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A Newbie’s Guide to Sport Aviation

By Budd Davisson, EAA 22483

This piece originally ran in the January 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine. 

An odd thing about aviation is that the longer you’re in it, the bigger it seems to become. Standing at the starting line as a newbie and staring into what appears to be an endless array of airplane types, activities, and technologies can be almost overwhelming. No, amend that. It is overwhelming. What do you do first? Then, many years later, after you’ve matured as both an aviator and a human being, you look around and you think, “Wow! I’ve barely scratched the surface!” It still seems to flow to the horizon. So many airplanes, so many things to experience, so few years! More importantly, where to start?

If the foregoing fits you, don’t feel alone. Tens of thousands of pilots, students, and aviation enthusiasts discover aviation each year, and a similar number join the EAA. This treatise is aimed at those newbies who need a guiding hand.

If you’re reading this, you’ve already made a major and important first step toward aviation enlightenment — joining the Experimental Aircraft Association. If you haven’t figured it out already, EAA is an umbrella organization that is broken into divisions, each dealing with specific types and ages of airplanes. At the same time, virtually all aspects of general aviation — meaning privately owned, “normal” aircraft — overlap into EAA’s base. In other words, if it’s a functioning part of aviation, it is addressed either specifically or tangentially through EAA.

EAA AirVenture Brown Arch

First There’s AirVenture, Then the Magazines, or Vice Versa

If you’re new to EAA and just dipping your toe in the aviation pool, there are a couple of ways you can accelerate the learning process. You can jump in the deep end and go to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in July. Another option is to do a little research via the various divisions’ websites and the magazines that pertain to each subdivision and see if one fits your interests better than another. Magazines include Warbirds, Vintage Airplane, and Sport Aerobatics, while homebuilts, ultralights, and production aircraft are included in the main magazine, EAA Sport Aviation (the one you’re reading right now). To receive those other magazines, however, you need to join that specific association. To facilitate this kind of personal research, individual copies of current issues from each division are available for purchase directly from EAA, just go to EAA.org/ContactUs.

If you decide to go to AirVenture, just know that no matter what you’ve read or how many photos you’ve seen of the event, the size will amaze you when you finally see it in real life. It’s like seeing photos of the Grand Canyon and then standing on the edge seeing it for the first time. It takes your breath away with its immensity. The event is nearly 2 miles long and over 1 mile wide with almost every inch covered by something worth examining, including airplanes, exhibits, forums, and more. The big difference between the canyon and AirVenture is that you can spend six days at Oshkosh burning shoe leather and still not see it all. However, unless you’re actually hiking down into the Grand Canyon, for most visitors, a few hours touring the rim covers most of it.

Everything having to do with aviation can be found on the grounds at AirVenture in Oshkosh. Everything! If you thought standing in the philosophical portal to aviation was confusing and overwhelming, wait until you pass through the main gate at AirVenture! That’s when a weeklong case of sensory overload begins. In fact, there is such a huge amount to be soaked in during the event, it’s a good idea to educate yourself ahead of time via EAA’s magazines. That way you’ll have a rough idea as to what is going on in different portions of the field and you can develop a plan. It also helps if you put a couple of pins in a Google map of the AirVenture grounds on your phone so you don’t get lost. It’s amazing how an hour after seeing an airplane or exhibit you want to revisit, you can’t find it.

AirVenture is well organized, with ultralights in their area to the south, vintage next as you move north, homebuilts are stage center, and warbirds cover most of the north end. Exhibit buildings and tents fill in every bit of space between. Not to be ignored, transient general aviation aircraft occupy the North 40, which is also nearly 2 miles long. To put all of this in context, roughly 1 out of every 10 or 12 airplanes in the United States are on Wittman Regional Airport or at nearby airports for that week.

All right, let’s get started on getting started. To ensure clarity, we’ll cover the organization one division at a time, starting with ultralights since they are the simplest way to get into aviation and the least expensive. It also avoids many of the piloting requirements that are part of the rest of the divisions.

