The State of General Aviation

Piston Market: All Ahead Full

June 1, 2005

These are the good old days

Talk to the mainstream general aviation piston manufacturers and you'll hear an almost-giddy tale of bulging order books, widening profit margins, and ever-escalating sales trajectories. Is all this optimism well founded, or are we experiencing a fluky uptick in what is a very cyclical business?

The State of General Aviation

One old saying holds that if the economy at large catches a cold, general aviation comes down with double pneumonia. When the economy slows and budgets are trimmed, aircraft purchases are deferred. If a financially stressed company already owns an airplane, accountants want to sell it. And when the economy rebounds, out come the checkbooks. Again.

Right now, the checkbooks are out. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) recently reported that 2004 was a turnaround year, with 2,963 new-aircraft deliveries — a 10.3-percent increase over 2003's figures. Industry billings for 2004 totaled $11.9 billion — the third-highest figure ever reported. There were 2,051 piston-powered airplanes shipped in 2004, which was a 20-year high.

Manufacturers expect this trend to continue through 2005, and beyond. Of course, the projections made by GAMA and manufacturers are heavily conditioned, usually with a phrase assuming the continuation of current conditions or a caution about the frailty of relying upon conventional rules. As in: "Past performance is no guarantee of future earnings," that staple of the fine print in a stock offering. But if we can't claim clairvoyance, we can make some fairly sound assumptions about the forces and trends at work in the general aviation piston marketplace.


Perhaps the biggest sea change involves the growing influence and acceptance of glass cockpits. Virtually all the major manufacturers now offer large-format, active-matrix liquid-crystal display systems. Garmin's G1000 integrated avionics system is offered in Diamond Aircraft's DA40 and DA42, in Cessna's Skyhawk, Skylane, and 206 models, in Raytheon's Beechcraft A36 Bonanza and B58 Baron (both of which have been redesignated as G36s and G58s, respectively, to mark the switch to all-G1000 cockpits), and in Mooney's Ovation2 and Bravo. Other manufacturers, such as Tiger Aircraft, plan to certify the G1000 in their product lines in the near future. Avidyne's FlightMax Entegra display is offered by The New Piper Aircraft, Cirrus Design, Symphony Aircraft Industries, and Lancair Certified Aircraft. Chelton's Flight-Logic and Honeywell's Apex are other systems destined to appear in single-engine cockpits.

"The biggest negative facing piston-single manufacturers is the government," says Alan Klapmeier, president and chief executive officer of Cirrus Design. "We have bureaucratic threats that can do us in, and restrictions to airspace and airports."

Manufacturers report that sales of glass-cockpit aircraft far outstrip those of "bare bones" aircraft having traditional round gauges. "Almost all of our sales are now of the G1000-equipped Ovation2s and Bravos," said Mooney Chief Executive Officer Gretchen Jahn.

A Mooney marketing executive said, "Nobody seems to want the suddenly old-fashioned 'six-pack' of steam gauges anymore," a sentiment repeated by manufacturers using other large-display systems as well.

The draw of big glass is so powerful that Tiger Aircraft President Gene Criss said, "We're going slow until the G1000 is certified in the Tiger sometime in the second quarter of 2005.... People are ready to order, but they're waiting until we price the G1000 option."

Cessna Aircraft President and Chief Executive Officer Jack Pelton said, "Eighty percent of our 182s and 206s have been ordered with the G1000," and, "This year we'll offer it on our 172s for the first time, so the entire single-engine fleet will have G1000s.... It's a huge product improvement, one that's definitely prompted the buying decision in most of our customers." Now Cessna's challenge is to increase production rates to meet the hike in demand. Order a Cessna piston single today, and you'd take delivery in early 2006.

"We have the most extensive application of advanced glass avionics in general aviation," says The New Piper's President and Chief Executive Officer Chuck Suma. Even Piper trainers can now come with glass. This raises one of many issues surrounding the glass-cockpit phenomenon. Do fancy, full-featured, wide-screen displays belong in trainers? Some say yes, especially if the students are destined for a future with the airlines. Others think the displays cause a sensory overload that can actually inhibit learning and confuse pilots. The answer, of course, is training — and glass cockpits demand intensive training if pilots are to fully master them. These integrated systems can incorporate many functions — flight control/autopilot, traffic and terrain alerts, and datalink weather — besides basic navigation and communication. In fact, the G1000, FlightMax, FlightLogic, Apex, and other systems bring a level of sophistication to light singles that many airliners lack. And there appears to be no end in sight.

