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Frequently asked questions about sport pilot and flying trike weight-shift control (WSC) light-sport aircraft (LSA)

1. Who can fly a weight-shift control (WSC) trike light sport aircraft?

A weight-shift control trike light-sport aircraft may be operated by a holder of a Sport Pilot FAA Airman Certificate, also known as a Sport Pilot license with a weight-shift control trike rating.

Pilots with a private or higher pilot airplane certificate may be transitioned to fly a weight-shift control trike. They may be trained by one WSC “Certified Flight Instructor” (CFI) and take a proficiency check with another WSC CFI with no minimum hours required. Any pilot can fly as a sport pilot even if their medical certificate has expired, so long as they have a valid driver’s license for medical eligibility.

2. What is a sport pilot license?

It’s a new FAA pilot certificate that is less expensive, requires less time and is easier to obtain than the Private Pilot certificate. Sport Pilots can fly aircraft in the new Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) category such as trike weight-shift control light-sport aircraft, as well as fixed-wing airplanes and powered parachutes.

3. Do I need a license to fly a weight-shift control trike LSA?

You must obtain a Sport Pilot Airman Certificate or a Private Pilot airman certificate if you wish to fly a two seat weight-shift control LSA. Single seat ultralight trike vehicles are less regulated and more clearly defined under the Federal Aviation Regulations Part 103, where a license is not required.

4. As a Sport Pilot, where and when can I fly?

At almost all airports in the U.S. with proper endorsements, during daytime only, at altitudes below 10,000 feet, with visual reference to the ground. There’s no distance limitation (can be anywhere in the U.S.).

5. Is a Sport Pilot trained to lower standards than a Private Pilot?

No. The piloting and mastery of the aircraft are the same. The difference is in the additional private pilot experience at larger towered airports communicating with “air traffic control”, flying at night and flying above 10,000 feet.

6. What is the difference between the 20-hour minimum sport pilot flight training hours and the 40-hour minimum private pilot training hours?

Less training is required because there is no night flight training, high altitude procedures above 10,000 feet, and control tower operations. However, Sport Pilots can receive additional training beyond the 20 hours minimum required training for Sport Pilots and be endorsed to operate at control towered airports.

7. What are the age requirements for a Sport Pilot?

Age requirements are the same as private pilot; solo at age 16 and obtain a license at age 17. No upper age limit for sport or private pilots.

8. What are the medical requirements for a Sport Pilot?

First and foremost, same as all pilots flying any aircraft. You must personally determine before each flight that you are medically fit to operate the aircraft in a safe manner.

Second, a valid U.S. driver’s license can be used for medical eligibility in which the same restrictions on a driver’s license, such as wearing glasses, are applicable when flying a trike weight-shift control LSA as a sport pilot.

It should be noted that if an FAA third-class medical was suspended, denied, or revoked, this must be cleared before using a driver’s license as medical eligibility. Private pilots simply let their third-class medical expire and use their driver’s license as a medical eligibility rather than failing an FAA medical exam and having to go back to clear it.

A third-class medical can also be used as medical eligibility for a Sport Pilot in place of a driver’s license for medical eligibility along with a government issued photo ID. Both being necessary together in place of using a single current driver’s license.

9. Can I fly a weight-shift control trike light-sport aircraft at night?

Yes. If the weight-shift control trike light-sport aircraft is properly equipped, and the pilot has a private pilot WSC trike rating, it can be flown at night.

10. Can I fly a weight-shift control trike light-sport aircraft by instruments?

No. A WSC trike cannot be flown by instruments because there is no instrument rating for a WSC trike.

11. Is flying a weight-shift control trike light-sport aircraft safe?

You can make flying a weight-shift control trike light-sport aircraft, like most adventure sports, as safe or dangerous as you want. You can enjoy years of injury-free flying as long as you are trained properly, follow basic safety guidelines and use well maintained equipment. Ways you can make it safe are to receive instruction from a certified professional and fly well maintained, reliable aircraft — professional schools will create a safe and controlled learning environment.

Flying a weight-shift control trike LSA is an outdoor sport and Mother Nature is unpredictable — weather is always a big consideration. The primary safety factors are personal judgment and attitude. You must be willing to learn, use good judgment and have an appropriate attitude. If you do, then you can fly a WSC trike LSA as long as you want.

