What options do you have? One of the advantages of the new light-sport aircraft rulings is that it limits your options. If you eventually want more options you can step up to higher-performance aircraft and a private-pilot certificate. But in order to fly under your sport-pilot certificate you must fly a plane that qualifies for the limitations a sport pilot must adhere too. While the rules might limit your options, you have a lot less information to process, which is an advantage for the fledgling pilot.
When selecting general or private aircraft you have options regarding weight, power, seating, cruise speed, range, landing gear, propeller, and avionics (aviation electronics). A sport plane, by definition, limits most of these options for you. By limiting them it makes flying a little safer and selecting a sport plane a little easier.
High Wing or Low Wing?
The major decision you’ll have to make is high wing or low. As you consider various types of sport planes you might be told that one is better than the other. There really is no “best” wing configuration. Instead, there are reasons why you should select one over the other—as well as reasons why “it don’t matter.”
High-wing aircraft offer better ground clearance and visibility for rough-field landings, and are easier to board (especially in the rain). In addition, most planes with folding wings (for towing behind a car) are high-wing planes. Of course, high-wing aircraft offer a clearer view of the ground below and are a favorite with those who do aerial photography and sightseeing.
Low-wing aircraft offer better ground stability (because the center of gravity is lower), better visibility in turns, and greater ease when filling fuel tanks. Low-wing aircraft also offer greater crash protection if you ever have to land it where you shouldn’t.
Tricycle or Tail Gear?
The only other configuration issue that you can decide is tricycle or tail gear. All sport planes must be “fixed gear,” meaning that you cannot retract them after takeoff to enhance aerodynamics. The landing gear is important only during takeoff and landing so let’s take a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of each. As I’ve mentioned, ASES sport pilots are permitted to fly a float plane that allows the floats to be “repositioned” for landing on solid runways.
Aircraft with fixed tricycle gear have two wheels below the cabin and one below the nose. This arrangement provides for greater visibility when taxiing and during the initial takeoff roll. The primary disadvantage is that the nose gear is more susceptible to damage than other types of fixed-gear planes.
Aircraft with fixed tail gear (called taildraggers) have two wheels below the cabin and one below the tail of the plane. Because this configuration makes the cabin slope backwards it is more difficult to taxi in a taildragger. On takeoff, the tail soon lifts off the ground and gives the pilot better visibility. Meantime, the pilot taxies in an S-pattern to see the taxiway better. Tail wheels can take more abuse than nose wheels so are selected for rough-field landings. However, taildraggers are a little trickier to land than a tricycle-gear plane because the tail could swing around in what’s called a ground loop.
Tricycle-gear aircraft are increasingly popular because they’re easier to take off and land, but with a little training you can fly a taildragger just as well. Taildraggers are the configuration of choice for unimproved and barely improved landing fields.
One more factor about gear configurations: cost. With just a small pivoting wheel, taildraggers are less expensive to manufacture. However, the difference really isn’t that much. Some of the new LSAs can easily be changed from tricycle to taildragger and back.
The most expensive components on some aircraft are the avionics. Knowing how you will fly dictates how much avionics you will need. For example, you can buy a handheld nav-com radio and a GPS unit for under $1,000—or you can spend more than $5,000 on a full dual-channel nav-com system.
"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
-- Andre Gide