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AIRVENTURE: SkyCatcher orders soar

Within two days of its debut, orders for Cessna's 162 Skycatcher light sport aircraft had climbed above 400, and continued to accumulate throughout the week at AirVenture.

Pilots and light sport aircraft manufacturers have had one year to prepare for Cessna's entry into the LSA market, and their reaction to the official entry is even more positive than when Cessna revealed its proof-of-concept LSA at the same venue in 2006.

"We want something with good product support and Cessna's strong name brand behind it," says David Kay, and authorised sales representative with JA Air Center near Chicago.

His company plans to use the 162 he ordered to start a training programme exclusively for LSAs, although other instructors will take advantage of the fuel efficiency and wide cabin to train to private pilot licences.

The name brought his interest, Kay says, but the product sold itself. "We looked at other light sport aircraft and they seemed sub-par to what Cessna is putting out."

Those words were echoed by Michael DeWitt, owner of Aero Power Distributors, who also put a deposit on a Skycatcher.

"The fact is that you have a major manufacturer backing it, and actually building it - you don't have to build it in a garage," he says. "Parents of these kids learning to fly want to know it's a new airplane and not some 30-year-old beater."

DeWitt predicts that first the name and then the price will bring in orders and new customers. "When you have a new 172 on the line, they'd like to buy it, but for some people it's not quite affordable."

Cessna is offering the first 1,000 aircraft for $109,500 each and will set a new price for the next aircraft.

A $100,000 tag was guessed at by Cessna chief Jack Pelton when the proof-of-concept was introduced. Now he says the 162's "seductive charm" will draw in buyers.

Light Aircraft Manufacturing Association (LAMA) president Tom Gunnarson agrees. "Cessna has traditionally been extremely strong at bringing in new pilots to aviation through their Cessna Pilot Centres and training programmes," he says.

Although he predicts that weaker players will drop out of the market, he says "the industry will increase overall".

This view was echoed by Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) president Tom Poberezny at the SkyCatcher unveiling, and the next day when Cirrus revealed it would be marketing the FK-14 built by German manufacturer FK Lightplanes as the Cirrus SR Sport (SRS).

The first aircraft was auctioned at AirVenture to support EAA's Young Eagles education programme and the Oshkosh-based association also acquired the first two SkyCatchers sold by Cessna.

EAA initiated its sport pilot efforts 13 years ago, Poberezny pointed out, in hopes that more people would become pilots. The total number of pilots in the USA today numbers 600,000, while in 1947 there were 800,000.

"Aviation can not survive in the long term on 600,000 pilots. We need to grow significantly if we're going to support the airports, the infrastructure, the industry," Poberezny says.

So far LSAs have not proven to be the grand saviour some had hoped, but the new sector, which grants a licence after 20h of training, has made significant inroads into new demographics.

The SkyCatcher may prove as popular with new pilots as it has with the industry. The day before its public debut, Cessna showed the SkyCatcher to Cessna owners and immediately received order requests.

"Based on the response that we got, we'll ramp up production to 700 a year even sooner," says Pelton, bumping up the prediction of delivering 700 each year by 2011. First delivery is set for the second half of 2009 after the first prototype flight in the first half of 2008.

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