The designs that dominate the US light-sport aircraft (LSA) market are European, and their manufacturers are eagerly awaiting new regulations from the European Aviation Safety Agency to open the market at home.

In the USA, LSA rules have cut production costs in half by relying on industry standards rather than on government inspection for design, production and operational safety, and whatever the shape of the new European category those standards will almost certainly be a vital element.

Enacting and enforcing the new category would be a major test of EASA and help manufacturers by bringing uniformity across the European Union, where vast regulatory differences dominate. "It's good old Europe," says Juergen Rehlaender, director of marketing and sales for Remos Aircraft of Germany. "But if they adapt these rules from the USA, all the rules in Europe would be the same."

Cessna sport 
© Jeffrey Decker   
Cessna's proof of concept aircraft, unveiled at Oshkosh, added credibility to the LSA market

Czech Aircraft Works chief executive Chip Erwin will be relieved to abandon ambiguity. In a few countries certification is strict, he says, while in others "we give a stack of paper to the distributor, and he gives a stack of paper and a stack of euros to somebody in the government, and you have an ultralight certificate".

There are already 24 manufacturers of LSAs in Europe. In its advance notice of proposed amendment, the EASA light-aircraft working group states: "Lower costs may also re-energise the industry, leading to new design and a modernisation of the fleet, which would also aid safety."

No-one can say how many new pilots would come, says Europe Air Sports secretary-general Harry Schoevers, or how many new manufacturers. "After a new category is introduced, depending on design and production lead times, I would say it would be less than one year for the first products to reach the market," he says.

"I'm very impressed with the speed that EASA is trying to make things happen," says Tom Gunnarson, president of the US Light Aircraft Manufacturer's Association (LAMA). "Compared to what we've done in the USA, it's phenomenally fast." He helped draft the LSA regulations and industry standards as part of standards body ASTM International's F37 committee.

Gunnarson has since added third-party approval with LAMA compliance audits of member manufacturers, most recently of AeroPro in Slovakia and Flight Design in Germany, which holds a strong US market lead in LSA production numbers. "We review documentation, we check calculations, we do an on-site inspection," he says. LAMA reports on what is in compliance and what is not and will soon provide stickers to apply to the aircraft. "The plan is to have some on an airplane at Sun 'n' Fun and Aero."

Gunnarson says US LSA manufacturers are also excited about exporting to Europe, although several say they are so busy meeting demand in the USA that they have not paid any attention to overseas developments.

The manufacturer that could bring a credibility boost to the young LSA sector is Cessna, which unveiled a proof-of-concept aircraft at Oshkosh last July. The company promised to decide by the first quarter whether it would enter the market, but lately the world's largest producer of general aviation aircraft has been quiet. Gunnarson does not know when Cessna, one of the newest members of LAMA, will make that call. "I'm sure that they're not going to jump into this without having a very, very solid business plan and I'm not sure they're there yet."

Erwin's company sells the amphibious Mermaid LSA in the USA. He thinks Cessna's entry will trigger a drop in prices, which have been higher for many LSAs than initially expected. "It's pretty much a supply and demand issue. Once the price goes down, Europeans are going to lose market share to Cessna, or Legend, or other American manufacturers," he says. "What's going to happen, of course, is the Americans are going to catch up and start supplying their own market. And then the Europeans, with their higher-priced airplanes [due to shipping], are not going to be as competitive and they'll need their own market, which they could be lucky enough to recover when this new rule comes out."

For now, he says, it is advantageous to Czech Aircraft Works for the rule to appear in two or more years, since its new facility will produce 10-15% more aircraft each month. "We need 500 airplanes a year just to supply America, so we would have unhappy customers."

Remos is sending two G-3s to the USA each week. Rehlaender says the company's new facility in eastern Germany will make more than 100 aircraft this year and 200 a year thereafter. "We have a cost explosion for general aviation, so a lot of people are thinking that they want to fly, but it's too expensive, so they can go to LSA or ultralight," he says. Since Remos entered the US market in November, sales there have surpassed its European ultralight business.

If Europe takes to LSAs as strongly as it took to the ultralight regulations spearheaded by Canada, then there could be need to expand that new Remos plant further. "We could handle 300 or 400 planes a year, no problem," Rehlaender says.

The industry is paying attention to what EASA's MDM.032 working group is drafting, but is not getting much detail. "We've heard a lot of things, and a lot of rumours," Rehlaender says. He guesses that politics is playing a big role, saying: "Because it's a European agency, every country wants to bring in their national rules."

He is right, says working group member Jan Fridrich, vice-president for foreign affairs, industry and internal audit for the Light Aircraft Association of the Czech Republic. "Now it's more about politics, not about logical arguments," he says, adding: "That's why our category is not called 'LSA'. Some people are very sensitive about the word 'sport'."

Erwin has his own concern. "There's not one single manufacturer represented on that task group," he says. "It's more likely to result in poor decisions or compromises in the rule for political reasons, not real market reasons." He has hope that the final regulation will be more limited than some groups want it to be. GA aircraft that do not meet the 45kt (83km/h) stall speed do not fit LSA regulations and the manufacturers do not want to lose their market to a new category. Most predict the Very Light Aircraft category, which has a weight limit of 750kg (1,650kW) and a certification process that is more cumbersome than originally hoped, will be made obsolete by the new category.

"No rule will satisfy everybody," Erwin says, and as long as the gross weight is higher than 600kg he will be content, since that matches the current LSA limits. He hopes for a top limit of 750kg, as does Marek Ivanov of Interplane Aircraft in the Czech Republic. "More than 80% of production goes to the USA," he says. "Our airplanes fit ultralight rules, but for the US market we redesign our [Skyboy] airplane for a maximum take-off weight of 600kg."

Manufacturers will accept changes that allow retractable gear or adjustable propeller, so long as they can still use the same airframe. "It's going to be a world market. As a manufacturer I want to build one aircraft," Erwin says. "So, if Europe gets egotistical and decides to make their own rule completely different..." He points to the stall speed requirement. "Say the Europeans made one small change - just one word, from 'clean' to 'dirty' - that could result in the European market being an island, being a completely different market from the rest of the world."

The ASTM standards are used in versions of the LSA rule around the world. "The savings in design and production costs comes from reduced government bureaucracy not reduced design, production or quality standards," says Committee F37 chairman Earl Lawrence. "In fact, since these standards are tailored specifically for a small, well-defined recreational product, the ASTM International standards have incorporated many best practices that were not previously required by government regulations."

Lawrence has helped government officials in Australia and Columbia adopt LSA rules. "Those are the two that have actually fully implemented them. Canada, New Zealand, Israel, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, the European Union, are all in the process of exploring how, or if they will, adopt the standards as a whole, at different levels."

Source: Flight International