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Smaller planes growing in popularity - but also risky

Published:Sunday | November 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Baseball star Roy Halladay's fatal crash opened a window on the growing popularity of smaller aircraft that are cheaper to fly than traditional private planes but that also carry risks because pilots don't need as much training to fly them.

Halladay, 40, crashed an Icon A5 on November 7 in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the cause of the accident, whether from a mechanical problem, pilot error, or something else.

Despite the risks, small planes are growing in popularity. The Icon A5 is called a light-sport aircraft, which is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A light-sport plane has seating for two, and FAA set a top speed of 138mph and maximum weight of 1,430 pounds for landing on water.

Other types of small planes are called experimental, which includes hand-made and exhibition planes. Pilots don't need as much training to fly into the wild blue yonder in some of the smaller planes as they would with a traditional Cessna or Beechcraft.

"It is a level of aircraft that is very popular because it is designed purely for recreation," said Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. "People want to go out on a sunny day and enjoy the world from up above."

The number of sport-pilot certificates for planes like the A5 grew to nearly 5,889 last year, up from 939 in 2006, according to FAA. The number of sport-light aircraft reached 2,369 in 2015. And the total number of experimental aircraft grew to 27,922 that year from 23,048 in 2006, according to FAA.

A pilot can buy a light-sport aircraft for about $100,000, compared to more than $500,000 for a Beechcraft Bonanza, Knapinski said. The cost to maintain and operate would also be lower because a light-sport plane burns four to six gallons of fuel per hour, compared to 20 gallons per hour in the Beechcraft, he said.

"They might be airline pilots, but they might say, 'That's a cool little airplane. I want to fly that,'" Knapinski said.

Simpler flights come with fewer training requirements.

The least training is required for aircraft called ultralights, which weigh up to 254 pounds and fly up to 63mph. The FAA doesn't require pilot training for these aircraft, which are prohibited over congested areas and are sometimes described as chaise lounges with wings and lawnmower engines.

The next rung on the training ladder is for light-sport aircraft, which require a pilot to have 20 hours of experience and pass a test for a certificate. Pilots for both ultralights and light-sport aircraft are limited to flying during the day and avoiding clouds.

"It's a less complicated airplane as far as flying is concerned," said Ron Carr, a former Air Force and airline pilot who is a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. "It's to get more people involved who would not normally be allowed. It's for fun. It's for pleasure."

The next rung is a private pilot's licence for planes like Cessna and Beechcraft. Licences require 40 hours of flight time, with additional training for flying at night. Further training allows pilots to fly through clouds or by monitoring dashboard instruments without being able to see the ground.

Commercial pilots have the highest levels of training.

Halladay had a private pilot's licence with ratings for flying with multiple engines and solely by instruments. Since getting the licence in 2013, Halladay logged about 700 hours of flight time, according to Noreen Price, NTSB's investigator for the crash.

- Bart Jansen (TNS)