Plane & Pilot
Monday, September 1, 2008

The New Look Of GA

How new aircraft buyers are changing the face of general aviation

new lookJust over a decade ago, buying a brand-new aircraft wasn’t an option. While you might have been able to special-order something esoteric, most legacy manufacturers had altogether stopped building new airplanes. When you could buy something brand-new, it looked just like the airplanes already sitting on the ramp, albeit a bit shinier and with that “new plane” smell. The technology, both in the cockpit and within the engine, was pretty much the same from one aircraft to another and hadn’t really progressed much in more than 40 years. The designs of the aircraft themselves had stayed pretty much the same since the 1950s.
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Automotive successes also uncovered the realization that consumers love vintage design, and they’ll readily buy it when paired with modern reliability. While purists disagree, these classic redesigns allow someone to own a piece of the past without all the headaches of a vintage antique.

This has given rise to “lifestyle” brands in aircraft. Take, for example, CubCrafters, Aviat, Taylorcraft, American Champion and others. Their success proves that buying into a perceived lifestyle is something today’s consumers want and are willing to pay for.

“Our buyers are typically successful business people,” says Stu Horn, president of Aviat, which produces the Husky, Pitts and Eagle. “And they’re buying a lifestyle that allows them to ignite, maintain and enjoy their passion for true flying.” Aviat’s demographic parallels that of other manufacturers. Though they still sell to experienced pilots, their brand is attracting a younger audience who considers the Husky an SUV for the skies. “Our buyers want to get back to the grassroots of their flying passion,” says Horn.

The realization that most new airplane buyers are zero- or low-time students, and that they came to aviation in a nontraditional way, has aviation purists in a stink. Marketing to this new breed of buyer has become a controversial issue, but it appears necessary for GA to grow.

“We in GA do a bad job of promoting aviation to the nonflying public,” explains Cirrus’ Schwartz. “We have to go outside the pie. Fighting over the same customers won’t help GA.”

Today’s buyers are setting the stage for what GA will look like in the years to come. Even in the slowed economy, it appears that the face of our beloved GA is changing rapidly. Interest in these new airplanes is unsurpassed and, as Schwartz reports, “I’m as busy as I’ve ever been!”

A Buyer’s Tale

Today’s buyer is different. Modern technology and ease of flying persuaded this student pilot to buy new.

Sean Thompson may just be the model of the new airplane buyer for the 21st century. A student pilot who just soloed, and has been flying for only a few months, Thompson just became the proud owner of a brand-new Liberty XL2 aircraft.

“Well, I was flying Cessnas, so the landings in the XL2 were a little weird at first, but I got it pretty quickly, and it’s so easy to fly!” says Thompson with the enthusiasm of every new airplane buyer since Wilbur and Orville. Thompson is a dentist with a busy practice in Southern California. He’s in his 30s, wasn’t born into aviation and didn’t dream of becoming a pilot. Flying is a way to make his business more efficient. “As a dentist, I go to a lot of seminars in places like Las Vegas,” explains Thompson. “It makes more sense for me to use my own airplane.”

About two months into his flight training, Thompson decided he wanted an airplane. “I wanted modern technology, but something that was easy to fly,” he tells us. “The aircraft also needed to be IFR-capable.” He contacted Liberty and fell in love with the XL2. He was sold on several features, including the carbon-fiber fuselage, FADEC and ergonomic cockpit. Though he was originally looking for an aircraft with a parachute recovery system like the Cirrus, the Liberty won out.

“Unfortunately, this doesn’t have one,” says Thompson, “but if it did, it would be the perfect aircraft.” Thompson reports that his wife “loves the 100-pound baggage capacity and the huge luggage area.”

Jack Younger, director of sales for First Flight Aviation (, a Liberty dealer, delivered Thompson’s IFR-equipped XL2 to his home airport. Thompson says he enjoys the challenge of aviation and plans to utilize his new Liberty XL2 to its maximum potential. “I’m really happy with it!” he gleams.


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