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June 2014 Issue

Down to Earth

Born again.


You may scoff, but I believe that there is something absolutely magical about FAA paperwork. What? Yes, listen: by way of a bit of paperwork (okay, maybe more than "a bit"), one can transform an assemblage of parts meticulously constructed and lovingly stroked into a viable and legal flying machine. That's pretty neat if you ask me.

The IndUS Thorpedo is based on a solid Thorp design, but the original manufacturer of the SLSA no longer exists; this makes it a great candidate for conversion to ELSA status.

But there's more. Did you know that by way of a bit of properly prepared paperwork and an inspection (and probably cash, since odds are you'll hire a designated aircraft representative [DAR] to do the inspecting), you can transform a manufactured Light Sport Aircraft (SLSA) into an Experimental Light Sport Airplane (ELSA)? You can also modify an ELSA to fit your needs, within the scope of the LSA rules, of course.

Why would you want to endure the paperwork foxtrot to create an ELSA out of an SLSA? And why am I even bringing up the topic in this magazine? Hang on and follow me through here. I know that this magazine's name is KITPLANES®, not "Build It Yourself," and though our primary focus is on the aircraft builder-owner, I am aware that there are plenty of readers out there who are Experimental aircraft owners only. That is, someone else built your aircraft. There are at least as many of you reading this who are wrestling with the decision over whether to build or buy your next aircraft, too. It is an awesome commitment to build an aircraft yourself—I watched and helped my husband go through the process twice—I know. Even if you are considering an ELSA, which does not need to be 51% built by you, it is a singular and enduring accomplishment to complete an aircraft build.

Once you have converted your Thorpedo (or other SLSA) to ELSA status, you have much more freedom when it comes to modifications, upgrades, or substitution of maintenance parts. Plus, with a simple 16-hour course, you can do condition inspections yourself.

If you are like me, a flier who prefers someone else to build her airplane, but you want the flexibility and affordability that an Experimental airworthiness certificate can provide, you may be a good candidate for purchasing an SLSA and converting it to ELSA status. SLSAs are factory-built to ASTM standards—known entities, from a construction point of view. They can be flown by pilots holding Sport Pilot and higher certificates. Pilots flying LSAs must hold a current driver's license, but are not required to hold a current FAA medical (they may not, however, have applied for and been turned down for an FAA medical). An Experimental/Amateur-Built airplane can be safely purchased on the open market, too, and those that qualify can be flown under LSA rules.

For those unfamiliar with aircraft maintenance, but with sufficient mechanical experience, a 16-hour course can allow you to legally perform annual condition inspections and other maintenance. Checklists like this one can be found in FAA Advisory Circulars to help ensure a complete inspection.

Buyers of completed Amateur-Built aircraft should ask some very specific questions before a purchase. Do you know the builder well? Did you see his shop? His paperwork/builder's log? Flight-test logs? How does the airplane operator's manual look? Does it contain all of the required information? What are the aircraft's operating limitations? Have manufacturer's service bulletins been complied with? What kind of airworthiness certificate does it have? There is a lot of information that you need to be sure you are getting a solid machine that can safely, legally, and reliably take you where you want to go.

An SLSA purchase, be it factory-new or used, is a little clearer. Buying a brand-new SLSA and changing it over to ELSA may not be a cost-effective proposition, but finding an older, used SLSA, or even better, an aircraft that is considered an "orphan" because of a lack of factory support, could be a great deal for the right owner.

How many "orphans" are there? Over the decade that Light Sport Aircraft rules have been in effect, more than 130 models have been produced, but according to LSA expert Dan Johnson, there are somewhere around 10% of those aircraft that are no longer supported by their original manufacturers. You can find an SLSA list at Johnson's web site.

Consider an IndUS Thorpedo, for example. This aircraft is based on a tough and tested Thorp design, but the original equipment manufacturer simply does not exist right now, so parts will get scarce. This SLSA can be transitioned to ELSA in accordance with 14 CFR 21.191(i)(3) by completing a new 8130-6 Application for Airworthiness Certificate, creating a program letter, providing a current airworthiness certificate for the airplane and current flight restrictions (these get turned in and you receive a complete new set for ELSA), and providing aircraft/engine log books showing the aircraft is current, including all service bulletins and any ADs on certified components in compliance.

Once the paperwork is complete, operation limitations determined, and any required test-flight fly-off time undertaken, the owner of a now-ELSA Thorpedo can find parts that work, and repair or modify his aircraft without having to rely on OEM parts or a letter of authorization from the manufacturer (as required by SLSA). Avionics can be updated, and even major changes such as an engine or propeller update can be undertaken. Better yet, after a 16-hour FAA-approved course you, the new owner, can be certified to do condition inspections on your ELSA (as well as any other ELSAs like it). In fact, for an owner-not-builder, this is better than the amateur-built rule, which will only issue a repairman's certificate for the builder of one specific aircraft to perform condition inspections only on that aircraft. This requires the new owner-flier to seek out either the holder of that aircraft's repairman certificate or an A&P mechanic for condition inspections.

The maintenance advantages alone make the proposition of transitioning an SLSA to an ELSA a viable alternative for someone who is in the market for a light Experimental aircraft that is already built. And with possible changes that are percolating in the U.S. Congress and at the FAA right now regarding FAA 3rd Class Medical requirements, it may be that the number of active LSA manufacturers will contract a bit more in the future, making the prospects worthy of such a transition more numerous. Those who don't want the commitment of building their own, but are still interested in maintaining their own aircraft would do well to consider this transition proposition. For the cost of some paperwork and a test-flight regime, you can give new life to a reliable airplane. It may just be the fixer-upper you've been looking for.

Photos: FAA, various LSA manufacturers

Amy Laboda has taught students how to fly in California, Texas, New York and Florida. She’s towed gliders, flown ultralights, wrestled with aerobatics and even dabbled in skydiving. She holds an Airline Transport Pilot rating, multi-engine and single-engine flight instructor ratings, as well as glider and rotorcraft (gyroplane) ratings. She’s helped with the build up of her Kitfox IV and RV-10.

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