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

"Perhaps a dozen big players will continue at the top. A couple might be overtaken by an Icon [trendsetting amphibious S-LSA still in development]. But 10 to 12 significant players could sell more than 50 units a year. That's a decent game plan. Most could make it on that. Again, I cite Maule.

"So is LSA in a decline? No, not an accurate term. It's in a slump...along with all aviation," Dan continues. "Will it go over the cliff? Will we lose these things? Absolutely not. It's the new entry level, the exciting new kid on the block. Familiar names like Flight Design, Tecnam, SportCruiser, Legend Cub and Cub Crafters are in for the longer haul.

"Some up-and-comers like Pipistrel could easily move up. They've got interesting things happening," Dan explains. "And this is not an American, but global phenomenon. The Brazilian Super Petrel, a production amphibious biplane for 20 years, will debut soon here. These kinds of energies will continue.

"Brazil has fully accepted ASTM compliance standards," Dan says. "So have Colombia, Australia, South Africa, the European Union, China and India probably will, too. All have their own variations, but that means this is a global thing.

"Still, FAA's prediction, though optimistic, is for slow growth. I call it 'spreadsheet-based palm reading.' How do you take a seven-year history and forecast 20 years ahead? My goodness, so much is going to change in that time! So take it all with a grain of salt," Dan concludes.

Reflecting on successes like Legend, Cub Crafters, Flight Design, Cessna and Arion, why haven't their less robust counterparts succeeded, though they also make excellent aircraft? "It's like the car industry," Dan speculates. "Some models click and are around forever; some get ignored. Look at the Chevy Volt! Tecnam is a classic LSA case. Here's a whole stable of nice airplanes from a company that formed in 1951, but their aircraft haven't quite clicked yet. Maybe distribution changes they made along the way broke the public perception of continuity. People don't like too much change."

Dan cites the difficulty of financing as another "sluggish sales" factor, just as housing and other markets have suffered from tight money. "That really hurts flight schools, which need aircraft. And for some buyers, LSA aren't even on their radar yet. I bet if you walked around here at Sun 'n Fun and polled every existing pilot, they're all aware of LSA—five years ago that wasn't true—but most I bet would not yet have really looked at one, or they just aren't interested. They want more than two seats, they want to go faster than 120 knots, they want more useful load.

"But I believe the majority of people not buying aircraft fall into two main areas: those nervous about acting in uncertain economic times and those not yet convinced the LSA industry has proven itself," Dan adds.

Events like the FAA rattling sabers by threatening to audit manufacturers for ASTM compliance creates the false impression that LSA as a whole has a major problem. People go, "Hmmm, maybe these things aren't as good as I had thought."

At Sun 'n Fun, Dan announced an agreement between LAMA and Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University to provide ASTM audits to manufacturers for $15,000—a bargain compared to the conventional audits. That should help keep the regulatory wolf away from the door.

But, wait: There's more! Sorry folks, we'll have to continue our chat with Dan Johnson next month


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