Mike Zidziunas rounds up the gear in his Breezer II S-LSA after landing at Grand Bahama International Airport on the final day of Sebring 2013. In the background is Jacob Peed, Director of Aviators Hotline. Peed and Mike Z each flew over in Breezers.
A leading aviation magazine recently ran a story that proclaimed the LSA industry as a "segment in critical condition." Don't hand Mike Z (for Zidziunas) any of that malarkey! Zidziunas is a man with a clear and ardent vision: Light-sport flying shouldn't be thought of as just another way to feed the airline and commercial pilot production mill. It has tons more going for it than that.
His experience-honed perspective on LSA flying is well informed. As owner and head honcho of Breezer Aircraft USA, newly moved from Plant City, Fla., to nearby Lakeland where Sun 'n Fun takes place, he knows just how vibrant an LSA business can be. He got one of the very first sport-pilot CFI tickets in 2005, and since then has parlayed his deep commitment to recreational flying into a shining example of how to make LSA flight work.
To date, Zidziunas has personally logged more than 3,000 hours in LSA and taught more than 40 people to fly. Even more impressive about his flight school is his student attrition rate: a puny 4%. That's not a misprint, though you'd be excused for thinking so—the dropout rate for general aviation flight schools is often 70% and higher!
"And of my students who got their first pilot's license after 50," he says, "a third have gone on to get the private. I also have 14 high-school students and six guys over 60 who are learning to fly. Out of all that, we have a 96% completion rate for the sport-pilot license. Everyone has joined EAA and AOPA. Collectively over just the past two years, they have flown more than 500 Young Eagle flights. Two of my young students alone have flown 20 Young Eagle missions."
So, when he hears those naysayers proclaim LSA is on life support because it hasn't brought the industry a flood of cheap airplanes and hordes of new pilots, he counters with this: "LSA isn't dead. Sure, it's flat in terms of total aircraft sales in this economy, but it's certainly less flat than GA in terms of new piston sales. LSA is outselling everything.
"And unlike the Part 41 schools who depend on foreign students to survive, my students and graduates are staying here in the U.S. and helping the industry grow," Zidziunas continues.
"I liken light sport to what civilian flying was like in the 1950s and '60s: stick-and-rudder flying," he explains. "That's what was taught in those days. Nobody takes a Champ or a J3 Cub up in bad weather. Back then, they flew for the simple pleasure of flying."
Zidziunas' point is that the airline pilot "factories" served a useful, even essential, purpose. They still do. But somewhere along the way, the heart of civilian flying was lost. Schools became impersonal ratings-acquisition outlets and lost the sense of how to bring the joy of simple flight to the public.
"Flight schools, by and large, are caught in the trap of cranking out ratings for those foreign students who come over, get their licenses in three weeks, then return to their native countries—China or Indonesia or wherever—and have flying careers there," he explains. "That's not helping U.S. aviation over the long haul."
Zidziunas notes that none of the young students going through his school want to be airline captains. "I'm not knocking commercial piloting at all," he's quick to add. "It's just not a glamour job anymore. Discount carriers have killed the glamorous professional-lifestyle appeal it once had." Instead, he says, military and private airspace flying is what drives this generation of student pilots.
"Look at the private space ventures like Virgin Galactic, SpaceShipOne, SpaceX and others," he says. "We've got the Central Florida Aerospace Academy right here at Lakeland, with curriculums for all kinds of stuff that wasn't even thought of as a career a few years back. Electric flight, for example, is a huge undiscovered country for aviation.
"Since we moved to Lakeland Airport, I'm working harder than ever: 12 hours a day with half a day on Sunday," Zidziunas continues. "I've never had so much fun in my life because we're making flying enjoyable again."
One of the challenges to young people is today's post-9/11 environment. He adds, "Airport security is frankly inhibiting. Smaller airports are struggling. So, we say, let's go the extra mile and make flying fun again. I believe the current model of GA training is wrong. We do it like the early days. We take kids for rides. We show people it's not hard to fly. We show them how much fun it can be.
"The Holy Grail at my school is the formation flying team I put together," Zidziunas remarks. "We opened the Sebring Expo this year: It's the youngest formation team in the country, and all the kids are eager to do it." He points out that older students get the fun treatment, too. "We do just a couple landings, then fly to a nearby airport, have a Coke, just take a little more time at it. It's not a waste of time though. They're getting comfortable in the airplane, they're learning to navigate. We just slow everything down a bit."
A key component to that approach is charging sufficiently for his CFIs—$45 per hour—to encourage them to fly out to those $100 hamburgers.
"I charge like a professional, which means I don't mind spending that extra time but not charging for it. We also come up with fun flights on weekends."
Zidziunas also agrees with me that co-ownership of LSA and other civilian aircraft is the saving-grace model for the future. Case in point: My friend Dan Johnson recently joined a four-person partnership in a Flight Design CTLSi at his Spruce Creek Air Park home. He has virtually all the enjoyment of owning his own airplane...at a quarter of the flying costs of sole ownership.
Mike Z is living and breathing his very own LSA business success story every day. He knows better than the doomsayers stuck in old paradigms that it's premature to sign LSA's death certificate.
"Sure, it's not like it was back in the glory days of GA. You can't wait for people to walk into your school any more: You have to take your program to them," he reasons. "The key is to show people they can do it. That flying isn't for 'special' people. That's the beauty of LSA: They're simple and fun to fly. We don't have to put them in airplanes that are hard to see out of and loaded with a bunch of intimidating instruments.
"We put together fun flyouts," Zidziunas concludes. "We go to the Bahamas five times a year. We encourage people to look outside the cockpit. We show them that flying's not so hard at all. And once they see that...you got 'em!"