Let’s assume you had a cash budget of up to $160,000 to buy an airplane. Your short list of required equipment includes a glass cockpit with autopilot, a modern interior, plus a proven engine that’s easy to service and economical to operate. You’ll use the plane for local flying, short trips and perhaps some basic instrument training.
But since you want to buy on the cheap, you might consider models in the upper end of the LSA category and those in the lower end of the Standard category. Two that come to mind are the Flight Design CTLS and the early-generation G1000 Cessna 172S Skyhawk. Both have a high-wing design, glass cockpit and cruise at comparable speeds.
Is the LSA cheaper to maintain and operate? In this article we’ll get a close look at both models to find out, while assuming both are purchased in used condition. We think it’s worth considering a new CTLS, given the three-year factory warranty.
First, the sales-leading (in category) Flight Design CTLS. It’s been in production since 1997 and there are close to 2000 airplanes flying. A well-equipped 2014 model sells for around $170,000, while a late-2000s model can sell for as little as $90,000 when equipped with popular options, including advanced avionics.
As with most models in the LSA category, there are two major limitations that you’ll need to accept. With two seats, you’re limited to traveling with one passenger, while choosing your baggage sparingly and loading it creatively.
The CTLS has a composite structure and a 49-inch-wide cabin with gull wing doors. With a 34-gallon tank, you can fly it roughly 800 miles at full cruise power. Published top speed is 120 knots, although several CTLS owners told us they often see slightly higher speeds. The base model is powered by the 100-HP, liquid-cooled Rotax 912s. It’s a 2000-hour-TBO engine that can sip premium unleaded, including E10 ethenol blends. It can also burn 100LL, with some maintenance penalties. More on that later.
Fuel burn can be as low as 4.3 GPH at lower power settings, although 5-5.5 GPH is more conservative. For 2014, there is an option for the fuel-injected Rotax 912 iS, in addition to the turbocharged 914T. Both of these engines have a 2000-hour TBO. We’ll use the carbureted Rotax 912s engine in our comparison because the 912 iS wasn’t available in earlier models.
Unless you hold a private pilot certificate, you’re limited to daytime VFR flying (the CTLS is approved and equipped for night flying). Since the CTLS is certified in the U.S. under the SLSA category (Special Light Sport Aircraft), you can put it on a flight line for lease back, where it can be used for training and rental. It’s a popular model for these purposes and every flight school we talked with had positive things to say about the CTLS it operates—especially the per-hour operating costs and high dispatch reliability.
The venerable Cessna Skyhawk still soldiers on in Cessna’s single-engine line (that line started in 1956) and a 2014 model has a sticker price that closes in on $400,000. When we scoured the used market, we found many first-generation G1000 172S models in decent shape with mid-time engines. The all-glass Hawks with the Nav III glass option hit the market in late 2005.
It’s not unheard of to buy one with a higher airframe time for as little as $125,000, particularly if it’s well-worn and has come off a flight school training line. A clean G1000 172S with a mid-time engine is realistically going to cost more like $160,000. That’s valued considerably higher than a used CTLS.
But face it, the glass Skyhawk could offer more for that initial investment. It has a broader mission profile since it’s approved for day and night VFR and IFR. It also has four seats and a bigger payload. Of course, you’ll need a private pilot certificate and a current FAA medical to fly one, at least under the current medical certification standards.
The 172S has a 180-HP fuel-injected Lycoming IO-360-L2A engine and despite Lycoming’s SI 1070 service letter that approves operating on mogas, the aircraft isn’t approved for it. With its 890-pound useful load and a 50-gallon fuel capacity, typical speeds for newer Skyhawk’s average around 125 knots.
The CTLS is available with a variety of glass cockpit options. Early models (pre-2010) had the Dynon D100-D120 package, which included the EFIS100 PFD and EMS120 engine monitoring system. There’s also the popular two-axis autopilot option, digital transponder and Garmin SL30 navcomm radio. Newer models are available with what Flight Design calls the Advanced Avionics Package, to include the Dynon Skyview. There’s also the Garmin G3X. But the Skyview, with a dual-screen 10-inch PFD and MFD is closer in function to the G1000. It can play traffic and weather overlay, plus it has digital engine monitoring. Flight Design offers an option for Garmin’s GTN750 or 650 navigator. Don’t expect to find them in older models, which might be lightly equipped with only a Garmin portable GPS, a single radio and a transponder.