"A hundred years from now, the PFD [primary flight display, a composite electronic representation of the primary flight instruments] will be seen as the single most important factor in changing general aviation," said Alan Klapmeier, president and chief executive officer of Cirrus Design. "It's the great equalizer, making it easier for everyone to fly more safely."

That may be, but anyone who has spent any amount of time flying behind one of these new glass cockpits knows how much interpretation and heads-down time they demand. That's why the current line of glass cockpits is bound to be superseded. "We're getting a lot of data from glass cockpits," said Klapmeier. "But not enough information. They have operating systems that can be cumbersome, so they need to be made more intuitive."

Where does it end? Perhaps with standard-equipment packages rivaling those of the latest business jets and airliners. "I can see EVS [enhanced vision systems — heads-up displays that use infrared viewing to see at night or through fog] on the horizon," said Diamond Aircraft President Peter Maurer.

The new order

Another trend becoming increasingly apparent is the rise of a new order of aircraft companies. These include Cirrus Design, Diamond Aircraft, and Lancair Certified Aircraft. These companies have used their innovative energies to challenge the traditional "big three" (Beechcraft, Cessna, and New Piper) for sales dominance. They're expanding the manufacturer base, and in so doing have become a highly influential, new-mainstream force in the general aviation market. With a commitment to composite construction and with management teams limber enough to swiftly anticipate and respond to perceived demand, these companies show great promise.

It's significant to note that in 2004 Cirrus Design rivaled Cessna as the number-one producer of four-place singles. Cessna shipped 565 such airplanes; Cirrus delivered 553. That's a first.

"We have the most extensive application of advanced glass avionics in general aviation," says The New Piper's President and Chief Executive Officer Chuck Suma.

The new-mainstream manufacturers have drawn on recent aerodynamic research to come up with designs that are slipperier and faster than the big three's. As for innovations, Cirrus has no doubt garnered its huge slice of the sales pie via the appeal of its CAPS (Cirrus Airframe Parachute System). With this controversial system, the pilot can use a rocket-deployed parachute to bring a crippled Cirrus safely to Earth. Some feel that the parachute creates a false sense of security, and that its primary appeal is to those who lack full confidence in their flying skills. But the numbers don't lie: Cirrus pilots have been saved using the system. And the concept is catching on. Ballistic Recovery Systems Inc. (BRS), the maker of the parachute system, has earned European approval to install the parachute on Cessna 172s, and recently won FAA supplemental type certificate (STC) approval for the Cessna 182. "The parachute changed the safety equation — it makes pilots comfortable from a marketing point of view," said Klapmeier.

Another safety innovation — seat-belt-mounted air bags — was no doubt rushed into this year's Cessna single-engine standard-equipment lists as a response to Cirrus' safety initiatives (and Cirrus plans to install them on its new aircraft as well). The air bag, made by AmSafe and dubbed the AAIR (AmSafe Aviation Inflatable Restraint), inflates much like an automobile air bag, reducing impact trauma to the front- and rear-seat occupants.

Although Diamond says it doesn't want to be "a prophet of diesel," according to Maurer, the company has sold 130 diesel-powered singles to the European market, and has its eye on the American scene. "Jet-A sells for about $4 per gallon in Europe, and avgas goes for as much as $8 per gallon, so the diesel makes sense for Europeans, who can save $3,000 to $4,000 in fuel costs over 100 hours compared to using avgas," said Maurer. "In the U.S., avgas costs almost the same as Jet-A, so there's not as much relative economy." Even so, Diamond has racked up 230 American orders for its new diesel-powered light twin — the DA42 Twin Star.

It's features like these that bring new customers — some of them with zero pilot time — to these newer manufacturers. This trend shows no sign of reversal.

