Aircraft: Friendlier Skies
Sebastian Heintz, President of Zenith Aircraft Co., believes that soon an unprecedented number of fliers will be earning their pilot’s licenses, and when they do, they will have more new planes than ever to choose from. Heintz’s optimism stems from FAA rules approved in September that will simplify the process of obtaining licenses and create a new category of owner-piloted planes. “We have new, exciting airplanes for them to fly at lower entry-level costs,” says Heintz, whose company designs, manufactures, and sells small owner-operated airplanes. “That adds up to make flying a fun, affordable hobby that can compete with boating and motorcycles for people’s time and money.”
The new rules require a flier to have only a driver’s license and 20 hours of training to qualify for a written exam and a flight test. By passing the tests, the flier receives a sport pilot’s license. Previously, candidates had to pass physical exams and complete 40 to 60 hours of training before they could take flight tests.
The planes in the new category are called light-sport aircraft, which sport pilots are eligible to operate. Before the FAA ruling, Zenith and its competitors sold kit aircraft. A buyer was required to assemble at least 51 percent of a kit plane by himself and have an FAA designee approve the machine for operation, thereby assuming liability and production expenses and eliminating the designer’s cost of certifying the aircraft. Now, those same planes can be sold as ready-to-fly aircraft, attracting customers who might have been dissuaded by the prospect of building their own planes.
However, not all industry professionals are optimistic about the ruling’s effect. Paul Engl, director of client and customer relations at Jet Aviation Teterboro, a fixed-base operator in Teterboro, N.J., worries that the influx of sport pilots may lead to crowding at general aviation airports. Engl explains that light-sport planes also might be prone to damage from jet blasts from the engines of larger business aircraft. “It’s going to be a dilemma in the future,” says Engl, who also acknowledges that many fixed-base operators will welcome the additional business of managing the small planes. “It’s an issue to be reckoned with.”
The FAA already has done some reckoning, as sport pilots and light-sport aircraft builders will face restrictions. Sport pilots must avoid crowded airspace and busy airports, and they can fly only in daylight and in good weather. Among other requirements, light-sport aircraft must weigh less than 1,320 pounds, have no more than two seats, run on a single nonturbine engine, and not be able to exceed 138 mph. Several of Zenith’s planes meet the light-sport aircraft criteria, including the $55,000 STOL CH 701 and the $62,000 Zodiac XL. The CH 701 cruises at 85 mph and has a 350-mile range. Zenith designed the two-seat Zodiac XL with the FAA’s regulations in mind, giving it a 575-mile range and a 138-mph cruising speed. Czech Aircraft Works builds the planes for Zenith in the Czech Republic. “People don’t want to fly only for transportation,” Heintz says. “People just like to have fun in the air. And now they can.”
Zenith Aircraft Co.