Question of the month: How can I get training to fly an ultralight vehicle?

Occasionally, things happen during the regulatory process that, with the passage of time, leaves us scratching our heads.  One such topic involves ultralight vehicles and more specifically, the conundrum of how someone may get training to fly an ultralight, given that, as defined in CFR 14 Part 103, they are single-seat vehicles.

A number of us here at AOPA got our flying start in ultralights back in the heady days of build ‘em and fly ‘em.  You may recall the flurry of activity in the ultralight community as new ways of getting airborne were invented and even more designs and models became available.  In the early 1980s the movement grew and developed 2-seat vehicles, such as the venerable Quicksilver MX II, which were used for buddy-flying as well as training for graduation to the equally venerable single seat MX I.  The weight-shift movement followed a similar evolution, from unpowered hang gliders, to experimenting with engine types and configurations, to the stunning tandem trikes we know today.

In an attempt to include the rapidly growing number of these vehicles into its regulatory framework, and to achieve acceptable levels of safety in the airspace system, in 1982 the FAA issued CFR 14 Part 103, Ultralight Vehicles.  In return for being able to fly without a medical certificate, pilot license or aircraft registration, the part imposed some limitations—namely: single occupant, weight less than 254lbs (if powered, 155lbs in not), fuel capacity of no more than 5 gallons, a maximum calibrated airspeed of 55 knots, stall speed of no more than 24 knots and various operational restrictions. In addition, the FAA granted an exemption to allow the use of two-place vehicles to train pilots for the operation of single-place ultralights.

Makes perfect sense, but the growth in 2-place vehicles operating under the exemption quickly outgrew the number of true Part 103 ultralights, as pilots discovered the fun of flying the 2-seaters for recreation and sport, and not just for training.  This growth created the demand for innovation in comfort, power, speed and range, all of which increased the weight (and hence energy) of the “trainers”, that once again raised a question of safety.

To address this question, and the related need for regulation and control, in 2004 the FAA issued the rules for Light Sport Aircraft, the definition of which can be found in CFR 14 1.1.  Along with the new category of aircraft, the FAA recognized that aircraft conforming to the LSA specifications could be safely flown with different levels of training, knowledge and aeronautical skill compared to the Private Pilot Certificate, and so the Sport Pilot certificate was born.

So, on one hand, if you fly a true ultralight under Part 103, you don’t need a medical or pilot certificate.  On the other hand, you can fly an LSA as a Sport Pilot, using a valid driver’s license in place of a medical certificate.  Nice!

The LSA rule also eliminated the exemption for 2-place vehicles.  Many of these “fat ultralights” (the 2-seaters operating under the original exemption) were given a time limit to be registered as LSA (actually, E-LSA – see later), and many more aircraft have been designed and registered as LSA since that time.  For example, the sophisticated tandem trikes (weight shift control aircraft, not fixed-wing aircraft) with Rotax engines and heated seats now operate as LSA, so pilots require at least a Sport Pilot certificate to fly them.  Training can obviously be accommodated by virtue of having two seats.  As an aside, and based on the successful record of LSA, the FAA is now considering expanding the specifications (including weight) for LSA.  More on this in a later edition of Club Connector!

When the LSA category was introduced, the regulations regarding experimental aircraft also changed.  The notion of E-LSA was included in the Experimental category to accommodate kit-built aircraft conforming to LSA specifications and standards, but with this regulation came the prohibition of using such experimental aircraft for flight training for compensation or hire after January 31st, 2010.  It appears that the FAA assumed that existing fat ultralights would be registered as E-LSA and wanted to exclude such “experimental” aircraft from the training fleet based on the dissimilar requirements for maintenance and inspections.  The thinking seems to have been that S-LSA (held to certain design standards) would become the default choice for flight schools, instructors—and hence students—to use.

The problem is that the growth in S-LSA products hasn’t kept pace with expectations (neither have the price points) so we are faced with the question of the month—how can someone get training to fly a true ultralight?  Given that there is no such thing as a 2-place ultralight, how can we best prepare pilots to fly single seat, lightweight, low energy ultralight vehicles?

The Current Answer

The current answer is to get training in an S-LSA that most closely resembles the ultralight you eventually want to fly, and to use the services of an FAA Certified Flight Instructor.  Note that there is no longer such a thing as an Ultralight Instructor, so all instruction must be provided by a CFI.  There are a number of S-LSAs that fit this model—for example the Quicksilver family.  You could receive training in the 2-place Sport 2SE S-LSA and then fly the single seat MX Sport Ultralight.

This all makes good sense.  A “student” can receive training from a CFI, in a factory-built (non-experimental) aircraft, and then progress to their ultralight of choice.  Of course, the students don’t actually have to obtain a Sport Pilot or other airman certificates in order to graduate to an ultralight, as no “license” is required for the latter.

Now, one reason that high-drag, low-mass or “ultralight-looking” S-LSAs are quite expensive and hence rare is due to the cost of meeting the ASTM standards and quality control processes required for the S-LSA moniker. These costs are naturally passed through to the customer, for example, flight schools and independent CFIs.  This has resulted in a dearth of such training aircraft, which clearly has safety ramifications and gets us back to the original question.  There is a way, but you must work hard to seek out a school/instructor with such an aircraft, which perhaps leads people to just jump into their ultralight with little or no formal training.

The Future

The FAA now accepts that the expected growth and availability of S-LSA for use in the training of ultralight (and sport) pilots has not materialized.  It is also a fact that E-LSA greatly outnumber S-LSA, but of course flight instruction for compensation or hire cannot currently be provided using E-LSA.

In a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) dated 10/24/2018, “Removal of the Date Restriction for Flight Training in Experimental Light Sport Aircraft”, the FAA proposed to permit E-LSA back into the training fleet.  The proposal contains two key points that will amend CFR 91.319(e)(2). Firstly, the date restriction on using specifically E-LSA for training will be removed, and secondly, as for all experimental category aircraft, a Letter of Deviation Authority (LODA) will have to be issued by the FAA to permit training for compensation or hire in E-LSA.  The reason for using the LODA process is to enforce the way that E-LSA are used for flight training.

Furthermore, the LODA will be issued to a person (owner, operator or training provider), and will not be a blanket approval for make and model.  If you are interested, the LODA process will be managed through the FAA’s Web Based Operations Safety System (WebOPSS). More details on the basis of issuance of a LODA can be found in the NPRM.

Where Do I Go Next?

Here are a few places to visit to get more information on ultralights and training:

The United States Ultralight Association

Powered Sport Flying Magazine

EAA Ultralights

EAA Ultralight Sourcebook

EAA Training Guide for Fixed-Wing Ultralights

EAA Training Guide for Weight-Shift Ultralights












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