Ultralight at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Ultralights

Ultralights, which began as aircraft that resembled either kites or the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer (but a lot lighter), have matured and given birth to a wide variety of more sophisticated flying machines. Some prove that all that’s needed to get into the air is imagination.

In the United States, flying an ultralight doesn’t require a pilot or medical certificate of any kind, providing the aircraft meets the Federal Aviation Regulation called Part 103. Part 103 defines an ultralight as an aircraft that meets the following criteria:

Seats 1
Max. empty weight (powered aircraft) 254 pounds
Max. empty weight (unpowered aircraft) 155 pounds
Max. fuel capacity 5 gallons
Max. speed at full power 55 knots
Max. stall speed (power-off) 24 knots

Even though no formal certification is required, when thinking about getting into aviation via the ultralight route, it’s important to assess what will be required to fly them safely. Even though they are extremely slow and light, the mere fact that you’re off the ground means that basic training of some sort is an absolute imperative for safe operation. The amount of training recommended is determined by the type of ultralight to be flown and how well the student takes to having a third dimension added to their life. Specialized ultralight training is available at numerous locations and is spelled out on EAA’s website.

The types and configurations of the breed are extremely wide and varied, but they tend to categorize themselves into several distinct groups.

Fixed Wing. Ultralight fixed-wing aircraft sometimes mimic their bigger, certified fixed-wing brothers, but they often represent the minimum of airframe required to get into the air safely. The controls are usually identical to those in a certified airplane.

Powered Parachute/Paraglider. As the name implies, the pilot sits in a cradle or seat on wheels with an engine that is suspended under a larger-than-normal parachute, which is laid out behind the cradle for takeoff.

Weight-Shift Control. These may be powered or unpowered (hang gliders, etc.), and the controls pilots have at their disposal shift their weight, which causes the aircraft to do their bidding.

Rotorcraft. Rotorcraft can generally be divided into two categories: helicopters and gyroplanes. Helicopters are capable of true vertical takeoffs while gyroplanes require a very short run with their unpowered rotor blades lifting them off the ground. The training required is very specific to the aircraft.

Light-Sport Aircraft

There is a subcategory of aircraft that is aimed specifically at those who want to get into regular airplanes but avoid the complexities of getting a full pilot’s certificate. The sport pilot certificate lets the pilot fly a wide variety of aircraft that meet the FAA’s definition of a light-sport aircraft (LSA). Many LSA are preexisting aircraft, like the venerable Piper J-3 Cub and some of the other vintage aircraft, while others are newly built specifically for this category.

The FAA definition of a light-sport aircraft is:

  • Maximum gross takeoff weight: 1,320 pounds (1,430 pounds for seaplanes)
  • Maximum stall speed: 51 mph/45 knots calibrated airspeed
  • Maximum speed in level flight (VH): 138 mph/120 knots calibrated airspeed
  • Seats: 2 (maximum)
  • Engines/motors: 1 (maximum if powered)
  • Propeller: Fixed pitch or ground adjustable
  • Cabin: Unpressurized
  • Landing gear: Fixed (except for seaplanes and gliders)

The sport pilot certificate:

  • Requires FAA knowledge (written) and practical (flight) tests.
  • Credits sport pilot flight time toward more advanced pilot certificates.
  • Requires either a third-class FAA medical certificate or a current and valid U.S. driver’s license as evidence of medical eligibility (provided the individual’s most recent application for an FAA medical certificate was not denied, revoked, suspended, or withdrawn).
  • Does not allow carrying passengers for compensation or hire.
  • Does not allow flights in furtherance of business.
  • Allows sharing (“pro-rata”) operating expenses with another pilot or passenger.
  • Allows daytime flight only.
  • Allows sport pilots to fly vintage and production aircraft (standard airworthiness certificate) that meet the definition of a light-sport aircraft.