Fleet sales

"In the next decade, 20 percent of today's airline pilots will retire," said Diamond's Maurer (unless an increase to the minimum retirement age is passed — a bill has resurfaced in Congress). "And that's why flight training is Diamond's future sales strategy." It's a strategy shared by Cessna and New Piper, too. The anticipation of a future airline pilot shortage has led to a growth of interest in airline careers, and an increase in enrollments at the major aviation universities and flight schools. In 2005, these manufacturers expect up to 20 percent of their sales to go to large flight schools — most of them eager to offer instruction in glass-cockpit avionics.

Airline implosion

Airline issues directly affect general aviation in other ways. "Let's face it. The airlines are imploding," said Cirrus' Klapmeier. "That's why personal aircraft offer so much value, and that's why I'm so optimistic about the future. People want to fly on their schedules, not the airlines'. And this — the utility of general aviation — helps us get past some of the negative barriers. A modern four-seater with modern avionics is easier and safer to fly and use."

Lancair Chief Executive Officer Bing Lantis expects "as many as 100 airplanes — one-third of our production" — to go to foreign buyers in 2006.

While general aviation has always been a more convenient alternative to airline travel — especially when it comes to point-to-point flights — this realization seems to be growing in strength. With onerous security measures, cabins packed to the gills, a cattle-car service mentality, and increasing delays at hub airports, there is a groundswell working against the airlines. It's manifested in the popularity of fractional-ownership operations comprised of business jets as well as propeller-driven airplanes. And it also accounts for a fair portion of that 10-percent increase in general aviation sales across the board. Low airfares may be tempting, but many people have reached their limits.

Foreign power

International currency fluctuations are another item critical to the future of general aviation. Be they based in the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, or elsewhere, aviation manufacturers price their products in U.S. dollars. We're still the biggest economic engine in the world, so the working currency is still the greenback.

With foreign currencies gaining on the dollar (the euro is currently trading at about 1.33 to the dollar), overseas buyers are finding new aircraft tempting buys indeed. It follows that more U.S. aircraft are being exported, further boosting demand. Lancair Chief Executive Officer Bing Lantis expects "as many as 100 airplanes — one-third of our production" — to go to foreign buyers in 2006. New Piper's Suma says that one-fourth of his airplanes will be exported in the next two years. Other manufacturers report similar foreign demand. And why not? For example, a customer using euros to buy a dollar-denominated airplane automatically enjoys a one-third discount on the sticker price. Potentially more significant in the long run is the fact that foreign investment in GA manufacturing is growing as well. Cirrus, Lancair, Liberty, Mooney, Sino Swearingen, Symphony, and Tiger are among the GA manufacturers that have attracted significant overseas financing.

Bureaucratic battles

Mention of foreign influence conjures up an issue that affects manufacturers and flying activity alike. "The biggest negative facing piston-single manufacturers is the government," said Klapmeier. "We have bureaucratic threats that can do us in, and restrictions to airspace and airports." The European general aviation situation is frequently raised as a sort of doomsday model for activity in the United States, what with its landing, lighting, air traffic control, noise, and other fees. "That would be a bureaucracy problem times 10, if it's allowed to happen here," said Klapmeier.

While manufacturers report that the expiration of the bonus-depreciation tax rule has had surprisingly little effect on sales, they're naturally interested in securing favorable taxation laws. "Long term, we need to keep pressuring Congress to enact fair tax treatment for the general aviation community," said Pelton.

Problems like these are issues that AOPA knows well, and is committed to resolving them in favor of general aviation pilots, and, by extension, manufacturers. It would be no exaggeration to say that general aviation in its current form never could have existed without AOPA's influence over the years.


The demographic aspects of the demand for new piston singles impose an iron rule on manufacturers. The age of the typical pilot follows the familiar U-shape curve, with the apex of the curve firmly grounded in middle age. The "average" pilot is a baby boomer, with a fair amount of disposable income and the willingness to spend it. Programs designed to draw neophytes to pilot training have done commendable work, but their enrollments may not compensate for the boomers' drop-off in flying activity in the coming decades. With so many new pilots going into aviation as a career move only, and so many older ones hanging up their wings, manufacturers will have to adapt to the demands of a changing pilot population if they are to survive.

But that's in the more distant future. Today a rebounding economy fuels a vibrant market for new piston singles. Powered by investor confidence and rising demand, general aviation has entered a renaissance of sorts. Any problems center on big backlogs and certification delays, not beating the bushes for business. Compared to the downer days of 1986 through 1994, those are good problems.

