A well-known proverb, reputed to be Chinese, says, “May you live in interesting times.” What’s less well known: The phrase was a curse against enemies.
Times are surely interesting. Fuel prices are headed toward Alpha Centauri. The value-inversion of the once-almighty dollar has had a drastic impact on European-made LSA. Feels like a curse, doesn’t it? And trying to foretell, in this climate, where light-sport aviation is headed, even in the short term, is like trying to dance on a waterbed, during an earthquake, while juggling light sabers. Fun maybe...but risky.
Nonetheless, let’s try to sharpen the Big Picture. With around 1,500 U.S. sales of ASTM-approved aircraft, LSA have made a significant impact on general aviation. But where goeth the industry? To help polish my light-sport crystal ball, I again called on LSA Guru on the Mountain Dan Johnson. Johnson has been a player in the sport aviation world longer than a good many of us have been in the world. Since the 1970s, he has written hundreds of aircraft evaluations, racked up 5,000 flight hours and attained a fistful of pilot ratings.
These days, he crisscrosses the country in his office/motor home to cover sport flying. As chairman of the board of directors for the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA), he’s uniquely qualified to play Merlin. (Do yourself a favor and drink from the Johnson fountain of knowledge at www.bydanjohnson.com.)
In our long talk, Johnson set the table with some LSA history here and abroad: In post-WWII Europe, a generation of Germans were prohibited from flying powered aircraft. They still wanted to fly, so they took their training in sailplanes instead. “Even today,” says Johnson, “if you get your pilot rating in Europe, you’ll probably spend stick time in a sailplane. There are six times more sailplane pilots in the EU than here, although we have four times more pilots!”
Then, in the 1980s, Europe created the microlight class of aircraft, a larger, faster cousin of the American ultralight. The impact of these developments decreed that European sport aviation would become the elephant on the other side of the seesaw from the GA chimp. American planes cost much more in Europe than they do here. Historically higher fuel costs—currently more than $9 per gallon for avgas over there—further tilted the balance toward sportier, affordable, fun flight.
In America, pretty much the opposite happened. We were flush with freedom’s victory. We had tons of eager young pilots fresh out of the service, starting new lives and new businesses. We had surplus warbirds and new GA airplanes and the GI Bill, which underwrote a big chunk of flight-training costs. And we had millions of miles of open spaces to fly over. So America adopted the “Wichita pitch”: Private airplanes are for doing America’s business, which is mostly...business.
“That’s how GA felt it could sell more airplanes,” says Johnson, “by promoting business flight and personal regional travel.” But when American GA’s long love affair with bigger/faster/higher augured straight into peak oil, the picture began to change. “Still, it’s almost exactly upside down over here historically,” says Johnson, citing the following numbers:
• U.S.: 235,000 single-engine airplanes registered Total “sport” aircraft: 35,000 (30,000 homebuilts; 1,500 LSA; a few thousand ultralights)
Ratio of sport aviation to SEL general aviation: 15%
• EU: 250,000 single-engine airplanes Total “sport” aircraft: 200,000
Ratio of sport aviation to SEL general aviation: 80%
Just a wee five years ago, thrifty-minded Americans saw LSA as the hot-ticket deliverance from ever-pricier private flying. The sporty, fast Flight Design CT, imported from Germany, cost around $60,000. Today, the current CTLS model is closer to $130,000. “$45,000 of that price increase,” Johnson says, “is due entirely to the exchange rate! Without it, the CTLS would sell today for about $85,000, given other market factors and equipment upgrades. That currency ‘bump’ doesn’t make Flight Design or their dealers one more penny in profit. But that’s a huge leap for the average American consumer to make.”
Yet LSA are selling. Market share is now almost one percent of the total GA SEL fleet. “Put it in perspective,” says Johnson. “Would you buy a $130,000 LSA cruising at 120 knots, or a $500,000 composite four-seater cruising at 220? Yes, the big bird carries more people, but a 500-mile trip is still a time difference of only a couple hours, and an LSA offers a significantly lower fuel burn. For those retired pilots trading in the Bonanza they once used for business, that’s significant.”
And for pilots on a tighter budget, there are aircraft like the CGS Hawk (1,700 sold in various editions over the years), which just won ASTM approval—and costs just under $40,000. Both ends of the pricing spectrum are populated with models, although higher-end LSA still get the lion’s share of sales. “But the light-sport industry is still mostly a bunch of small players working day and night just to get the bus going,” says Johnson. “They have to build the LSA infrastructure—local dealers and support facilities—already in place for GA.”
And yet, even with all aircraft sales down 30%, as I reported last month, most of the players can hang in there. “These are small businesses that can weather this economic ‘perfect storm’ on surprisingly little. They don’t have 15,000 employees like Cessna; they’ve got 15,” says Johnson.
The frequent talk of the LSA industry saving GA isn’t unlike the A-league pitcher fresh out of high school pitching a no hitter in the 7th game of the World Series. It’s daunting to envision, when the industry is just beginning to bring the LSA experience to a flying field near you.
“But,” says Johnson, “it might indeed fall to the LSA industry and sport pilot rule to reverse the decline in GA. Maybe that is our job.” Johnson suggests the glint in that young pitcher’s eye may grow brighter by April 2009, when, just five years after the first ASTM approval, it’s possible that 100 new models will have been approved (it’s at 84 now). “There’s nothing like that,” he says with a trace of awe, “in FAA history.”
Peering deeper into the crystal ball, he posits a reverse hoodoo if Europe stays on its current track of accommodating America’s ASTM rules: “Then, American producers like American Legend and Rans could sell overseas very competitively.” He cites the Rans S-7 as a “solid, proven airplane that sells here for $85,000. In Europe it would go for 53,000 euros. A euro buys roughly the same there as a dollar here. So just over 50,000 euros for a Rotax 912–powered S-LSA? That’s a great value!
“It could also go the other way,” he notes. “If the euro drops to $1.25 or so, all those European airplanes will be cheaper here again.” That would likely kick off another strong growth phase. And what if, in 10 years, LSA account for not one percent but 10% of the single-engine airplanes in the States? Or 20%? It’s not blue sky to imagine—and believe.
These are “Wild West” times for LSA. But if world markets stabilize, can whole light-sport flight-school fleets and Euro-style aero clubs similar to Aerotrekkers, with organized adventure flights, be far behind? “We’ve yet to see the full impact of LSA,” says Johnson. “Cessna is 80 years old. The LSA is four—we’re just getting started!”
So stay tuned, propheads...it’s going to be an “interesting” ride.