top of page

Golden Age Aviation Inc.

Earl C. Downs, President


Up With Downs


Since 1995, Earl Downs, has written an aviation column titled, Up With Downs. These columns offer stories, opinions, and a taste of aviation history. This page will contain a continually rotating array of the various subjects that Earl has covered in his ramblings as he shares his thoughts about aviation with everyone.


Sport Pilot and Man on the Moon

The Story of the Sport Pilot Rules.


At first it may seem a little far fetched to connect the sport pilot and sport plane regulations with Apollo 11 and a “big step for mankind,” but the connection is there. Let’s take a look at the odd way one thing leads to another, and I’ll also toss in a little aviation regulatory history just for the fun of it (Yes, understanding regulations can be fun).


Sport pilot is the newborn of regulations

The current concepts of aviation rules were not created until 1938 when the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) came into being.  Today, the CAA has become the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the CAB is still around.  Prior to the creation of these federal entities, the regulating of pilots, pilot certification, and aircraft certification bounced around from one regulatory administrator to another.  Even the Post Office ran parts of regulating air operations at one time.  Early pilots didn’t need a pilot license, and eventually flying clubs were allowed to issue their own licenses to club members.  The sport pilot and light sport aircraft rules were introduced in September, 2004 which makes these rules the babies of aviation regulation.


The race to space planted the sport pilot seed

The seed of sport pilot was planted on May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy spoke words that set into motion events that created numerous spin-off technologies; the United States was going to the moon.  The big plan was to “out science” the Russians by beating them to the moon, but we got Velcro and light sport aircraft as a byproduct.  What a deal!


Early in the race to the moon program, a plan was considered to have the space capsule return to earth by using a flexible wing that could be deployed after re-entry into the atmosphere. The wing was the brainstorm of Francis Rogallo.  Commonly known as the Rogallo wing, it was a valid idea that was dropped in 1964 for the simpler, if not more limiting, plan of just using large cargo parachutes to drop the astronauts into the ocean.  It’s a good thing we had a large and capable Navy, and it would also give sailors a break from chasing Russian submarines.


The Rogallo wing lives on

The Rogallo wing may have been left in the space dust, but its superb flying and controllability characteristics did not fade away.  Someone decided to attach a small Rogallo wing to a swing bar, hang on to the bar, and jump off a cliff.  I suspect this first jump off the cliff had the support of a friend named Jack Daniels, but that’s not confirmed.  The hang glider was reborn.  I say reborn because the famous German scientist, Otto Lilienthal, made numerous hang glider flights in the 1890s; he died while testing a new design in 1896.  His research was carefully studied by Orville and Wilbur Wright, and they concluded that weight shifting was a bad idea for aircraft control.


“We have a problem here;” the ultralight was born

Rogallo wing hang gliding became very popular in the 1970s and morphed into many successful wing design variations.  It wasn’t long before small engines were being attached to the hang gliders.  This got the attention of the FAA because the basic regulatory premise established in 1938 was that all pilots and aircraft would be FAA certificated.  In other words, when people stopped jumping of cliffs and became air born from level ground, the FAA said, “We have a problem here.”


A productive partnership was formed by the hang glider industry and the FAA that resulted in the ultralight rules being published in 1981 (FAR 103).  Certain very light-weight, powered, single seat “vehicles” (not called aircraft) could now be flown without being FAA certificated, and the “operator” (not called a pilot) of this vehicle was not required to hold a pilot certificate.


The “fat” ultralight

The FAA also promoted ultralight safety by providing a special exemption to the rules that allowed the industry to develop limited 2-place training vehicles, and to also develop training programs to use them.  Several aviation organizations applied to provide ultralight training as well as aircraft and pilot registration programs.  In all of this, FAA certification was not required.  These 2-place trainer vehicles became known as “exempted trainers,” (also called fat ultralights) and they could only be used in an industry training program that was accepted by the FAA.


The recreational pilot license

Thousands of the exempted trainers hit the market, but many of them were not being used in approved industry training programs.  The FAA figured the way to regulate this was to create a new and simpler system to certify planes and pilots. The idea was that the people who were flying the exempted trainers outside of ultralight training would change their ways and become certificated pilots flying certificated planes if the rules were simple.  In 1991 the recreational pilot license and primary aircraft certification rules were introduced as a simplification attempt.  However, these new rules were poorly thought out and provided little simplification or motivation to effect the desired change.  These rules are still on the books but rarely used.


The sport pilot seed starts to grow

In 1993, ARAC 103 working group (Aviation Rule Making Advisory Committee) was formed to come up with another way to urge the ultralight community to move into a certificated status for both planes and pilots of the exempted trainers (fat ultralights).  The bottom line was; uncertified pilots flying passengers in uncertified planes had to stop.  The sport pilot seed that was unintentionally planted by the race to the moon and the Rogallo wing 32 years earlier was now growing.


A special FAA developmental team was formed to come up with a completely new way to certificate planes and pilots. These new rules had to provide a way for ultrlight operators and exempted training vehicles to be transitioned into a certificated status. Added to this requirement was a strong desire at high government levels to move towards industry self certification of new aircraft.  Another part of the task was to write the regulation in a new and easily understandable format.  I think the person wanting easy to read rules should be declared a national hero!


The team looked at certification procedures in other nations and found that many countries had an “in between” way to licenses pilots and aircraft.  Their rules had more restriction on the pilots and aircraft, but the certification processes were also simpler.  Other countries recognized the need to simplify the certification rules for sport and recreational pilots that only wanted to carry one passenger and fly slower, simpler aircraft.  This survey played a big part in what we see in the existing sport pilot certification rules.  Finally, the FAA recognized that many people just fly for fun, and simpler rules could be applied to them.


As the sport pilot rules developed, a system was set in place for aircraft manufactures to develop their own certification standards.  This was accomplished by industry committees operating under the guidance ASTM standard protocols.  ASTM is an organization that establishes industry standards around the world.  The new aircraft produced under these standards are called special light sport aircraft (S-LSA).


In September, 2004 the sport pilot and new aircraft certification rules represented the most comprehensive revision to aviation regulations since the establishment of the regulatory system in 1938. Here’s a brief outline of what took place when sport pilot came to life.


  1. A new pilot certification system was put in place to accommodate recreational aviation.

  2. Pilot certification flying hours were reduced to half that of a private pilot.

  3. A new category of aircraft was created.

  4. New aircraft certification categories were created.

  5. The S-LSA manufacturers meet industry certification standards, not FAA certification standards.

  6. New maintenance technician ratings were created.

  7. Ultralight operators, instructors, and exempted trainers were given a simple way to convert to a certificated status. This conversion period was for a limited time.

  8. The exempted ultralight trainer has been eliminated.

  9. The ultralight rules, FAR 103, remain unchanged.

  10. A new type of flight instructor rating was created.

  11. A new style of readable regulation formatting was incorporated into the sport pilot rules.


It’s quite a chain of events. Space flight led to the consideration of the Rogallo wing, which led to hang gliders, which led to ultralights, which led to the exempted ultralight trainer, which led to sport pilot. That’s the story of sport pilot and man on the moon. But you gotta admit, Velcro is pretty cool too!

bottom of page