The FAA has very specific descriptions of what makes up each type of aircraft. But it's more than that... there is also the concept of how a particular type of aircraft became that way. I'll try to make this as short and succinct as possible, which means I won't get every detail right, but will cover enough to give you a feel for it.
Weighing no more than 254 pounds, the true ultralight should be a single-seat air vehicle that flies no faster than 55 knots (63 mph), and have no more than 5 gallons of gas on board. Here's a good summary of the FAA rules that describe ultralights.
The Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)
The LSA is a 2-seat aircraft, weighing no more than 1320 pounds, and flies no faster than 120 knots (138 mph). There are many other requirements, and you can read them here.
The Experimental LSA (E-LSA)
The definition above applies to the E-LSA, but what differentiates it is how it becomes an E-LSA. There are 3 ways for an aircraft to become an Experimental LSA:
- convert from a 2-seat UL trainer
- build it from a kit provided by an authorized manufacturer
- "downgrade" an S-LSA to an E-LSA
The conversion process is almost unavailable at this point, since the deadline of January 31, 2008 has passed. But, it's important to know about this only because if you decide to buy an E-LSA in the future, you should ask if it was a converted 2-seat UL trainer. A converted E-LSA is likely to be much less expensive than even other E-LSAs, and a LOT cheaper than S-LSAs. Even though I own a converted E-LSA, I would advise you inspect these aircraft very closely before purchasing.
The type of E-LSA that will become more and more common as time passes will be the kit-built E-LSA. Right now, there aren't very many kits available. These kits can be built by you or anyone else, and must be built to the exact specification of the manufacturer. After the kit gets its airworthiness certificate, you can then modify it, in the true meaning of 'experimental'.
In certain situations, the Special-LSA (S-LSA) can be downgraded to an E-LSA, but it can only be done once, and once an E-LSA, it will always be an E-LSA. The reasons why the owner of an S-LSA might want to do this are detailed below.
The E-LSA can be modified to your hearts delight, as long as it doesn't violate the rules as to what an LSA is. Also, if you take a 16-hour repairman course, you can do the annual condition inspection yourself, thus saving lots of money each year.
The Special LSA (S-LSA)
The S-LSA is the most similar to a General Aviation (GA) aircraft because it is built at the factory by professional builders and certified there before you ever see it. You also need to treat it much like a GA aircraft in that, you can only perform basic maintenance, but it needs to be inspected once a year by an FAA-certified A&P mechanic. While that may not sound onerous to many pilots -- especially those that aren't very mechanically minded or simply like someone else doing the work -- some pilots may not like that restriction. In that case, they are allowed to "downgrade" their aircraft to an E-LSA. It's a one-shot deal; you can't reverse it, and it will forever remain an E-LSA after that point. The advantage is, though, that you will be able to do all the maintenance on it yourself, and, with a 16-hour repairman course, you'll be able to give it the annual condition inspection yourself.
The General Aviation (GA) aircraft
The GA aircraft is pretty much what you already know of as a "light aviation" aircraft: Cessna, Piper, and Mooney, are examples of the typical GA aircraft. As the owner, you may perform basic maintenance, but the annual inspection must be performed by an A&P with inspection authorization.
The Experimental/Amateur Built aircraft
The E/AB aircraft are also commonly known as "experimental aircraft". They differ from the E-LSA only because they aren't nearly as limited in weight or speed as the E-LSA. The other restriction is that, only the original builder of the E/AB can inspect the aircraft, or, an A&P can inspect it.
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