When the sport pilot regulations were issued on September 1, 2004, a simpler and easier way to obtain a pilot certificate was created. It added new aircraft category certifications and made a major change in the hours of training required to become a passenger-carrying airplane pilot. Under FAR 61, airplane private pilots require a minimum of 40 hours of training and airplane recreational pilots require a minimum of 30 hours of training. Under the sport pilot regulations, an airplane sport pilot is required to receive a minimum of 20 hours of flight training.
Is Less Training Safe?
At first look, it’s easy to conclude that more training equals a better pilot, leading to the question, “is less training safe?” This question came up during a lunch meeting with an old friend, Ed, and his business acquaintance, Brian. Ed and I became acquainted in the mid 1950s when we were both learning to fly at Van Nuys Airport in California. Our careers in aviation kept crossing paths over the years, and he and I both ended up working for the same airline. Ed retired as an experienced airline captain and now flies a corporate Cessna Citation X all over the world. I had only met Brian a couple of times before this lunch meeting, but I was aware he is a private pilot and an avid aviation enthusiast. Brian flies a Cessna Skyhawk and has about 400 pilot hours.
As expected, our luncheon conversation was about flying, and as I pontificated about the wonders of the new sport pilot certificate, Ed asked how it could be safe with only 20 hours of training. My answer was, there is no easy and short answer to this question. I followed his question with one of my own, I asked, “Were you unsafe when you became a private pilot?” His answer was that he felt he was safe, although low on experience. He quipped, “I guess the fact that I am older than dirt and still flying means I must have done something right!” “The same holds true for me,” I said, “so let’s look at the facts of our training.”
Ed and I had to receive 40 hours of training, 20 hours of which had to be solo flying. Current private pilot rules now only require private pilot trainees to have 10 hours of solo flying; this is FAA recognition that solo flying has a limited training value. In the Aeronca Champs Ed and I flew, we did not receive training in night flying, radio navigation or flight by reference to instruments, and we used light signals more than radios. We had never made a non-stop cross country flight of more than 2 hours, and the 20 hours of flying solo was fun, but of little training value. By today’s certification standards, we would have been sport pilots, not private pilots. We could have elected to never fly anything more complex than a no-radio champ, but we both made the choice to advance up the scale of pilot certificates. So, I asked Ed again, “were we safe?” He responded, “I see what you’re getting at; we were safe Champ pilots but we added training to move up the pilot food chain. The added training had little to do with flying the Champs.”
Training Fits the Mission
The point I was making to Ed is that training should fit the mission. Sport pilot privileges are simple and uncomplicated, so the training matches the mission. The basic sport pilot limitations do not allow flight into radio-controlled airspace, or in planes with a maximum cruise speed (Vne) of more than 87 knots. If a sport pilot wants to fly at control-towered airports or in a faster plane, more training is required. In other words, as the mission expands, the training expands.
Let’s compare the training hours of a sport pilot and a private pilot. I’ll use the regulatory 40 hours for the private certificate and 20 hours for the sport pilot certificate for my comparison. However, the real-word average training time for private pilots is more than 65 hours and sport pilots have been coming in at about 33 hours. Whichever numbers you use, the price of obtaining a sport pilot certificate is about half the cost of becoming a private pilot.
The 40 hours of private pilot training must include night flying, instrument flying, and control tower operation. The 20 hours of sport pilot training does not include these training requirements. In lieu of the more advanced private pilot training, sport pilots operate under more restrictive operating privileges. Private pilots may fly under visual flight rules (VFR) in class G airspace with only 1 mile visibility (more than 90 percent of all U.S. airports are in class G airspace), and private pilots are allowed to fly over clouds without seeing the ground. Private pilots may also receive a special VFR clearance in certain types of controlled airspace, which allows them to operate below VFR weather conditions.
Sport pilots are not allowed to fly at night, so night training is not included. Sport pilots must always have a minimum of 3 miles visibility in any airspace (no special VFR) and are not allowed to fly over clouds without visual ground reference. Sport pilots must receive extra training to operate in control-towered airspace.
Some of the private pilot and sport pilot training is similar. The student pilot training requirements and piloting skill requirements for private pilots and sport pilots are almost identical. Both private pilots and sport pilots must pass a knowledge test and a practical test.
Brian Learns a Lesson
Brian interrupted my comparison of sport pilot and private training to bring up another point by relating a personal experience. As a newly-minted private pilot he accepted an offer from a friend, an experienced private pilot, to fly to a business meeting about 200 miles away. As the time of departure approached, Brian and a couple of other passengers met at the airport to head for the meeting. Brian said the weather looked bad, so he checked it himself and didn’t like what he saw. His pilot friend was unfazed by the forecast, but Brian felt uneasy and decided to find another way to the meeting. He wondered why this experienced pilot would take such risks.
Brian made it to the meeting; his pilot-friend and passengers did not. However, after a harrowing experience, they did make a safe landing at another airport. Brian said that one of his passenger friends on the flight said he would never fly in a light plane again. Brian’s point was, the pilot making the poor decision had lots of training and experience, but not good judgment. He asked, “Does lots of training and a high level of pilot certification necessarily equate to good decision making skills?”
Brian had touched on a sore spot in aviation. Sometimes bad decision making transcends the training a pilot receives or the certificate a pilot holds. In general aviation, pilot error accounts for about 73 percent of all accidents. While many of these accidents were related to a lack of piloting skills (pilots not trained for the task), it was bad decision making that placed the pilot in a mission scenario that that exceeded the pilot’s ability to successfully complete the flight. The fact is, flying is terribly unforgiving of bad decision making. Wilbur Wright once said, “Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready.” An airline transport pilot, or a sport pilot, can each fly with the equivalent level of proficiency and safety if each pilot flies within the limits set by the rules and if each pilot operates within their own personal limits.
So... Is Less Training Safe?
We started out with the question, “Is less training safe?” The answer is, if your training in the plane you are operating is appropriate to the limitations you plan to exercise (trained for the mission), your training is safe regardless of the training hours. A sport pilot trainee learning to fly in a simple ultralight-like airplane may be quite safe with only 20 hours of training. On the other hand, if a sport pilot is training in a more sophisticated light sport aircraft, more training may be required.
While the sport pilot regulation requires a minimum of 20 hours of training, the ultimate amount of sport pilot training hours comes from what the flight instructor determines is required based on the performance of the trainee. The flight instructor must prepare the trainee to pass the practical test (checkride) and attest to the fact that the trainee is ready. The checkride standards are clearly spelled out in the sport pilot Practical Test Standards (PTS). When I administer a sport pilot practical test, it is the performance of the applicant that determines the outcome of the test, not the total hours of training time.
Following the rules and limitations for sport pilot operation is the key to achieving safety under the sport pilot rules. Sport pilot training is appropriate to sport pilot limitations. The rules provide the foundation for good decision making. Train for the mission and fly the mission, and you’ll be a safe pilot. Less training is not safe if it does not suit the mission. Sport pilot training and testing are designed to meet the sport pilot mission; it may be less training hours than a private pilot, but it is not less training, and it is safe.