When the FAA enacted the final rule that established the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category and the Sport Pilot certificate in April of 2005, the overwhelming question in the mainstream industry was: What now?Depending on who you talked to, Light Sport was: going to rejuvenate general aviation by introducing an affordable, yet regulated way for newcomers to learn how to fly; offer a way for older pilots or those with borderline medical issues a way to extend their years in the left seat;
clutter airports with a bunch of poorly-trained weekend warriors flying flimsy, noisy aircraft or it was simply going to die from lack of interest, like the recreational certificate. Cynics and conspiracy theorists-particularly the irrigation pipe and Dacron crowd-saw it as just another freedom lost to a bureaucracy thats out of control.
Two years later, the reality appears to be that a viable, sustainable subset of what we call general aviation has been created that will accomplish at least some of the lofty goals set out during the 10 years of hype that preceded that final rule.
“Its clear that LSA is here to stay,” says Tom Gunnarson, president of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, the organization that represents virtually all players in the LSA business. Now Gunnarson may be paid to say things like that, but like other people who have staked their futures on Light Sport, hes ready with the numbers that seem to bear out the confidence. At this writing, more than 1000 factory-built LSAs have been purchased, registered and received N-numbers since the rule came into force. There are now 45 manufacturers, selling 50 models of aircraft that have declared that they and the airplanes meet the standards for the LSA through voluntary compliance with a set of FAA-approved standards.
There are about 600 ticketed instructors and thousands of pilots, although its impossible to tell exactly how many because for those with private certificates and higher, the simple act of letting their medical lapse almost automatically turns them into Sport Pilots. Five hours of training toward a class rating is required.
“Right now, were still in the situation that demand is higher than the supply,” Gunnarson says. “We cant build enough airplanes fast enough.” And, strangely enough, the LSA world looks something like Gunnarson and other promoters thought it might when they were going through the exhausting process of getting through the sometimes heavy-handed and autocratic (surprise, surprise) FAA and butting heads with stick-in-the-mud traditionalists.
“There have really been no surprises,” Gunnarson claims, sounding like a prize fighter wondering if his opponent is going to get up from a tenth-round KO. “And I really look forward to it staying that way.”
So, Light Sport is here, its got some market traction and the FAA has even shown some flexibility in dealing with the inevitable glitches that turn up when rules like this take effect. But there will be casualties along the way and, because the market is different from what were used to, it might be hard, initially, to pick the winners from the losers. Entities like Light Sport usually develop incrementally, over time and the ruthless weeding out process of the underfunded, the technologically flawed and the just plain stupid happens in a somewhat unpredictable fashion.
But in the U.S., LSA is a virtually instant industry. From Colombia to Slovenia and pretty much everywhere in between, governments had long ago embraced the concept of little airplanes flying in good weather with minimally trained pilots at the stick. And the companies that filled those markets with slick composite or metal (or a combination of both) designs with sweet flying characteristics and surprising performance were all waiting for the biggest aviation market on earth to invite them in. Thats why 80 percent of the manufacturers currently certified under the LSA standards are from offshore and more are on the way. Eastern Europe is the acknowledged leader and the Czech Republic is throwing more at the U.S. market than any other country, with 12 designs on the FAA list.
So, the market, complete with mature, experienced and highly competitive players, was created at the stroke of a pen. In many cases, the long term prospects of a particular company or airplane will depend not on the normal cannibalistic forces that usually determine marketplace survivors, but on the willingness of the offshore companies to spread their resources to a new market and the competence of the dealers and distributors they partner with in the U.S. In short, the best airplanes may not be the ones with the long-term future and its tricky ground for American companies trying to get a toehold.
To date, just 11 U.S. manufacturers offer certified, factory-built, ready-to-fly LSAs (known as SLSAs) and none is making the kind of airplanes that define the industry in Europe, South America and even Australia.
Most U.S. offerings are refinements of tube-and-fabric ultralights or copies of 1930s and 1940s standard category designs that sneak under the maximum weight (1320 pounds) and whose inherent flight characteristics keep them within the speed and performance parameters (120-knot maximum speed, 45-knot clean stall). And while were mainly concerned here with fixed wing airplanes, its important to note that SLSA encompasses powered parachutes, weight shift aircraft, gliders, gyrocopters and balloons. Some of the American companies on the FAA registry are in those categories, while virtually none of the imports are.
