenance certification requirements and Part 43 maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding and alteration regulations do not apply.
Ultralights can be sold as completed aircraft and don’t require an airworthiness certificate. But in order to be operated as ultralights, they must meet certain design and operating limitations. They must be “used or intended to be used for manned operation in the air by a single occupant” and “for recreation or sport purposes only.” They may not have an airworthiness certificate.
If powered, they can have any type or number of engines but must weight less than 254 pounds empty weight, excluding floats and certain safety devices. If un-powered, they must weigh less than 155 pounds. Their fuel capacity may not exceed five U.S. gallons. They may not be capable of more than 55 knots calibrated airspeed at full power in level flight, and the power-off stall speed may not exceed 24 knots calibrated airspeed.
Ultralights must be operated in uncontrolled airspace unless prior approval is given by air traffic control to enter certain controlled airspaces. They must be operated under daytime VFR conditions and not over populated or congested areas. Dual ultralight instructional flights can be given under a special exemption provided through the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Light-sport aircraft, like ultralights, may be sold in completed form. They require an airworthiness certificate but not a type certificate. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t issue certification requirements for LSAs. Instead, they rely on industry developed “consensus standards.”
The only design restrictions are contained in the LSA definition (FAR §1.1). An LSA’s maximum takeoff weight must not exceed 1,320 pounds for land aircraft or 1,430 pounds for water aircraft. The maximum sea level calibrated airspeed in level flight with maximum continuous power and never-exceed speed must be 120 knots or less. The no flap stall speed may not exceed 45 knots CAS. There can be no more than two seats. The engine must be piston with a fixed or ground adjustable propeller. The landing gear must be fixed for land aircraft but may be repositionable for water aircraft. The cabin must be unpressurized. An LSA can be a gyroplane but not a helicopter.
LSAs other than gyroplanes are entitled to a special airworthiness certificate, if they meet the LSA definition and the FAA is provided with the necessary certifications that the LSA meets the consensus standards. Gyroplanes aren’t entitled to a special airworthiness certificate, but until 2008, a gyroplane may be issued an LSA experimental certificate, provided it doesn’t qualify as an ultralight (FAR §21.191(i)(1)).
Presumably, by then the industry and the FAA will have gotten their act together enough to fully include gyroplanes in the LSA category. Helicopters were considered too complex to ever qualify. Indeed, any aircraft that doesn’t exceed the LSA maximums and doesn’t already have a standard airworthiness certificate, including illegal ultralights, may be issued an LSA experimental airworthiness certificate until 2008. You can also build your own LSA from a kit provided by an LSA manufacturer and get an experimental certificate. Any percentage of construction done by the builder will qualify.
Most of Part 91 applies to the LSA operation. There are some airspace restrictions but not as much as ultralights or experimental aircraft. The inspection requirements of FAR §91.409 don’t apply, since LSAs are required to be maintained and inspected in accordance with the FAA accepted consensus standards. FAR §91.327(b) maintenance and inspection applies instead. You must be a licensed pilot to fly an LSA, but a special light sport aircraft certificate available under Part 61 has reduced requirements. Except for flight training and glider towing, LSAs can’t be flown for compensation or hire.
Kit-built airplanes that aren’t also LSAs are certified as experimental amateur built. They can’t be sold in completed form. The “major portion” of the construction must be done by the amateur builder (FAR §191(g)). This is the so-called 51 percent rule. There are no limitations on size, power, engines, performance or passenger carrying capability.
Kit planes can be airplanes, jets, helicopters or anything that flies. There are no special pilot certification requirements. The pilot certification requirements of Part 61 apply. The general operating limitations contained in Part 91 also apply with certain restrictions and exceptions. The restrictions are generally contained in FAR 91.319 and in the specific operating limitations issued by the FAA with each experimental certificate. The annual inspection requirement of FAR § 91.409(a) doesn’t apply, but specific operating limitations issued for every kit plane always require an annual “condition inspection.” Inspections and maintenance must be done either by the original builder or a licensed mechanic.
In summary, none of these aircraft can be flown for compensation or hire except for flight training and glider towing. Ultralights and LSAs can be sold in completed form, but kits may not be sold more than 50 percent complete. Ultralights and their pilots aren’t certified and their operations and pilots aren’t regulated by FAR Part 91 or 61. LSA and kit-built airplane operations and pilots are regulated by FAR Part 91 and 61, but LSAs have less training and certification requirements than normal aircraft.
Ultralights have no certification, inspection or maintenance requirements and may be maintained or modified by anyone. LSA certification, inspection and maintenance requirements are established by the industry consensus standards and can only be inspected or maintained by a licensed mechanic or LSA repairman. Kits planes have no certification or inspection requirements under the FARs, but each individual aircraft has inspection requirements established when its airworthiness certificate is issued. Kits may be inspected or maintained only by the original builder or a licensed mechanic.
Robert B. Schultz practices law in Denver and specializes in aviation (and space) law nationwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and welcomes your comments and questions.