Picking up with Dan Johnson from our talk last month at Sun 'n Fun, we continue our armchair prognostications and tea-leaf reading about the LSA industry. Dan's lead-off question: Why is the market still hesitant to buy an LSA, even when many can afford to pay the tariff?
"People know LSA haven't been around that long," he says. "They're still wondering if they should give it a try. It's a market acceptance situation, and the market is no more sophisticated than this: It's people making decisions to buy or not buy. If they're hesitant either for general economic reasons, or reasons specific to an industry not as proven as they'd like it to be, it still adds up to a 'not now' factor for them—maybe later, just not yet.
"Look, I like sports cars," Dan says. "But I haven't shopped for one for many, many years. It doesn't fit my needs today the way a bigger car does. That's a market issue."
We kick around the perception factor. How safe, people wonder, are LSA? The thought crosses my mind every time I climb aboard a freshly ASTM-approved aircraft. Sometimes it's made by a company whose name I can't pronounce, from a country whose name I can't spell, and the question pops up in the back of my mind: How safe is it?
If it has an airframe parachute on board, all the better. But I still want to know how long the company has been in business and their past safety record, among other considerations.
I'm happy to report that flying 35-plus LSA in four years, both foreign- and domestic-made, I've had no safety-related issues—not one. I, for one, am confident light sports are safe, whereas I've had a few "incidents" in FAA-approved and -maintained GA aircraft over the years.
"I take a little umbrage with FAA," Dan chimes in, "for implying there's a problem with LSA." He's talking about the FAA's suggestion that it will step in more assertively to audit LSA manufacturers if they don't get the job done themselves. Last month, we noted Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's agreement with LAMA (Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, which Dan Johnson heads) to conduct audits for the industry's manufacturers.
An audit takes a microscopic look at how well manufacturers comply with the ASTM standard in their production of aircraft. It includes broad scrutinies, such as degree of adherence to airworthiness and maintenance documentation, raw-materials compliance and even minutiae such as paperwork verifying on-time and accurate torque-wrench calibration.
"But where's the safety problem with LSA?" Dan protests. "How many are falling out of the sky and killing people? God forbid we have one more fatal accident, but we will. It's terrible, every single one of them, but the fact is, there haven't been that many. We don't have a big safety problem any more than general aviation does. Our success is plain for all to see, and all done with less government oversight.
Immersing ourselves in the new paradigm, rather than trying to force LSA to become a rewrite of the GA phenomenon (heavier empty weight, faster speeds, etc.), is one path toward acceptance. The freewheeling days of civilian flying as we knew it from the 1940s to the '70s are unlikely to return, at least in the form older pilots remember: cheap gas, insurance, hangar space and maintenance, and a less-complex airspace. Life is and must be, in the end, a celebration of constant adaptation to "what is."
Even used 200-knot single-engine airplanes cost $500,000 today. Ever-climbing price in non-essential goods is a formula that in time finds its vanishing point, no matter how many "yesterday's dollars" calculations you invoke. Struggle leads to innovation. People want what they want, and they want to fly. Ergo, hang gliders, ultralights and now LSA.
"I do still think of LSA as an extremely promising, exciting area of aviation," says Dan. "We media types are always looking for what's new at shows like this one (Sun 'n Fun). There's that fresh aura of excitement. We're trying new stuff like Icon and Terrafugia.
"I think LSA fall halfway between the radical innovation of experimental-built aircraft and the 'pretty good but dull' FAA-certified designs," Dan continues. "We've had some great ideas, a few crummy ideas, but with more cool stuff to come. We offer big cockpits, glass avionics, incredible safety systems, and we have a good safety record. We have reasonable performance, and then there's the fuel situation. If $5/gallon fuel and the specter of much, much higher fuel costs doesn't drive people to the LSA camp, it's hard to imagine what will. Then there's electric propulsion: very exciting, but market resistance to all-electric cars seems to show us it won't be quick, and it won't be easy."
We revisit the notion of the "cheap" LSA everyone believed would become reality 10 years ago, as the light-sport concept waited in the wings. My thoughts jump to three current ASTM-approved SLSA models: the Cheetah XLS, Rans S-6LS Coyote II and X-Air LS. They exemplify the lowest-cost "little airplane," not powered hang-glider, aircraft.
"Heck, look at Rans alone," says Dan. "They've been around almost 30 years and have 4,500 airplanes flying (kits and ready-built) with as good a safety record as any other brand. The S-6LS Coyote II carries an $83,000 flyaway price."
I chime in with the numbers for the X-Air LS and Cheetah: $59,995, $49,500 and $44,995, respectively. All three designs riff on 30-plus years of proven ultralight technology—aluminum tube frames, stabilized Dacron fabric skins and well-beyond-ultralight performance to boot: 85 to 110 mph cruise, excellent fuel economy and easy maintenance.
And consider this: fairly low-hour used versions are showing up for less. "In 2002," Dan says, "we figured the magic number was between 50 and 60,000 bucks. Roughly speaking, that's $62,000 to $75,000 in current dollar value.
"That's the number we have today, at the low end anyway! And the Cheetah is below the number we thought an LSA would sell for 10 years ago! Did people imagine prices would automatically drop, like electronics, which have millions upon millions of units produced?
"So while LSA may in truth be too expensive for your budget, they're certainly not too expensive for what they are: safe, durable flying machines that you can have a lot of fun in and go places in, too," Dan concludes.
Many thanks to Dan for his as-always-cogent look at the Picture Grande. Fly safe, have fun and remember: LSA symbolize a new age of exploring the envelope of the air, so get out there and claim your place in the sky!