Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Light-Sport Chronicles: Profiles In Vision: Dan Johnson

An LSA leader divines the past, present and future of LSA

My friend Dan Johnson, head of LAMA U.S. (Light Aircraft Manufacturer's Association), the man behind the Oshkosh/Sun 'n Fun LSA Mall (the Mall celebrates its fifth year in 2012), purveyor of, a light-aircraft site that I also contribute to, is the guy I go to first to take the pulse of the light-sport industry.

A chat with Dan is like having an encyclopedia plugged into your ear, so "hear" we go. "In our heyday right after LSA became official in 2004," says Dan, "we had nearly 600 aircraft sales in one year, and that was before Cessna got involved. Then the economy tanked, continues to do so, and I still see that as the main challenge, and for all of aviation. Uncertainty is still a watchword. Until that improves, I don't see some companies moving ahead."

Dan characterizes the Big Picture this way: The market has spoken. LSA are here to stay. Eighty-plus airframe manufacturers here and abroad have produced 124 ASTM-certified models, with more in the pipeline. Those numbers alone epitomize the staggering proliferation and diversity of LSA.

"That number has no equal in aviation history worldwide," says Dan. "It's a remarkable fact: All those airplanes or new versions of existing models were developed in such a short amount of time—about seven years! There's never been anything like that."

He recounts FAA's recent 20-year general aviation industry forecast that sees only two growth areas: business jets and light-sport aircraft.

"Whether you accept or not that this is the new entry point for aviation, it's not going away. LSA are the lowest cost, require the easiest license to get, are the cheapest to operate, and those things won't change," Dan adds.

Now factor in the recent EAA/AOPA initiative to remove the third class medical requirement for light, single-engine general aviation aircraft. "It's going to force the industry to find its other strengths," Dan believes. "But I think we've already matured a lot as an industry. Of the 80-some producers, around half aren't doing much business. They're not out of business necessarily, plus a lot of them, like the new owners of the Sky Arrow design (Italy's Magnaghi Group), have a thriving aerospace business already. So it's no big deal making a few LSA alongside that. So we can have companies that make 20-30 units a year and can survive.

"Look at Maule Air, a family-owned business of FAA-certified models since 1956," Dan points out. "They sell 40-50 planes in a great year, less than a dozen in a slow year, and they're still at it! So of course it can be done with LSA. And the category has lesser requirements for certification. The market has also spoken by selecting the winners so far. It's not FAA, nor trial lawyers, insurance or financing that's making it tough. The market has said, 'We like that one and this one and those few others.' There's not enough perceived difference among the rest to make them more compelling, or they don't have big marketing budgets to attract attention even if they do build a better mousetrap."

Dan has said consistently that he expects the middle range of LSA producers to take the brunt of the long-anticipated shakeout of producers.


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