Partway through the year, as the economy continues to show signs of recovery, I wanted to look down the road and ask someone who keeps a keen eye on the LSA industry if there were significant trends to track for the rest of 2010. My crystal-ball gazer of choice was Jim Sweeney, a rated pilot since the early ’60s, when he got all the ratings so he could fly for the airlines. He eventually won a report date from United Airlines...then got another report date that took precedence: a draft notice with subsequent shipment straight to Vietnam. Trained as an air traffic controller in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Sweeney helped keep guns, ammo, water, diesel fuel—whatever was needed—moving to frontline firebases.
After his tour, all the airlines were laying off pilots. He went back to school for a degree in industrial management, and eventually went to work for AMD, the computer CPU chip maker. That was the end of his flying for the next 25 years.
When the bug bit again in 1995, he amassed expertise in ultralight ground and flight instruction. Today, his favorite ride is a powered parachute. “It’s all open-cockpit, low-and-slow flying, ” he says, “about as close as you can get to sprouting wings.”
Sweeney dove into the regulatory and developmental side of recreational flying as a board member of the U.S. Ultralight Association and FAAST (FAA Safety Team), and a member of several ASTM committees since the beginning of the light-sport movement.
When the sport pilot rule officially came online in 2004, ultralights, pilots and UL instructors were brought on board during three major transition periods. Jim Sweeney was a major player, traveling to cities to teach ground school courses so pilots could get “legit.”
All along, he has kept an eagle eye on the sport flying industry and the FAA’s regulation of it. “And I see three major areas showing up this year,” he prophecies. “Increased LSA flight training, some manufacturer shakeout and further encroachment on our flying freedoms due to fears of terrorism.”
More Planes, More Schools
Over the last five years, Sweeney saw how sluggish most FBOs were to adopt LSA flight training. “But the outlook is now very strong,” he asserts. FBOs, previously reluctant to get burned by poor public support (remember the recreational license?), now see the handwriting on the hangar wall: The public is waking up to LSA and wants to get involved.
A recent shopping-mall exhibition in Denton, Texas, by U.S. Aviation Group makes the point: A Remos GX was on display for a month during the holidays, with knowledgeable staff present to answer questions. The result: 170 discovery flights sold, 130 solid leads on LSA partnership sales and several potential solo buyers! Call it the Flying Field of Dreams: If you mall it, they will come. Hey, there’s Kevin Costner, buzzing a herd of folks flocking to local LSA flight schools! Sorry…back to my guest pundit.
Sweeney also expects that the cost of owning an LSA (using disposable income) puts it into direct competition with other “powersports” vehicles, such as boats, Jet Skis, motorcycles and snowmobiles. “It’s something aviation always battles,” he says.
“Another expected boon to LSA flight training: Cessna’s King Schools–developed Skycatcher student pilot program, offered at Cessna Flight Centers. Instead of your only choices being the 100-year-old C-152 down the road, or an LSA 250 miles away, you’ll likely find local training.
“Advanced flight instruction also will grow. LSA are legal for private pilot training, too, if equipped for things like night flying and under-the-hood work. Students can take preliminary training for the private with less expense, then transfer to a GA plane, finish up and take their checkride.”
Sweeney envisions rental rates settling at around $90 to $100 per hour wet, since the high initial cost of LSA, whether school-owned or acquired through leaseback, has to be factored in.
The Dreaded Shakeout
Folks have predicted a big shakeout in LSA manufacturers from the beginning. Currently, 104 LSA are ASTM-certified. Market dynamics and the still-withering financial climate should force some companies to close shop. Still, it bears repeating the scenario first expressed by another industry eagle eye, LAMA President Dan Johnson. He believes many small companies will survive due to economies of sophisticated, relatively inexpensive design and manufacturing capabilities. These days, not everybody has to become Boeing to flourish. Take Rans Aircraft: It was started by two bike-building brothers in Hays, Kans., in the mid-’80s. More than 4,500 aircraft (and tons of bikes) later, Rans is going strong...and it all started in a garage.
It All Flows Downhill
Last but not least, Sweeney keeps a keen—and alarmed—eye on the increasingly stifling regulation of private aviation since 9/11. “Anything of a regulatory nature that happens first to the big guys—restricting access to airports, making more airspace off limits through TFRs, MOAs for UAV operations and more—will flow down in some way, shape or form to us ‘little guys,’” he says. “People should look closely at TSA [Transportation Security Administration] actions and remember this: We all need airports to fly from. And government agencies generally don’t distinguish between LSA and high-performance aircraft. It’s a one-size-fits-all mentality. A SportStar or CTLS looks like an airplane. You’ll be lumped in with all other aircraft by whatever restrictions come down the pike.”
He’s talking about small flight schools being forced to watch for terrorism suspects among students, check birth certificates, make background checks and wrangle onerous, voluminous paperwork. For small operations, as Sweeney sees it, “it’s a disproportionately greater burden.” Similar paper-chase demands for repair stations, to preclude some sort of sabotage, are making their way to every airport. “It all drives hard against the less expensive end of aviation,” says Sweeney, “where businesses simply can’t afford the increase in overhead.”
Then there’s the “through-the-fence” tightening of airport access—even to people who live in airport communities: “Pilots think only the big airplanes and operations get hassled. But in the end, airspace only disappears and restrictions only increase. Costs could go up too— dramatically. We may soon have to pay for radio calls to ATC or for every single landing and takeoff.” Imagine the cost impact on LSA flight training!
Sweeney urges pilots to “wake up and get involved” with organizations diligently defending our flight privileges, specifically AOPA, EAA and such groups as Through The Fence (www.throughthefence.org).
“No doubt, we’ll all be affected. The TSA continues to get more involved at the recreational level. If we stay aware of what’s happening, we protect our rights and privileges. It’s not a case of Chicken Little, but of reading specific trends: fenced airports, locks on gates, fingerprints, special badges and more. I thought the TSA would stop at a certain level. But it looks like it’s drilling down to us. And once it takes away the airspace...it never gives it back.”