By Jeffrey Decker in Chicago
Manufacturers around the world are eager to sell into the USA under the new light sport aircraft (LSA) rule, but existing and prospective pilots are taking time to learn more about the new category before they spend their cash.
This is the clear trend at fly-ins and LSA-specific events across the USA, where dealers are anxious for the public to start buying. "I guess a lot of us thought there would be a boom and people would just be buying the pants off these from the start," says Scott Wick, manager of Wick's Air Center in St Jacob, Illinois. He has watched the hurdles of financing and insurance be overcome and is ready to sell aircraft.
Wicks was one of 13 manufacturers and dealers that brought aircraft to a suburban Chicago airport in mid-June for the ninth stop on the Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) Sport Pilot Tour. About 300 people went to Lewis University airport to see the aircraft and to learn about the new sport-pilot rule, which lets almost anyone who can drive a car qualify to become a pilot after 20h of training.
EAA field operations director Ron Wagner compares the current level of interest in LSA to a strong third mile in a long marathon. "In the past 16 months we've had about 36 new designs," he says, noting that more types have been approved in the past 12 months than in any year since 1929. The message Wagner is taking round the country is that it has never been easier or cheaper to fly.
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The new sport-pilot rule and light-sport aircraft category were announced in July 2004 and the first new aircraft designs were certificated seven months later. So far, most of the aircraft approved under the consensus standards developed by industry for LSA have been European designs. But last month Cessna, the world's largest producer of single-engine piston aircraft, revealed that it is assessing the light sport market, and will unveil a proof-of-concept aircraft at the Oshkosh AirVenture show to test customer reaction.
"That's the greatest endorsement you could possibly have, for Cessna to acknowledge this is a marketplace they want to be involved in," says EAA vice-president for industry and regulatory affairs Earl Lawrence. "I think Cessna's entrance says this has been recognised as a highly legitimate and significant marketplace in aviation. For the world's leading aircraft manufacturer to take a look at this legitimises the regulations," he says.
Those words are echoed by Blue Sky Aero flight school owner and manager Alan Shackleton, who owns a German-built Ikarus C42 light sport aircraft. "It adds validity to the whole process," he says. "When the Cessnas, Pipers and Beechcrafts of the world sit up and take notice of a new category of aircraft that validates it. So we are excited."
He is not alone. Just how excited people are once they see the proof-of-concept aircraft at Oshkosh will help Cessna decide whether to move on to production. The company will survey AirVenture attendees and examine a spectrum of issues before making a decision, which officials say to expect in the first quarter of next year. While separate from Cessna's plans for a next-generation family of piston singles, expected to be launched this year, the LSA decision is important for the company.
"An important part of our thought process in looking at LSA is the value in terms of new pilot starts," says Cessna chairman, president and chief executive Jack Pelton, announcing plans to assess the new market. "Experience has shown that Cessna brand loyalty is a powerful force in our success, and we believe this new category of aircraft could provide a conduit for new pilots to grow through the Cessna product line in the years ahead."
Light sport aircraft are less expensive than other fixed-wing light aircraft, costing as little as $20,000 in kit form. But the newly emerging category is the highest growth sector of general aviation and could introduce thousands of new pilots to owning their own aircraft. "Our extensive sales and service network could provide an important market advantage, which, in concert with our design and manufacturing experience, could make this an attractive extension of our product line," says Pelton.
The aircraft are simple and so are the regulations, but there is a danger of promoting too hard and too early, EAA's Wagner warns. "If people go to their flight schools and the school says 'I don't know anything about that', we never get a chance to reach those people again." Flight instructors get special attention on the LSA tour. "There is such a small number of flight schools that have the aircraft on their line that sport pilot training isn't really accessible. We haven't really tapped into the tremendous potential," he says.
Shackleton says his Blue Sky Aero fixed-based operation (FBO), south-west of Chicago, has no shortage of students who want to be sport pilots. "Almost every day there are students coming in wanting to fly light sport aircraft," he says, adding: "What we're looking for are instructors." His website virtually cries out for them, reading: "Immediate opening - students waiting!" Instructors will come around, Shackleton says, and he is already shopping for a second LSA to join his school's Ikarus C42. "We're banking the future of our FBO on light sport aircraft. There are a lot of FBOs that haven't seen the light yet, but I think they will," he says.
Jason Palmer sells the German-built Ikarus C42 and he is one of several dealers who believe their aircraft's simplicity will be a successful draw for schools. "It's a lot of fun to fly. It's super easy. It's one stick and a throttle," he says.
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The relatively low price means a larger customer base, and Palmer says it takes less time to sell an LSA than a larger aircraft. "They can refinance their house. They can come up with the money basically out of their pocket," he says. Maintenance costs are minimal, he says, adding: "You don't have any fuel consumption, really - 4USgal [15 litres] an hour."
This is what Frank Bronecke of Joliet in Illinois wants to hear. "I have a pilot's licence, but I just haven't been active in it and this will be more affordable. Plus, all the new aircraft are sensational. The only thing is the American manufacturers have to get online," he says. The tour helped him understand the sport-pilot rule and how he can fit in, the 20-year EAA member says. "The EAA put on a super show, a super forum. I really enjoyed myself."
Of the attendees at the Chicago event, 48 took their first steps toward the sky when US Federal Aviation Administration-designated pilot examiner David Shadle issued them with student sport-pilot certificates. EAA officials estimate that half of tour attendees are not pilots, which means the events are reaching the people they are aiming for.
To be staged at Oshkosh, Wisconsin on 24-30 July, AirVenture will feature the biggest sport-pilot mall yet, and FAA and EAA officials will be on hand to keep the momentum going. After AirVenture, the sport pilot tour continues in Minneapolis in August and Boston in September. Two are set for California in December and another for Houston, Texas in February next year. Florida's Sebring Regional airport, which hosted the first US Sport Aviation Expo in January, will stage the second event in January 2007. "It's good to keep a year-long presence," Wagner says. ■
Source: Flight International