Recently, I fired up the Skype to glean some insight into LSA flight training in America. Mike Zidziunas got the first call. In 2005, he approached an FBO and offered to come aboard as their LSA go-to guy. With his Rotax repair certificate and CFI ticket, he was a natural.
Problem was, to these folks, LSA were “aeroplana non grata.” They had been burned by the recreational license program and feared bad juju from the sport pilot movement.
So Zidziunas did what visionary types do best: He started his own LSA flight school—Mike Z Sport Aviation (www.mikezsportaviation.com). His Plant City, Fla., operation is five air minutes from Lakeland Linder Regional Airport—HQ for the EAA’s annual Sun ’n Fun Fly-In.
Four years later, that balky GA flight school is doing the “I could’ve had a V8!” forehead bop, because Zidziunas has a going concern on his hands.
“In the beginning, I had nine students training at a time, and people wait-listed. I’m now a Rotax Repair Center, so that got to be too much, and I’m hiring another CFI.”
Student washout has been light: two or three total. Twelve have completed training and passed their sport pilot checkrides. Meanwhile, his trusty German-built Ikarus C42 trainer has racked up 450 hours: “The one before had 250 hours on it.”
Because this is Florida, most students are middle-aged and up. As Zidziunas explains, “Being able to get around the difficulties of the flight medical is my strongest selling point. And LSA are cheaper to operate, but also expensive to buy. That keeps the younger pilots from coming out. They can buy Cessnas for $25,000, and flight training is still cheaper in a C-152.
“What I can offer is a brand-new, exciting plane with more room, more comfort and more useful load. You can’t put a couple of 200-pounders in a 152. But in my Ikarus, at my 180-pound weight, I can fill the tank, carry a 260-pound student, and still be under maximum takeoff weight.”
Has LSA training translated into LSA sales? “Not really,” says Zidziunas. “Prices are too high, and the economy has hurt light sport a lot. You can’t get loans. But GA pilots are blown away. LSA are cheaper, sportier—they just whip up on GA airplanes. But that retired businessman who might love to buy an LSA can’t sell his Bonanza. Until they get out from under, LSA sales to GA pilots will struggle.”
Premier Flight Center (www.premierflightct.com) is a traditional FBO at Brainard Airport in Hartford, Conn. Gary Ciriello and wife Deb are the friendly folks who run the 19-year-old operation. Recently, Premier put a leaseback Flight Design CTLS on the flight line to join its fleet of six GA aircraft.
“In New England, 90% of our flight training calls are for traditional GA instruction,” says Ciriello. “Of the calls for light sports, maybe one out of six are interested in getting their sport pilot certificate. The rest are mostly middle-aged and anticipating or already living with some kind of medical problem. To avoid being grounded, LSA is the answer.
“Most people I talk to don’t think of LSA for training. I think it’s a lack of general knowledge. ‘Cessna’ is still what people think of for lessons.”
Another factor is the hourly cost of training, which at Premier is comparable to what it charges for its Cessna 172. The CTLS goes out at $113 per hour wet, and instructors get $70 hourly.
“We charge more for our CFIs because, with the complex avionics suite, we consider it a technically advanced airplane. Plus it’s brand new. I think we have a way to go yet in all of GA,” says Ciriello. “Eighty percent of the public is still afraid of flying. So I find we’re educating much of the time.
“High-school guidance counselors don’t know anything about this ‘secret world’ of pilots. How can they guide students toward aviation? At display booths, I’ve had parents hustle their children right on by, saying, ‘Oh, you don’t want to do that!’”
Part of the challenge is geographical. “The Northeast is a horse of a different color,” Ciriello says. “Things take a while to catch on up here. Pilots tell me, ‘Hey, I’m an old metal guy!’ I think that’s why Cessna chose metal for the Skycatcher—to appeal to the more conservative pilot ranks. I still hear pilots say, ‘Rotax? Don’t they use those on snowmobiles?’”
Still, Ciriello’s LSA business is brisk enough that he hopes to add another LSA or two soon. In just two months, Premier is already putting 25 hours per month on the CT. “That’s very good,” says Ciriello. “We’re attracting people for transitions as well as for sport pilot training.
“I’m seeing a steady increase in activity, also good. Conservative New Englanders don’t jump on fads. Slow, steady growth is what we’re looking for here.”
Just a couple hours south of Hartford, Mid Island Air Service (www.midislandair.com) operates a thriving LSA operation as part of its 63-year GA presence on New York’s Long Island.
The school has strong sport pilot student support from all age groups, due in no small part to its proximity to Gotham. Five LSA make up its fleet, with a Remos GX coming soon.
“We started nearly three years ago,” says Mid Island’s president, Lou Mancuso Jr., father of air show ace Mike Mancuso. “We now have a Tecnam Sierra, two Tecnam Eaglets, an Evektor SportStar and a Sport Cruiser.”
Any problems training on LSA? “Nothing significant. They all have their quirks. We don’t expect them to last 10,000 hours like a Cessna...but 5,000 looks doable.”
Mancuso’s take on LSA training is positive: “We draw people we might not otherwise get: EAA folks with medical issues, but also those who’ve never flown because of expense.”
Overall, Mid Island has racked up around 1,500 hours on its LSA fleet, mostly in the last 18 months—that’s a very impressive performance.
“We get stronger with LSA every month. It’s not quite ready to replace the Cessna 152 yet; the Rotax engine needs to prove itself to me a bit more.” Even so, Mancuso envisions that Mid Island’s basic flight training could be all LSA “in about two years.”
Mid Island CFI Mike Bellenir chimes in: “We’ve noticed some slowing with the economy, but not as much as with traditional flying. Our rates are around $110 wet. Instructors get $50 per hour.”
In the beginning, he says, students and CFIs alike needed to adjust to LSA: “Lots of them had sloppy technique from flying heavier airplanes. They’d taxi too fast, hit the brakes hard, not keep the weight off the nosegear. And experienced pilots who’d had few concerns before about moderate crosswinds got themselves in trouble more frequently. LSA are much lighter.”
What about maintenance issues? “They don’t appear to wear out significantly faster,” says Bellenir. “Mostly it’s the weird foreign standards, metric sizes, the little things in construction that catch us off guard sometimes. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about how to get LSA parts now.”
Even with five airplanes operating, the school is busy enough that at least one LSA is usually due for an oil change at any given point. That’s what I call a going concern.
It’s happening, inch by LSA inch, mile by LSA mile. Fly safe!