This month, I had an email exchange with a leader in aviation. I debated if I should reply. For a time, I did not but I felt compelled given the person’s stature. I was driven to attempt informing those this individual might influence. I further pondered if I should write an article about it, but I feel one must confront potential errors if for no other reason than to promote healthy dialogue.
I am not to going reveal with whom I had this exchange. Personality isn’t important to the discussion but this person expressed what I suspect represents the opinion of a fair share of general aviation pilots, at least those who have not fully explored recreational aircraft such as LSA, or light kits, or ultralights.
The following comes from our second round of email. In the first, the writer referred to LSA “market failings” and I asked what was meant. The person wrote, “As for the ‘LSA market’s failings,’ I’ll point to a few: Cessna Skycatcher dead and gone, Piper and Cirrus both abandoned the market after fitful starts.”
My reply: I would not in any way call those market failings. I would call them the market functioning quite perfectly. Cessna Skycatcher was not the product the market wanted; even their own dealers or flight schools generally didn’t embrace it. As they worked on the design, people told them they made poor choices (engine, vertical tail volume, more) but Cessna felt they had to do it their way. I write this a big fan of Cessna; I did much of my early flying in Cessnas, have flown them many hundreds of hours, and I’ve owned three.
Rather than develop their own model, Piper chose… to contract with Czech Sport Aircraft to rebadge their existing SportCruiser LSA as the PiperSport. They sold more than 70 in one year. I’m not sure that qualifies as a market failing.
Cirrus also selected an existing model. However, they insisted on “Cirrus-izing” their SRS model and got so deeply into it that they never made it to market. That model, known as the FK Lightplanes FK14 Polaris is quite successful in Europe. It comes from a manufacturer still producing, one that has been in business quite profitably for nearly 30 years. Therefore, I’d hardly call that a market failing either.
I implored of this other aviation leader… “Market failing” is such a negative term, especially when it may be incorrect. I hope you will consider not repeating it. Let’s keep it positive.
I could not rest with the preceding. The naysayer’s general viewpoint appears to represent what I’d call a common myopia among American pilots who fail to consider the rest of the world. Here is a link to an article recently published by General Aviation News that gives more detail.
Summary factoid: In 2014, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) reported deliveries of 969 single engine piston certified aircraft worldwide. For comparison, LSA-like aircraft sold around the world in that year exceeded 3,000 units.
The negativity continued with the other writer stating, “Several of the LSAs that remain on the market have poor flying qualities… and prices for LSAs are higher than what was anticipated at the start.”
My reply: Yes, some LSA prices are much higher than we once expected but most of those are all-carbon-fiber, full glass-paneled aircraft with autopilot, ADS-B out, airframe parachutes, leather interiors, and more such deluxe equipment that customers demanded. As we all know, such fancy gear adds considerably to prices even without high certification costs.
We also have perfectly airworthy (as judged by FAA designees) and fun to fly airplanes available for $50-75,000, which, given inflation, is actually less expensive than we forecast. Those prices are for three axis, fixed wing aircraft but if you will accept a gyroplane (still only a kit LSA, due to FAA’s reluctance to fix this), a weight shift aircraft, or a powered parachute, the prices can be much lower. You may not care for those aircraft but many pilots do. They fly like a duck… etc., so any new aircraft that satisfies is a good thing — they keep pilots flying — and their prices can dip below $30,000. In 2004 dollars that’s less than half what we once forecast.
Forecasts of market functions — like weather forecasting — are often wrong. In 2003 and 2004, no one, myself included, correctly guessed where the LSA market was headed.
Flying qualities can be very subjective; it depends what you want, are ready for, and what mission you have for the airplane. I’ve flown some certified airplanes that have less than optimal flying qualities. An H-model Beechcraft Bonanza I loved had a nightmarishly complex fuel system and my insurance check instructor absolutely forbade me from deliberately stalling it.
Finally the writer added, “Very few LSA makers are thriving financially, and several are barely hanging on.”
My reply: I will not say that is wrong as I have no access to their accounting documents, but companies like Tecnam, Pipistrel, Aeropro, AutoGyro, and several others seem to be doing quite well. Would you expect every single manufacturer to thrive financially? If that is a requirement for market success by your definition, then the GA Type Certified market is not particularly healthy either.
While I would not disagree that some producers are suffering in a lethargic world economy, “hanging on” is still in business. Indeed, only a few of the 90+ manufacturers have departed the LSA market permanently. If I look at general aviation companies like Maule and Eclipse (contemporarily) or Bellanca and Navion (from days gone by), I see TC producers that are not even hanging on anymore, or marginally so.
Again, this is the market working, not failing. This is much like an economic recession being a corrective occurrence as it redirects malinvestments to better purposes.
Our exchange also included talk about FAA Part 23 rewrite project about which this person also has reservations and I responded to those comments as well. However, the above is enough for now and makes my point, I hope.
If you have comments about this article and the opinions of the other writer or my replies to that person, feel free to post them on my Facebook page, where I’ve posted a brief preview to this article.
Chart Sources: LAMA and LAMA Europe; ByDanJohnson.com Market Share Info; GAMA; Recreation Aviation Australia; and, other individuals that offered input.
Best Effort Statement: While care was taken and broad experience was applied to the counting, considerable interpretation was needed to create this chart. National figures are based on reports from many countries, laboriously assembled by GAMA, a study made significantly more difficult by widely varying reporting systems that define aircraft differently and group them by differing methods. GAMA’s numbers were then further interpreted based on expert knowledge.
For Further Comparison: The U.S. type certified single engine piston (SEP) fleet — accounting for an estimated 80% of the global fleet of such aircraft — numbers 137,500 aircraft. Worldwide, the TC SEP fleet may count 165-175,000 aircraft; all other countries have about 20% of the global total. As we can identify about 13,000 LSA-like aircraft in the USA, America represents about 20% of all such recreational aircraft in the world; 80% are operating in other countries.