Homebuilt Aircraft at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Homebuilts/Experimental Amateur-Built

Right up front, one thing must be made perfectly clear to anyone thinking about building an airplane and those who think it is clearly an impossibility: You can do it. Regardless of your background or building experience, you can do it. End of conversation. It makes no difference whether you know which end of a screwdriver to hang onto or not, you can build an airplane. This has been proven tens of thousands of times since the dawn of the EAA. Better yet, there is no better time to build an airplane than right now. This is because the EAA has developed so many educational programs aimed at first-time builders that there is absolutely no skill that can’t be learned through those programs. What makes this the golden age of aviation education is that all of that skill-building can be done digitally via EAA videos and those from suppliers. And, if that’s not enough, hundreds of forums and workshops are open to all takers at AirVenture. Just search for a skill (welding, fabric covering, etc.) on the EAA website and tutorials and other info will pop up.

The “experimental” part of the organization’s name, Experimental Aircraft Association, is the basis from which the organization sprouted in 1953. Most of the original homebuilt designs (now, officially designated experimental amateur-built or E-AB) were fabric and tubing aircraft that were primarily fun around-the-patch designs. That changed quickly, and the current inventory of homebuilt designs ranges from fun around-the-patch airplanes to deadly serious 300 mph bullets designed specifically to leap much of the continent in single bounds.

Undoubtedly, the single biggest and most important evolution in homebuilding since the 1950s has been the availability of extremely well-done kits, many of them being of the “quick-build” variety. These reduce the time involved in building an aircraft to a fraction of that required to convert a roll of paper plans into something that flies. This innovation caused a virtual explosion in homebuilding. The availability of kits has almost eliminated the fearful “can I actually do this?” question in every new builder’s mind. When newbies stand in the homebuilt area at Oshkosh, where acres and acres of handcrafted aircraft flow to the horizon, they subconsciously know that not every builder in attendance is smarter or better than they are. Kits are responsible for that attitude change. Plus, the major manufacturers have intense online and telephone technical support and every individual homebuilt design has a builders chat group that is never more than a click away.

It should be mentioned that for a quick-build kit to be offered for sale, it must first be approved by the FAA. It has to go through the FAA’s evaluation process that confirms that at least 51 percent of the work to complete the aircraft is accomplished by an amateur — in most cases, you and your family and friends. This requirement is based on the original intent of the amateur-built category to give builders an education as well as an airplane. If it is not 51 percent built by amateurs and too much professional help was involved, it can’t be certificated in the experimental amateur-built category.

That said, there are still lots of designs that either don’t have kits or only some assemblies, like welded fuselages, are available. The “from scratch” builders are still very much in evidence and are continually showing up at Oshkosh, often flying aircraft that are seldom seen.

A second landmark innovation, along with kit development, was the introduction of composite building materials like foam and Fiberglas. These modern materials totally eliminated the need to know how to weld or drive rivets. In most composite kits those skills are replaced by the skills needed to “glue” preformed composite components together. Most, but not all, composite parts, like fuselages and wings, are made of molded halves that are joined together exactly like large plastic models.

Vintage Hangar at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Vintage Aircraft

The Vintage Aircraft Association’s magazine, Vintage Airplane, represents the first roughly 70 years of modern aviation. For a newbie, understanding that field is as complex as any other in aviation. This is because under the broad banner of “vintage” are three different, EAA-defined age categories of aircraft that can potentially reach back to the Wright brothers in 1903. The definitions of those age brackets were originally developed in the 1980s, so every airplane in any of the definitions is 40 years older today than it was then. This is a nonofficial observation, but in 1980 or so, when the definitions were developed, an antique airplane had to have been built prior to 1945, and the same is true today. So, the newest antiques might have been 35 years old at that time. Today, that same airplane is 75 years old!

The official Vintage category definitions are:

Antique Aircraft

An aircraft constructed by the original manufacturer, or its licensee, on or before August 31, 1945 — with the exception of certain pre-World War II aircraft models that had only a small postwar production — shall be defined as Antique aircraft. Examples include Beechcraft Staggerwing, Fairchild 24, and Monocoupe.