Support Not Sales
In our estimation, the first question out of any prospective SLSA buyers mouth should be about service networks and parts availability in the U.S. A company thats dedicated to the market will have already put those things in place or will be well on the way to doing so. Gunnarson agrees thats where the weeding out process will take place. “It will set apart those who are going to make it and those who wont,” he says.
Dan Johnson, a veteran aviation journalist whos become an unabashed advocate of the LSA movement (and is chairman of LAMAs board of directors) agrees. He tracks every aspect of the industry and knows most of the players.
“Very quickly, [manufacturers] have to build a service organization,” says Johnson. Technically, after attending a 16-hour course, LSA owners are allowed to look after their own annual inspections and, if they take a 240-hour course, they can look after virtually all of their own maintenance. Realistically, most will want someone else to do it. Some manufacturers are setting up independent service networks while others are partnering with established FBOs and providing factory training to the A&Ps (particularly on engines, since most use Rotax). Some are a combination of the two.
Several companies, including Germanys Flight Design, which makes the CT, have made significant steps to establish nationwide service center networks. But there are some manufacturers that have a single base of operations in the U.S., which could make after-sales service a pain, at best, and a nightmare at worst. Buyer beware.
Gunnarson and Johnson agree that the fast start to the market is coming mostly from existing pilots.
“A lot of the market right now is the guy who sold his Bonanza or his 206 because he doesnt really need this much airplane anymore,” Johnson says. They might also be worried about passing their next medical. Under Sport Pilot, a valid drivers license is proof of medical fitness and its up to the pilot to self certify.
These customers tend to have money to spend and they use it to deck out their LSAs with panels and accessories found in the most expensive standard and utility category aircraft. Johnson says by tarting up what are supposed to be simple, straightforward machines with glass displays and all the comfort features they can cram in, these new/old LSA pilots are coming as close as they can to duplicating the flying experiences they have recently left behind and as much as $200,000 has been spent on LSAs whose base price is half that.
Gunnarson says the nice thing about the old pilot market is that theres a never ending supply as long as theres an aviation industry. “Thats a constant that will last forever,” he says. Gunnarson says the market appears to be going in waves and when the crest of old pilots starts to flatten, he believes flight schools will start buying the aircraft in significant numbers. The training provisions of the Sport Pilot category make SLSAs the logical choice for allab initio training, Gunnarson says.
Since training time accumulated on SLSAs counts toward obtaining a Private certificate, schools can use the little airplanes for all their beginning students and since SLSAs tend to be about a third of the price of a Cessna 172, training costs should, theoretically, come down. That, in turn, should help attract more students and stem the training downturn that has industry officials scared for the future of GA.
Perhaps the toughest market for SLSAs will be with those entering the market.
Flying around on nice days is fun, but, as was proven with the recreational certificate, new pilots want the freedom and flexibility that comes with a private ticket, even if they rarely use it. Its too early to tell what the used market for SLSAs will look like, but for the price of most of the new ones, you can get yourself a nice used Mooney, Cessna 182 or Archer. Until theres a used LSA market, its hard to imagine many young, medically fit pilots opting for an around-the-patch certificate and airplane when practically the same money will let them fly at night, IFR and on the airways with the appropriate training and ratings.
The airplanes themselves (and were only talking about fixed wing, not gyros, weight shift and parachutes) have shaken out into four categories. The top 10 manufacturers (of 50, so far) command 80 percent of the market.
The market is dominated by technologically advanced composite or composite/aluminum aircraft that feature surprising performance and enough payload for a weekend trip to the beach. Top seller so far is the Flight Design CT, a high-wing composite whose cartoonishly bulbous fuselage accommodates a cabin thats 10 inches wider than a Cessna 172s and which is available with a factory glass panel. Almost 200 have been registered, about 20 percent of all SLSAs in the U.S. Tom Peghiny, who imports them from Germany, was a leading ground-floor advocate of LSA and the CT was the first to receive certification. The CT, like many of the European imports, sells for $90,000 and up, depending on options. Fully decked, think $120,000.