Trike Performance and Flight Characteristics FAQ

1. How do trikes stall?

Trike Stall infographicStalling the wing of a trike is an easy, gentle, and forgiving maneuver. The wing’s “nose” is at a higher angle of attack than the wingtips. At high angles of attack the nose buffets first, loses lift, and naturally falls through while the tips in back keep flying. This factor results in a stall-resistant aircraft.

The high angles of attack has the nose section of the trike stall first allowing the nose to drop first, providing a stall resistant wing.

2. What about different speed trikes and what is their range?

Traditionally, trikes have flown in the slow-30-40 mph cruise and 25 mph stall-and medium-40-60 mph cruise and 30 mph stall-speed ranges. With newer wings and larger engines, trikes are now moving into the fast speed range, cruising at 70 to 90 mph. The wing’s size affects speed. A trike with a large 19-meter wing (200 square feet) will fly slowly. A 16-meter wing (170 square feet) gives you the medium speed range. And a small wing, 11 meters (115 square feet), provides the fast speeds range.

A trike carriage can be fitted with different wings, which means you can easily expand your flying options by having more than one size wing. Generally, the wing represents about 25 percent of the trike’s total cost, but smaller wings generally need more engine power. New trikes currently being tested have enclosed cockpits to keep the wind off you at higher speeds. We will see trikes evolve into higher speed machines considering creature comfort and fuel efficiency.

Speed is one part of the range equation. Endurance-how much time you have in the fuel tank-is the other. A trike cruising at 60 mph for three hours will travel roughly 180 miles-unless it’s flying into a head wind, which reduces the distance. Trikes are powered by two- or four-cycle engines. With the same fuel capacity, four-cycle engines give better range because they use significantly less fuel than the two-cycle engines.

Speed range of light sport aircraft airplane, trike, and ppc.Speed ranges for PPC, Trikes and airplanes.

3. How do trikes handle the wind, crosswinds, and turbulence?

Generally, an intermediate or advanced trike pilot can fly in a headwind that’s about two-thirds your stall speed and a crosswind of one-half your stall speed. Trikes and fixed-wing aircraft can taxi, take off, and land in comparable crosswind conditions.

The configuration and size of the wing affects crosswind capabilities for both types of aircraft. Higher-speed aircraft typically have greater crosswind capabilities because higher speeds mean less crab angle on approach. To land a trike in a crosswind, you line up on the runway center line naturally crabbed into the wind and fly it crabbed to touchdown. As your back wheels touch, the nose wheel swings around straight down the runway.

Crosswind takeoffs are similar. When you lift off the runway, the wing naturally weather vanes into the wind setting up a crab angle for you to proceed directly down the center line of the runway. Naturally, each pilot’s wind limits depend on his or her experience.

Cross Wind Takeoff
Cross wing takeoff

Cross Wind Landing
Cross wind landing

In turbulence, the wing moves more than the undercarriage resulting in less bumping around. Because the weight is under the wing, the undercarriage naturally wants to seek level flight. In moderate to severe turbulence you must hold onto the bar, which takes some muscle and can be fatiguing on long flights.

4. What is the performance of a trike – How fast do trikes climb and how high can they go?

Trikes have an advantage over airplanes. Having no tail, they are not burdened by the weight, drag, and down-force associated with the tail structure. This gives trikes better climb rates and the ability to carry greater loads.

For example, with a small but efficient 50-hp engine, my medium-wing trike, one person, climbs 1,000 feet per minute at sea level, and (with oxygen) I’ve climbed to 17,000 feet. Fully loaded with two people, I climb at 500 fpm at sea level and can reach 11,000 feet.

Trike at 11,000 feet over Lake TahoeTrike at 11,000 feet over Lake Tahoe

In this configuration of small engine, low drag, and medium wing, the trike stalls at 30 mph, flies hands-off at 45 mph, and has a maximum cruise of 65 mph. A large engine (100 hp) on a single-seat carriage with a smaller wing (12 meters) climbs at 60 mph and 2,000 fpm. Your speed, climb rate, and service ceiling depend on your configuration.

5. How do trikes perform with the engine shut off?

Trikes are efficient aircraft and glide nicely at about a 6-to-l glide ratio with the engine shut off. It is common practice to cut power and land on a spot.

Glide ratio for a trike is about 6 to 1. The higher you fly the more square miles you have for an emergency landing.