The G1000 suite in the first glass Skyhawk didn’t have WAAS GPS, although a Cessna service bulletin accommodates the installation of dual WAAS receiver modules and the required antenna work. That project can top $20,000.
The avionics suite also included the Bendix King KAP140 autopilot. The owners we talked with reported substantial repair costs associated with it, including pricey servo motor replacements. A single servo (the KAP140 has three) could easily top $2000. There’s also a variety of software updates that might be required for the G1000. You’ll pay for shop labor to bring the system up to the current revision, in addition to an annual navigation database subscription. This costs $600 (Dynon offers free updates for the Skyview).
As we reported in the August 2013 issue of Aviation Consumer, it’s worth considering an extended warranty for the G1000. The coverage can pay for itself in a single repair and has to be purchased from Cessna through a service center.
Chris Arnold at the Hartford, Connecticut-based Sutton James aircraft insurance agency worked up a theoretical insurance quote for both aircraft. He assumed the operator for either aircraft is a 250-hour certificated private pilot, with 10 hours in make and model, plus has a clean accident history.
For a used CTLS with a $100,000 hull value, we were quoted $1617 for an annual policy. This includes a $1 million/$100,000 per passenger liability limit. With no passenger sublimit, the policy jumps to $2098.
For the Skyhawk that has a $170,000 hull value, the same coverage is $1300 and $1828, respectively.
Why does the lesser LSA cost more to insure? Arnold suspects there’s uncertainty about how the LSA will hold up over time. Moreover, the Cessna has a more definitive (and perhaps more favorable) accident track record.
“The Skyhawk is a well-known entity and insurance companies know the costs that are associated with it. This allows them to project the potential losses—both in severity and frequency—because there’s a long history,” he said.
We think the Flight Design, by nature of its design, is at a disadvantage because of its composite build. Not surprisingly, composite structures are more costly to repair than metal ones. According to Arnold, claims that result from runway prangs (damage to landing gear, for example) are fairly common. Whether or not insurance companies are spooked by pilots flying without an FAA medical—and if it’s factored into the rates—is unknown. We think it shouldn’t matter.
Several shops told us that annual inspections or a 100-hour inspection on a CTLS should cost approximately $700-$900. Keep in mind that if you operate a CTLS in a flight school environment, the 100-hour inspection is required. Otherwise, it’s an annual inspection.
We spoke with Dean Vogel at Lockwood Aviation in Sebring, Florida, who told us his busy Rotax shop usually flat-rates the 100-hour inspection on the 912s engine at $450. Of course, that won’t cover items that need replacement. In addition, there’s a one-time, 25-hour required inspection on every new 912s engine that’s put into service. The checklist for that inspection is the same as a 100-hour check.
We couldn’t get definitive costs for an annual on a G1000 Skyhawk (above a bare-bones inspection, which can be as low as $900) from any shop, although owners tell us that $1500-$2500 annuals are pretty common. Not surprisingly, upkeep for the G1000 can be pricey. One owner commented about the costs and efforts to keep the G1000 software up to date. “It took my shop a full day to load new software into the suite. That yielded a $1100 invoice,” he told us.
The CTLS has a few milestone maintenance events, including the 6-year BRS parachute repack service. According to Flight Design, it’s a $1000 job. There’s also the 1000-hour gearbox inspection—reduced to 600 hours—if the engine is operated more than 50-percent of the time on 100LL fuel. Lockwood quoted us $300 for this work. The carburetors require a 200-hour disassembly inspection. The $250 service covers cleaning and synchronization.
The Rotax 912s engine has a five-year hose replacement interval, with an average cost of $4000. There’s also a 1500-hour mandatory propeller inspection that runs $450, on average.
