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Why Can't The FAA Just Change Part 103?

The following comments are my opinions only. They may or may not be correct, but they are my opinion.

We've heard it many times in the past. "Part 103 is very outdated. Why can't the FAA just increase the weight, fuel, and speed limits in Part 103"? This comment comes up a lot these days, especially with the release of the Sport Pilot NPRM.

For years, the FAA has told us that they will not do that. We've all heard the infamous "If we open it for change, you might just lose it" attitude from the FAA. I personally, have heard this very comment from Bill Cook in years past, and again in February 2002 at the Air Sports Expo in Ontario, California.

Believe me, I agree that with just a few simple little "increases" in Part 103, many of us would be very happy. I wish this could be done, but I do believe it is true that the FAA will not open Part 103 up for modifications.

Why? Part 103 has major loopholes in it, in some cases, giving pilots more privileges than people who hold higher classes of pilot licenses. If 103 were to be "opened for review", there would likely be a lot more restrictions added to it.

It is the FAA's intent that in order to be granted more privileges (by being issued a higher certificate), a pilot must get more training. Let's take a look at the most common certificates and ratings issued by the FAA:

ATP
Commercial
Instrument
Private
Rec Pilot
Sport Pilot

Part 103 Pilot

Of course, there is no such thing as an FAA issued certificate for a Part 103 pilot. It is shown in this list to indicate that a Part 103 pilot has the least amount of requirements, and also, the least amount of privileges.

The top of the list shows the license with the most privileges (ATP). This is also the license that requires the most training. As you can see from the "pecking order" in the list, a Sport Pilot's training requirements and privileges should be less than or equal to that of Rec Pilot. A Rec pilot's training requirements and privileges should be less than or equal to that of Private Pilot, and so on.

To see some of the differences between Private, Rec, and Sport Pilot, look at this Comparison Chart:

Type of Operations or Privileges

PRIVATE PILOT

RECREATIONAL PILOT

SPORT PILOT

Requires FAA medical certificate

YES

YES

Medical or U.S. driver's license and self-certification

Aircraft size limitations

Unlimited (certain aircraft will require specific "type" ratings)

180 hp max, 4 seats max

1,320 lb max certificate gross weight, 2 seats max

Aircraft with retractable landing gear

YES

NO

NO

More than 1 passenger may be carried

YES

NO

NO

Minimum flight training time required under FAR Part 61

40 hours
(based on reported averages, it typically takes 70 hours)

30 hours
(based on reported averages, it typically takes 44 hours)

20 hours
(using the averages for Private and Recreational Pilot the typical average could be 33 hours)

Flight in Class B, C, or D airspace

YES

Only with additional flight instruction

Only with additional flight instruction

Night flight

YES

YES, no passengers and under CFI supervision to obtain additional certificates/ratings

NO

Flight outside United States airspace

YES

NO

NO

Less than 3 miles visibility

YES, in uncontrolled airspace

NO

NO

Sightseeing flights benefiting a charity or community

YES

NO

NO

So, with this is mind, let's look at the class of aviator with the least amount of training, which of course is Part 103. Since Part 103 has the least amount of training required (none!), it stands to reason that Part 103 should also have the least amount of privileges, right?

Here's some examples of where Part 103 violates that basic concept. These are some of the reasons the FAA can not simply "increase the numbers" to make us happy:

For reference, the general limitations for Sport Pilots, is defined in 14 CFR 61.315. The limits for Recreational Pilots, is defined in 14 CFR 61.101. The limits for private pilots is defined in 14 CFR 61.113.

I'm sure you get the idea. I know these may sound petty, and yes, I know Part 103 does have some serious limitations and rules unique to us. But the point is, these are the kinds of things that make Part 103 hard to change in the eyes of the FAA. Even with all the serious limitations of Part 103, it does give us quite a unique amount of freedom. There are still many countries in the world that would love to have a regulation such as Part 103.

These are my opinions only. There is no doubt in my mind that Part 103 is a major pain in the FAA's rear end. In fact, I'll bet they now wish it didn't even exist. In this "post 9-11" world we live in, you can imagine agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA, and the FAA having a real problem with an unknown number of "ultralights" flying around, by an unknown number of "ultralight pilots".

I believe that if the FAA ever agreed to "open Part 103 up for changes", we'd have to expect that they would either want to "close the loopholes" so our privileges are more in line with the training received, or they might even want to establish some training criteria, or both. What kind of things might they change? If we want a Part 103 that has less requirements than the Sport Pilot, then we have to expect that the privileges granted under Part 103 will also be less than Sport Pilot. This could mean a lot of things. For example, we could lose the ability to fly in any airspace except Class E and G. They may want to restrict us to altitudes of less than 3,000 AGL (which is where 14 CFR 91.159, VFR cruising altitudes, begins). We might lose the ability to fly before sunrise, and after sunset. Other restrictions could include limitations on the distance we can travel, or additional restrictions on what we can put on the airframe and engine. And on top of all that, they might even require some minimal training, or certification.

I wish I was wrong, and hope I am. I would love to see Part 103 enhanced slightly to keep in line with the changes and evolution that have occured over the years. Yes, I would be very happy to see a slight increase in weight, and the amount of fuel we can carry. I just can't imagine the FAA just agreeing to that, without making other changes to Part 103 as we know it. Do we really want to open that can of worms?

Bob Comperini
CFI / DPE

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This page updated on: June 24, 2011
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