6. How easy is it to fly a trike?

First, it’s important to understand that a trike is trimmed to fly at a certain speed (we’ll use 45 mph, since it is where my trike is trimmed). In calm air you can let go of the controls and the trike will fly generally straight and seek the trim speed designed into the aircraft. Just as is in cars and airplanes, flying hands off requires slight corrections in direction.

For airplanes, flying requires 3 axis of control: 1 ailerons (roll); 2 elevators (pitch); and 3 rudder (yaw)-controlled by a stick/yoke and rudder pedals. The trike has two axes-roll and pitch-that are controlled by a bar connected to the wing. The design of the trike’s swept wing, with a certain amount of twist and airfoil shape, provides automatic yaw control. In other words, trikes are comparatively easy to fly verses airplanes because you are only controlling two axes rather than three.

An easy touch on the controls is the key to learning to fly a trike. When you shift your weight to one side of the trike, it warps the wing by providing more twist on one side than the other. Similar to the Wright brothers’ “wing warping”, the increased twist generates less lift on that side, and more lift on the other side which produces roll.
Wing Warp Trike Wing Shifting the weight to the right creates more twist on the right side, and less twist in the left side thus rolling the trike to the right.

In the 1980s, when hang gliders evolved from crude delta wings to flying wings, the “floating crossbar” or “floating keel” (the keel is allowed to move side to side in relation to the frame) allowing greater wing warping or power steering. This floating cross bar became the industry standard control system. This simple wing warping is the key to the weight-shift wing efficiency and rapid roll response. To pitch the nose up you simply push on the bar, and you pull it toward you to pitch the nose down. Control is intuitive because you have hold of the wing, and it goes wherever you move it. The motions are similar to riding a bicycle or motorcycle.

7. What about transitioning from stick and rudder (airplane) or PPC to weight shift?

Airplane and trike controls are different, so airplane pilots will have to “unlearn” their stick and rudder skills when learning to fly a trike. Adding to the difference is the sitting in the open and the loss of the airplane’s “window” reference to the horizon.

Typically, airplane pilots feel disoriented for the first 20 minutes and must think about the necessary control inputs for the first hour or two. Normally, airplane pilots are comfortable flying trikes after about two hours in the air, and many have developed the proper “habits” and are ready to solo after five hours. These are general observations based only on my experience. Some pilots pick it up immediately, and others take a little longer. It is no big deal to learn to “fly the wing” rather than move and coordinate the controls.

Powered Parachute pilots have similar roll control, pull in the direction where you want to go, so the roll comes easier for the PPC. The added tasks are speed, slow flight, fast speed and stalls.

The number of axis control results in greater learning time. Airplane is three axis, Trike is two axis, and PPC is one axis.

Trike Development and Ultralights FAQ

1. What’s the difference between a weight-shift control light-sport aircraft and an ultralight trike?

Historically, ultralights and ultralight trainers with hang glider wings mounted above a tricycle carriage have been called trikes and powered hang gliders. In the new (2004) sport pilot/light-sport aircraft rules, the FAA officially named this two-place light-sport aircraft category a “weight-shift control aircraft.” We’ll use the term “trike” to describe both single-place ultralight trike and the two-place light-sport “weight-shift control” aircraft.

2. How long have trikes been around?

Trikes first appeared in the late 1970’s when hang gliders evolved from primitive delta wings to efficient flying wings with higher aspect ratio wings, defined airfoils, and wing twist providing stability and performance. The wings have evolved over 30 years along with hang glider wings to be highly refined performance machines. Trikes have been certificated to strict government standards in Europe, Australia and now in the USA.

First motor added to hang glider First motor added to a hang glider

foot launched hang glider
Hang glider wing being foot-launched and flown without power

61_watermark_250x180_2c-hang-glider-on-trike-carriage  Ultralight hang glider wing mounted on tricycle gear undercarriage creating the modern day “TRIKE”

3. How is flying a light-sport aircraft weight-shift control trike different from flying a hang glider?

Hang gliders are usually flown without engines, from hills or mountains, or can be towed aloft using a suitably designed winch. In order to extend the flight, the hang glider pilot needs to find rising air (lift) in the form of warmer air rising in “thermals”, or ridge-lift, where the wind is deflected upward by mountain slopes. Finding and using lift to stay aloft is known as soaring. Without this lift, a hang glider will glide, gradually descending until reaching the ground.

The weight-shift control trike light-sport aircraft is flown from level ground without the need for hills, mountains, a winch, wind or thermals using an engine to takeoff and gain altitude.

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