The Rules: Ultralights, Sport Aircraft, and More

The Rules: Ultralights, Sport Aircraft and What You Need to Know

You may be surprised to learn that there are different ‘rules’ regarding the type of aircraft and even pilot’s licenses. And they aren’t all created equal. This is not a bad thing. By being selective and knowing the rules, you can get up and fly at a significantly reduced cost.

This section will explain the rules relating to different types of pilot licenses and the aircraft you’ll potentially be permitted to fly. In fact, if you are so inclined, it is a real possibility that you could even build and fly your own aircraft and still save significantly.

What are the Rules Regarding Pilots Licenses?

The majority of pilots today hold the private-pilot certificate. As licenses go, the rules are pretty unrestrictive. You can fly as far as you like, with passengers, in any aircraft that satisfies the requirements of your license.

So, what’s the downside?

A private pilot’s license can be an arduous task to achieve. If you check my article, you’ll find a section that details what training you need to undertake to be awarded the private pilot’s license.

In short, the rules state you’ll need to fly for a minimum of 40 hours (which is more like 60 by the time you’ve covered everything). On top of this, you have to fly a lot more solo time and fly further. The rules also require you to have a class 3 medical and complete a detailed theory test as part of the package.

The bottom line?

The cost of a private pilot’s license can soon start to mount up!

Is there a cheaper way?


Read on to find out what you need to do.

Rules Relating to General Aviation Aircraft

One of the rules when you hold a private pilot’s license is that you must fly aircraft that have a current airworthiness certificate.

Wait, what’s an airworthiness certificate?

Well, essentially, this is a document that shows that the aircraft has been maintained over a set period exactly according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Consider it a little like a full service history for your car… But as a mandatory rule. It makes aircraft safer, and this is a good thing.


The type-certificate regulations for manufacturing these aircraft also cover planes manufactured for commercial use to fly many passengers many miles above the earth’s surface.

Getting a new aircraft design certified by the FAA can cost many millions of dollars. That’s why there have been few new models introduced to the GA marketplace in decades. Most models are upgrades from ones that first flew 40 years ago. Even so, the latest models start at over $100,000 and go up—way up.

As a result, these types of aircraft can be prohibitively expensive.

The Rules About Homebuilt Aircraft

The exceptions to these rules are homebuilt aircraft. Not only are the aircraft cheaper to buy and maintain, but the license required to operate them is easier and cheaper to acquire too!

By following plans or building from a complete kit, you could legally build an airplane that didn’t require such a stringent certification. These are termed “experimental aircraft.” The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) was born more than 50 years ago to serve this market and is still making it possible for people to build and fly aircraft to this day!

Please don’t presume that it is only ‘cowboys’ who fly these aircraft. According to the EAA, many professionals build and operate them. From astronauts and airline pilots to welders and machinists, and everything in between!

While homebuilt aircraft are easier and cheaper to acquire, there are still rules and regulations. The main difference is that this won’t cost millions of dollars in a certification process. Here are some of the rules that must be observed:

  • The aircraft must still be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration
  • Homebuilt aircraft must be inspected by a qualified individual before the first flight is undertaken.
  • You will be required to keep a log and detailed record of how and when the aircraft was constructed.
  • It is a legal rule that the aircraft must undergo a series of test flights away from population centers to operate safely.
  • Homebuilt aircraft must be inspected every 12 months.

Although the aircraft are called ‘experimental’, it is well worth noting that you won’t be expected to be a test pilot. Nowadays, most homebuilt aircraft come in ready to make kits that have been built many hundreds of times before!

Ultralight Rules

About 30 years ago, a new category of aircraft snuck in under the wire: ultralights.

These are single-passenger aircraft intended for flying to nearby destinations. They use limited-power engines and basic airframes to take the pilot up for sightseeing. These aircraft do not have to meet FAA certification requirements. There are many fine examples of safe and fun-to-fly ultralights buzzing around the sky.

But there are strict rules…

No passengers allowed!

The FAA and Licensing Rules

Fifteen years ago, the FAA introduced a new pilot category with the recreational-pilot certificate. It was intended to bridge the gap between ultralight and private pilots, requiring fewer hours of training but having many limitations.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

Training requirements were cut by only 10 hours (from 40 to 30). Still, there were some limitations applied to the certificate that limited its usefulness. You can fly a four-seat aircraft but carry only one passenger, which kind of defeats the object.

So, is there anything else on the horizon?

Aviation, since its birth, has never stood still and is constantly adapting to cater to the mass market.

With the help of the EAA and others, the FAA has adapted too and came up with what’s called the SP/LSA ruling.

It’s actually two major rule changes, one covering sport-pilot certification and the other covering how the new light-sport aircraft are built. These rules are written to answer the need for lower-cost—but entirely safe—aircraft for pilots who want to learn as they go.

For example…

The sport pilot can be certified to fly a specific model type out of small airports. Once the sport pilot wants to fly into bigger airports, they must take additional training and get an endorsement, which is something very similar to a permission slip. The sport pilot cannot fly at night, but, if desired, the pilot can train for a private pilot certificate that allows night flying.

The beauty of this is that you’ll already have a good idea of airspace, aviation theory, radio discipline, rules of the air, and much more, meaning getting a private pilot’s license will be easier too. In the meantime, you’ll already be up and flying.

The Rules. Final Thoughts

It is a great thing that the FAA has been so adaptable and, along with the EAA, has devised ways to get more people up and flying. Sure, it might be slightly more restrictive, but as I said, you’ll be making a significant saving. It isn’t a huge leap if you want to achieve your private pilot license. Just how much different is the training? Take a look at this article and see for yourself.

Light Sport Aircraft Proposed Rule Changes (Video)