The market for new general aviation airplanes seems to be changing. Today’s new airplane buyer has different needs, goals and experience. To pinpoint this psychographic, Marc C. Lee spoke with sales representatives from various aircraft manufacturers, and it’s clear that there has been a shift in who’s buying what, and why. Unlike many of us, today’s buyers haven’t necessarily dreamed of flying since they were born. For them, general aviation represents a convenient and effective way to travel, typically for business, and away from the hassle of airliners. Cessna reports fewer sales from former Cessna owners who want to upgrade; instead most are low-time pilots who jump into aviation with a 182 or 400. The conventional path of stepping up from a 150 to a 172 to a 182 is becoming less common. Cirrus Regional Sales Director Steve Schwartz reports that up to 30% of his sales are going to student pilots, many of whom are drawn to the Cirrus Access program that provides new buyers with their own personal pilot.
More and more often, the motivating factor for these buyers is technology, which represents a new level of safety and ease of flying. Today’s young, sophisticated buyers expect their airplanes to parallel their cars in terms of modern safety features, innovative design and comfort. For example, ICON Aircraft’s new amphibious LSA, the ICON A5, shares the same interior designers with Ferrari and Lotus.
And like a Range Rover, Found Aircraft’s new Expedition E350 is rugged and versatile. We visited the company’s 10,000-square-foot headquarters in Parry Sound, Ontario, where Jim Wynbrandt flew the tricycle-gear 4+1-seater around the northern wilderness, operating on a turf strip to test its backcountry abilities. Jim had as great a time looking down at the picturesque rocky shoreline as he did on the ground, where he chatted about flying with factory pilots Ted Dirstein, who also flies a Challenger 604, and Ric Willems, a former crop duster. Each aircraft on the assembly line at Found is handmade; no more than 30 are produced each year.
By contrast, Robinson Helicopter manufactures 20 of its best-selling helicopters each week. We visited the factory in Torrance, Calif., where Senior Editor Bill Cox flew the latest R44 Raven II. It had been awhile since Bill’s last vertical flight, so he had to take extra care not to over-control Frank Robinson’s personal rotorcraft. Not so for Jonathan Strickland, who soloed an R44 at age 16, as part of Robin Petgrave’s youth program at Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum in Compton, Calif. Two years ago, I joined Jonathan on a record-breaking trip from Vancouver to Los Angeles in an R44. He flew like an old-timer, orbiting Seattle’s Space Needle, cruising alongside the Golden Gate Bridge and positioning for a photo op next to the Hollywood sign. “It takes some getting used to,” says Jonathan, who’s working toward his license, “but I fly with two fingers.”
On another kind of low-and-slow cross-country flight, LSA Editor at Large Jim Lawrence journeyed from Texas to Florida in a Legend Cub, alongside five other Cubs.
His trip demonstrated the viability of LSA on long cross-country flights—a blast, unless you’re in a hurry, as Jim points out. He shares with us some invaluable taildragger tips he picked up along the way; most importantly, “flying” the airplane from the moment you step into the cockpit to the moment you exit. In other words, ground operations are as critical as those in the air. Taildragger or not, the same is true when landing in a crosswind—it’s what happens just after touchdown that’s most important. In “Crosswind Survival,” Rick Durden guides us through gusty landings, including a few not-so-obvious solutions like landing on taxiways.
General aviation may be shifting gears, but in the end we’ll see that it’s expanding its membership. Technology advances will bump pilot starts for those interested in the utilitarian aspects of flying, but we all know that once you’ve tasted the freedom of flight, real passion is quick to follow.