Classic Aircraft

An aircraft constructed by the original manufacturer, or its licensee, on or after September 1, 1945, up to and including December 31, 1955. Examples include Aeronca Champ, Globe Swift, and Piper Vagabond.

Contemporary Aircraft

An aircraft constructed by the original manufacturer, or its licensee, on or after January 1, 1956, up to and including December 31, 1970. This includes all of the early versions of many aircraft that are thought of as being “modern,” such as Bonanzas, Piper Comanches, and Cessna 150/172/182.

The Antique and Classic definitions get a little messy because, theoretically, some aircraft sort of fall into both categories. This is because they were produced both before and after WWII. This includes the J-3 Cub, Ercoupes, Taylorcrafts, Luscombes, and a few others.

Vintage-Classic: A Good Place to Start

For generations, the Classic category aircraft built shortly after the war have been the simplest, least expensive way into aviation. Tens of thousands were built, and thousands of them are still in the air. A generalized description of that group of airplanes would be 65-85 hp, two-place taildragger made of steel tubing, wood, and fabric. The biggest exception to that description, and the most expensive, would be the Cessna 120/140 because its structure is all aluminum. At the same time, the all-aluminum Luscombe is one of the least expensive (and some are prewar). Otherwise, the Cubs, Champs, Taylorcrafts, all Piper single-engine products, and many others built in the 1946-1948 time frame fit that description. At 95-110 mph, none are fast, but all are fun and barely burn gas.

Most of the aircraft of that time frame, with notable exceptions like the Ercoupe and the Piper Tri-Pacer, are tailwheel airplanes, so a tailwheel endorsement will be required (four to six hours of training). If you’re a low-time tailwheel pilot, it makes some sense to have a tailwheel CFI check you out in your new aircraft. Don’t forget to get some crosswind practice. Also, call your insurance agent to find out if your policy has any kind of tailwheel experience requirements.

Theoretically, the Bonanza is also a Vintage-Classic. Same thing with the majestic Cessna 195, which could be considered a modern antique because of its round engine and classic lines but all-aluminum structure. Then there’s the Globe Swift. It’s from the same period of manufacturing but looks and flies like a mini-fighter. None of the Piper products of the period, Cub to Vagabond to Tri-Pacer to Super Cruiser to Apache, would be considered fast or fighter-like, but all are capable aircraft for their intended use.

Vintage-Antique

True mid-’20s and mid-’30s Antique-era airplanes — like a Waco, Travel Air, Stearman, Spartan, Staggerwing, etc. — are generally not a good place for a newbie to start because of the size and older technology involved. That said, it’s not unheard of for folks to jump right in with a big airplane. Although the J-3 Cub, Luscombe, Ercoupe, Taylorcraft, and a few others predate WWII and could be considered part of the Antique category, when the word “antique” is applied to airplanes, those are usually mentally excluded and one of the big aircraft comes to mind. Also getting insurance in the bigger airplanes will generally be based on having more total tailwheel time and probably a CFI checkout in type, whereas insurance for the little birds is much easier to get. A few hours in a Citabria does not prepare a low-time pilot for a solo trip around the pattern in a Staggerwing, even if the pilot has a high-performance endorsement. Also, the maintenance requirements on round-engined Antique aircraft are beyond the experience of most local A&P mechanics.

Vintage-Contemporary

With the Vintage-Contemporary cutoff being 1970, there are some other fuzzy boundary lines because many aircraft that were being produced before the cutoff continued to be produced long after, like the ever-present C-172 and C-182 that started in 1956 and are still being produced in 2020. However, there are a few aircraft that started production before the 1970 deadline that are unique.

The majority of the sporty little Varga Kachinas, for instance, were produced post-1970, but about 50 were built under another name, the Shinn 2150A, prior to that. The same thing is true with the American Aviation AA-1 Yankee, designed by Jim Bede, which was later updated and produced by Grumman, and then Gulfstream. The AA-1 first flew in ’63 and went into production toward the end of the decade. Only about 400 were built prior to 1970, but many later versions were built in ensuing years. These are very sporty airplanes.