If the Rotax is operated almost exclusively on mogas, and the oil is synthetic or at least semi-synthetic, the oil and filter changes come at 100 hour intervals. Burn 100LL more than 30 percent of the time and the oil and filter changes come at 50 hours. Burn 100LL more than 50 percent of the time and you’ll be changing the oil and filter every 25 hours, due to the lead content. The filters are roughly $23 and the oil is roughly $10 per quart/liter (capacity is roughly three quarts). Owners report that the 912s burns little if any oil between intervals. Speaking of fluids, Rotax recommends readily available automotive lubricants and coolants, which, as most owners can attest, helps keep costs low, but can be difficult to find at a typical FBO.
When it comes to reliability, costs and ease of maintenance, nearly every Flight Design operator we talked with—commercial and private—raved about the CTLS. Much of that praise is directed toward the Rotax 912s. Tim Busch, owner of Iowa Flight Training in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has a late 1990s CTLS, plus several Skyhawks on his busy training and rental line.
“If you take capital costs off the table and simply compare the hourly operating costs, I would replace my entire fleet with CTLS aircraft,” Bush told us. He’s carefully watching costs.
“I’ve run the numbers every which way and the CTLS comes out on top every time. The maintenance costs, for one thing, is far lower on the CTLS than it is on the Skyhawk. While there’s just not that much to do in comparison to the Lycoming, parts costs for the Rotax 912 engine are so much lower it’s silly,” said Busch.
That was a theme we heard from every Rotax owner we talked with, particularly when comparing service items like fluids, spark plugs and other miscellaneous maintenance supplies. Still, that doesn’t make the Rotax maintenance-free.
“The Rotax isn’t exactly a simple engine and I’ve had a few issues, but I think its modern design (compared to the engine in my old Mooney) adds a level of consumer confidence that I just didn’t have when I brought my Mooney in for service,” said Ian Ballantine about the Rotax engine in his Remos LSA.
Lockwood’s Vogel has enough experience with Rotax invoices to put a hard number on engine reserves. “I usually coach people to simply use $10 per hour as a safe engine reserve toward a 2000-hour TBO. That way, if they do an engine exchange for somewhere in the neighborhood of $17,000, they’ve got another $3000 cushion to cover labor and most other materials that might get changed out during the swap,” he said.
While we recognize the benefits of operating the Rotax, we also think it’s easier to find support for the Skyhawk and its Lycoming. What aircraft mechanic doesn’t know how to work on a 172? That won’t be the case for the Flight Design.
A CTLS running on automotive fuel, in addition to the economical fuel burn, contributes to a sizable savings in hourly fuel costs. Using a conservative 5.5 GPH at an average of $3.90 per gallon of premium unleaded results in a $21.45 per-hour fuel cost. The Cessna, burning $5.80 per-gallon 100LL (at 8 GPH) ends up costing $46.40 per hour.
Hourly maintenance costs can be a little trickier to nail. We looked at the numbers provided by a couple of flight schools that perform much of their own maintenance on the CTLS. If you factor $10 per hour for a Rotax engine reserve, oil changes, 100-hour inspections and the major milestone maintenance events, operators realistically budget hourly costs of $60 (the CTLS generally rents for around $100 per hour). We uncovered just a few issues related to the Dynon avionics, including a failed transponder in one Skyview panel, but Dynon covered it under warranty.
Hourly maintenance figures for the G1000 Skyhawk was considerably higher, at roughly $115 on average. Most operators factor $18-$20 reserve for the Lycoming, plus additional costs for avionics maintenance and a mandatory service for the Amsafe airbag seatbelts.
Interestingly, all of the Cessna owners complained about having to replace broken plastic interior components—a problem that’s plagued Cessna interiors for years. We’ll cover sources for aftermarket plastic in an upcoming issue.
In general, all of the Skyhawk operators we talked with noted reliable dispatch and a trouble-free experience. That’s in line with what we’ve always known about the Skyhawk, although we think the G1000 adds sizable amounts of complexity and potential upkeep costs.
Choose your mission
We can’t recommend one aircraft over another because they don’t have the same mission. We can say the Skyhawk offers far more utility when it comes to weather, payload and growth potential for new pilots. It’s also easy to service.
If none of that matters to your mission, we think an advanced LSA like the Flight Design CTLS wins for overall savings. The freedom to fly it without FAA medical certification is an added bonus.