Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Light-Sport Chronicles: Staying The Course

Too many songbirds, not enough bird seed–what to do?

Survival always will reduce to homilies such as, “The cream always rises.” Good products become popular through word of mouth. And big names will garner at least strong initial attention by virtue of long-standing reputations, or if they’re willing and able to pay for it. It isn’t hopeless for smaller companies. There are many ways to “go viral.”

Take the three American air shows that draw large crowds and market attention every year—Sebring (LSA only) in winter, Sun ’n Fun in spring and Oshkosh, the Big Daddy, every summer. And don’t forget local airfield weekend events where you can discover your dream ship.

Air shows are no picnic for the marginally funded. The logistics of transporting planes and people and getting everybody housed and fed isn’t an enterprise for the faint of wallet. Likewise, renting an air show display area can run to thousands of dollars for a location close to the action, rather than one out with the alligators where buyers need a GPS to find you.

Even with big budgets, there are no guarantees. One LSA company dropped nearly $100,000 on a big display recently, but didn’t have a single at-show sale for their troubles, although companies typically convert good leads into sales a month or two after shows.

One low-budget equalizer is Dan Johnson’s LSA Mall, sponsored by LAMA and Aviators Hot Line. Many airplanes are displayed in one common area (at Oshkosh and Sun ’n Fun) where enthusiasts quickly can compare models without wearing out a lot of in-shoe gel pads. Companies also make demo flights to promising prospects. Given the relatively low operating costs of LSA, that’s another economical way to get the word out. Small companies will always find their noses up against the “gotta have money to make money” wall until they grow weary of the chase or break through.

All this cruised around the back of my mind as I wrote “Best LSA!”—the 2010 LSA buyer’s guide for the August issue of P&P. The purpose of guides is to help you find who’s driving the industry, who we suspect is likely to do so and who we think is worthy of a closer look on innovation or quality alone. For the article, I narrowed the field to 35 top sellers and up-and-comers. Even then, there were many airplanes I wish I could have included.

Against the list of all 107 ASTM-certified LSA, those 35 represent just 33%, which leaves us with a goodly number of companies worthy of attention. What to do? How to get at least some coverage to those riding in the peloton?

And why should you, the reader, care? After all, the “underdogs”—the roughly 87 models not in the top-20 sellers—represent a mere 13.5% of all sales. And there usually are good reasons airplanes don’t catch on: lack of sex appeal, insufficient dealers for service and support, cost.

But what the heck: This is America. And I say everybody deserves their moment in the sun. Call me a Pollyanna, but history is full of garage innovators working in obscurity who broke out, such as Wilbur and Orville, and Jobs and Wozniak (Apple). So I’ve decided to spend more time in my column and blog to make sure I bring the bench players to your attention.

All those hardworking dreamers out there, those folks who “just love airplanes,” like the investor who started me down this path of contemplation, deserve a chance to share with you their aviation dream. And you deserve the chance to at least know they exist.


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