Complicating any trend analysis is the fact that the second best seller is practically the polar opposite of the CT and a perfect example of another grouping of aircraft. About 12 percent of the market belongs to American Legends J-3 Cub replica. To the untrained eye, the Legend is a Cub, although its filled with examples of modern materials and construction methods. It looks and flies like a Cub, which is to say that the plastic imports blow the doors off it, particularly in climb rate, but its familiar to a lot of owners who may have learned to fly in a Cub. Its also one of the few certified SLSAs available with a conventional Continental O-200 engine. Theres no shortage of electronics available (even traffic avoidance for when it gets busy at the grass strip) and the company recently announced the availability of a BRS whole-plane parachute option.
Arch rival CubCrafters also sells a J-3 knockoff, but its at seventh place in the rankings with 4.6 percent of sales. Still, that means that Cub replicas make up almost 17 percent of the market. The Cubs cost as much as the European high-tech aircraft and are three times the price of a restored original. Base is $85,000, but throw in a Garmin stack, leather seats and one of those cool Army paint jobs and youre at $120,000, $140,000 if you want it on floats. (SeeAviation Consumer June 2007 for a comparison of the Legend and Cubcrafter models.)
Some (but not many) newly-manufactured SLSAs are tube-and-fabric upgrades of what we used to call ultralights. One example is Mountain Aircrafts American Flyer. Its not in production yet but an example was on display at this years Sun n Fun. The show is raffling off the airplane in its first sweepstakes. Mountain Aircraft owner Dan Rozsa said the simple construction keeps the weight down to about 600 pounds, gives it almost instant takeoff capability and allows a payload of 720 pounds, one of the highest available among fixed-wing SLSAs. It also keeps the price down to a base of about $60,000. “I think its what the market wants,” he says. “Thats why we are determined to keep the price around $60,000.” The simpler construction seems to allow for greater flexibility in design. For instance, the wings can be folded without disconnecting the controls and the landing gear is convertible from trike to taildragger.
And theres nothing new about the last category of fixed-wing LSAs. Some standard category certified aircraft, because they meet the performance and weight limitations of LSAs, can be flown with a Sport Pilot certificate. Certain models of J-3s, Aeroncas, Taylorcraft, Luscombes and Ercoupes fit the category, along with a handful of lesser known and presumably hard-to-find types. This is the least expensive way to exercise your Sport Pilot privileges (fixed wing) but it might not stay that way.
Although our recent research didnt show any noticeable increase in prices for these aircraft, at least one fellow we ran into at Sun n Fun, whos looking for the right model of Ercoupe, says he believes prices for the Sport Pilot-flyable versions are much higher than they were a couple of years ago. Gerald Brantley says his research turned up three-year-old listings for Ercoupes as low as $14,000 and SLSA-ready models are now double that. We found a few listings for the 415C and 415CD models that qualify and, sure enough, theyre in the $30,000 range.
How will the aircraft hold up? Are there reliability or safety issues? Although the FAA is lurking in the shadows as the aircraft category gathers steam, what is supposed to make this a less expensive and less onerous flying experience is the lack of direct involvement by the FAA in the manufacture of SLSAs. Remember, the FAA doesnt directly oversee the design and construction of SLSAs. Manufacturers essentially self-certify to a set of standards that was established by industry consensus with the help of ASTM International, a standards-setting organization. So, whats to stop an unscrupulous aircraft manufacturer from ignoring the rules and turning out potential death traps?
Gunnarson says a voluntary audit system administered by LAMA has already reviewed four companies and a fifth is pending. The first four made the grade and LAMA insists its a thorough, comprehensive audit aimed at ensuring safety and consumer confidence. The four companies that have passed so far are IndUS Aviation, Jihlavan Airplanes/Kappa Aircraft, Flight Design and Aeropro.
So, has the LSA market matured enough to make buying one now a good bet? In our view, its a cautious maybe or a weak yes. We still see LSA purchases as very much in the high risk category. We are still in the pre-shakeout phase of the industry and if you buy an LSA you like independent of knowing anything about the companys financials or long-term support plans, you could get burned.
Thats not to say buying from a market leader like CT or a long-established company such as CubCrafters isnt advisable, but before signing the check, ask blunt questions about the companys funding, how many service centers it has and where these will be. If the company doesnt answer the phone before the sale, what makes you think theyll be any more responsive after the sale? Well have more market reporting in future issues, as well as individual reports on specific aircraft. In the meantime, wed be delighted to hear from any LSA owners.
Russ Niles is a contributing editor toAviation Consumers sister news service, (http://www.avweb.com/). He owns a Cessna 140.