If you’re looking for higher performance aircraft, the ’60s saw lots of what we’d consider to be modern aircraft today being produced. Of course, Beechcraft’s Bonanza, just like the C-172/182, in one form or another continues to be produced right up until today. The Piper Comanche was added in 1958 with production continuing through 1972. Not to be left behind, Cessna started delivering its 210 in 1957 and continued producing it for the next three decades.

Serious cross-country airplanes such as Piper’s Aztec series and Cessna’s myriad of light twins, including its marvelous 310, all fall under the Vintage-Contemporary umbrella. It sounds amazing that such modern aircraft have been with us for more than 50-60 years!

Warbirds in Review at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Warbirds

When most newbies think of the word warbird, visions of V-12s, thundering exhausts, and blazing speeds come to mind. However, as a newbie, unless you just cashed in a truckload of Apple stock, those images may be beyond both your aviation and financial capabilities. However, just as with the other EAA divisions, there’s a way to sneak under the flap of the warbird tent and join in on the fun without spending a fortune because warbirds come in all sizes and flavors.

One of the fallouts from WWII was the large number of 65-hp liaison aircraft, the L-birds, produced, most of which were militarized Cubs, Taylorcrafts, and Aeroncas, with the 190-hp Stinson L-5 being the only purpose-built L-bird. At the bottom of the warbird cost chain, they are about the same price as most of the postwar classics.

There were also tens of thousands of training aircraft that were broken into their training categories — Primary, Basic, and Advanced. These vary widely in their financial and physical demands, but there are lots to choose from and they are not necessarily beyond the grasp of a determined newbie.

Primary Trainers

  • PT-17/N2S — The Stearman biplane was the most common primary trainer of the war and is the most readily available. It’s big, it’s slow, and it’s legendary.
  • PT-19, -23, -26 — The wood-wing, rag and tube fuselage Fairchilds used either the inline six-cylinder, air-cooled Ranger engine, or round 220-hp Continental. Their engines take a little tinkering.
  • PT-22 — The all-metal (fabric-covered wings) Ryan Recruit is less commonly seen because it was replaced by Stearmans early in the war. It’s sporty looking and fun to fly but requires a careful checkout.

Basic Trainers

  • Only one of the BTs was produced in numbers, and that was the BT-13 (Pratt & Whitney engine) and the BT-15 (Wright engine). Same airplane, different engines. A fun, relatively easy airplane to fly, it is in short supply because so many were cannibalized after the war for their engines to repower Stearman dusters.

Advanced Trainers

  • The famous North American AT-6 Texan, a prewar design, is responsible for America turning out so many well-trained pilots who went into P-51 Mustangs and P-40 Warhawks only a few hours after graduating training. Nearly 16,000 were built, and the Texan was used by foreign air forces for many decades after the United States retired it in the mid-1950s. Hundreds are still flying, but a good checkout is necessary. Other than the speed difference, the Texan gives every bit of the warbird experience a Mustang or something similar can give at a fraction of the cost. However, although it won’t drink as much as a Mustang or B-25, it’s still a thirsty toad.

Postwar Trainers and L-Birds

  • Post-WWII trainers and liaison aircraft abound, although, with the exception of the Aeronca L-16, they tend to be more expensive. The Beechcraft T-34 is the ideal warbird for someone who wants the feeling of a fighter with the operating expense of a Bonanza. The Cessna L-19 may well be the best all-around airplane for someone who wants a distinctive appearance and military-feeling cockpit combined with outstanding STOL capabilities.

Remember what we said about how the world of aviation begins to get bigger the deeper you dig into it? This probably gives you an inkling of why it feels that way. Based on how the more we know, the faster it grows, you’d better get going on your version of the aviation adventure ASAP. As we said, there are so many airplanes, so many adventures, and so little time.

Budd Davisson, EAA 22483, is an aeronautical engineer, has flown more than 300 different types, and has published four books and more than 4,000 articles. He is also a flight instructor primarily in Pitts/tailwheel aircraft. Visit him on AirBum.com.


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