Full-year figures are not yet in, but 1997 appears to have been a good one for the general-aviation (GA) industry. Sales are at record levels - in dollars if not in aircraft - buoyed by surging business-jet deliveries and resurgent piston-single production. Even helicopter sales are up.

The stage is set for another record year, provided that the Asian economic crisis does not affect the US domestic economy - the engine that drives the GA market. The current boom in GA sales is almost entirely because of the continuing strength of the economy in the USA and other key regions, including Europe.

Strong economic growth contributed to USGA manufacturers exceeding their 1996 totals with three months of 1997 still to go. At the nine-month point, 1997 sales stood at $3.19 billion, compared with $3.12 billion for all of 1996, boosted by a 56% increase in business-jet deliveries and a 47% jump in piston-aircraft shipments. A year-end sales total of $4.5 billion has been forecast for USGA manufacturers. Add in higher sales by Canadian and French producers, and 1997 looks even better.

Knock-on effects from the Asian melt-down aside, 1998 has to be a good year for the GA industry, if for no other reason than that deliveries of several significant new aircraft will get under way this year. Bombardier has already begun delivering its Learjet 45 light business-jet against orders for more than 140 aircraft, and Cessna will soon begin shipping its rival Citation Excel, orders for which exceed 200. Backlogs this big were previously unheard of in the business-jet market.

One of the major contributors to the 1997 sales total was Gulfstream's $35 million GV long-range business jet, deliveries of which began earlier in the year. Around mid-1998, Bombardier will begin delivering its rival Global Express,and the worldwide GA sales volume will take another jump forward. The Canadian company has a backlog of some 70 orders for the $35 million aircraft.

The current focus on the business-jet sector of the GA industry is likely to continue throughout 1998. The year will open with the maiden flight of Israel Aircraft Industries' "super mid-size" Galaxy, and is expected to close with the launch of Bombardier's response - an aircraft dubbed simply the "New Mid Size", which is being designed to fit between the company's Learjet 60 and Canadair Challenger 604.

The delayed first flight of Raytheon's Premier I is scheduled for the second quarter of 1998. Orders have already reached the 50-mark, indicating that this aircraft is stimulating the entry-level business-jet market - another good sign for the industry.

Piston-aircraft sales are projected to grow again in 1998. Growth was strong in 1997, despite Cessna failing by a wide margin to achieve its target of building 1,000 piston singles in the first year since restarting production of the 172, 182 and 206. Cessna aims to reach its steady-state rate of 2,000 piston aircraft a year during 1998. New Piper Aircraft will also step up piston production in 1998, and the year will see the first deliveries of light aircraft from newcomers Cirrus and Lancair.

The long-dormant civil-helicopter market is also rebounding, bouyed by the strong USeconomy and signs of recovery in the offshore oil-support industry. The most significant event of 1998 is likely to be the third-quarter first flight of Sikorsky's private-venture S-92 medium-size helicopter. A decision (earlier rather than later in the year) to launch production of this 19-seat machine would be a sure sign that the civil-helicopter market is recovering.

Barring a major global economic downturn, it is almost certain that the business-aircraft fractional-ownership market will grow dramatically during 1998. Market leader Executive Jet will expand its NetJets shared-ownership programme significantly in the USA and Europe during 1998, and will launch operations in the Middle East, but the economic crisis has ruled out an expansion into the Far East any time soon.

Confirming the strong potential for growth in fractional ownership in North America, Bombardier plans to increase the size of its FlexJet fleet by 50% in 1998, while Raytheon's TravelAir programme, launched in 1997, could almost triple in size during the coming year. The first major helicopter fractional-ownership programme, using Sikorsky S-76s, could be launched early in 1998.

One emerging market unlikely to show much progress in 1998 is that for single-engined business jets. The interest is there, but the lead is being taken by new, small, companies only now getting to grips with the task of certificating a single-turbofan aircraft. Realism set in during 1997, when both the Century Jet and VisionAire Vantage programmes were put on more realistic footings. Whether newcomer Alberta Aerospace can certificate its single-turbofan Phoenix FanJet during 1998, and find a market for the two-seater as an airline-pilot trainer, remains to be proved.

Source: Flight International