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%