Editor at Large Tom Horne has been flying since 1971, and has been writing for AOPA Pilot since 1979. In that capacity he has worked with many general aviation executives and manufacturers large and small, written some 1,200 articles, and flown some 220 different aircraft.

Piston-Aircraft Shipments 2004
American Champion Aircraft 94
Aviat Aircraft 42
Cessna Aircraft 654
Cirrus Design 553
Diamond Aircraft 261
Gippsland Aeronautics 20
Lancair Certified Aircraft 78
Maule Air 25
Mooney Airplane Company 37
OMF Aircraft 1
Pacific Aerospace Corp. 6
Raytheon Aircraft 93
EADS Socata 5
The New Piper Aircraft 163
Tiger Aircraft 19
Grand Total 2,051
Source: General Aviation Manufacturers Association
See the General Aviation Manufacturer's Association (GAMA) 2004 shipment charts (

On the Mend

Technology heats up tailwheel competition


To some, it is surprising that tailwheel aircraft exist at all. Those who have to ask the question overlook two fundamental truths about conventional-gear aircraft: They are more fun because of simplicity and design, and they still outperform tricycle-gear aircraft when it comes to economically hauling loads off short strips or performing aerobatics.

The state of the tailwheel industry is satisfactory — not excellent — and on the mend. The big players in the certified market are Aviat Aircraft (home of the Husky utility and Pitts aerobatic airplanes), Maule Air, American Champion Aircraft, and a new kid on the block, Cub Crafters. (Van's Aircraft, of course, continues to dominate the kit market with more than 4,000 completed. See " A Surprising State of Maturity," page 80.) These are fiercely independent, privately run companies, so their experiences and often their markets differ, and only a few trends apply to all. None will surprise you: All were dumped into the doldrums by the terrorist attacks of 2001, some are aided by the currently weak American dollar, and competition among the four is intensifying.

Aviat President Stu Horn said 9/11 dropped his order books from 30 to three and cut the workforce from 88 to 44 — most of the orders were for the Husky, an aircraft specifically designed to be an improvement over the Piper Super Cub. Most important, Horn marks 2005 as the first year of serious recovery; the workforce is back to 60 and orders are increasing. That's true at American Champion as well, where employee numbers have returned to 100 — last seen in 2001 — and production has returned to the 2001 level of 10 a month. Still, good times bring with them greater competition for the naturally smaller pool of tailwheel customers, and this year Horn is announcing Husky improvements that add more muscle. Horn's Husky is a focal point for growing competition developing among Aviat, American Champion, and Cub Crafters.

To counter the Husky, American Champion's Jerry Mehlhaff plans a monster Scout, the Denali Scout, that is nothing less than a swelling of the airframe and an increase in maximum gross weight and engine power. Oh, yes, he plans to eventually increase seating from two to four — in other words, this isn't a small change. It will become a 250-horsepower, 2,800-pound version of its former self — and all the design effort is aimed at the Husky and Super Cub — which is fitting since Cub Crafters and Aviat are returning marketing fire at the Scout. You may see the Denali at EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh if it is built in time, and certification is planned for 2006. If the model proceeds as planned to the four-passenger size in 2007, the panel may then be big enough to become the first Champion model to have a glass cockpit. Another model, the smaller High Country, based on the present Explorer model (the 160-horsepower model with flaps), tells an interesting story as well; Superior Air Parts considers the High Country as the launch aircraft for its new 180-horsepower Vantage engine.

American Champion is in a good place — it can't meet demand. "If we wanted to, we could build 15 a month," Mehlhaff said. "My goal is to stay around 10." That's so he can keep a steady flow of work through the factory, located on a former Wisconsin farm, rather than react to market-induced oscillations.

But back up a minute — Mehlhaff is competing with the Super Cub? Isn't that out of production? That brings up Cub Crafters, which now offers its own FAA-certified version — as of last December — of Piper's former Super Cub: the CC18 Ranger (CC stands for Cub Crafters). Cub Crafters once was considered, by Piper attorneys, at least, an outlaw of the bush-plane world because it assembled FAA-certified parts bought separately from many states into a whole airplane and sold it as the Top Cub; it really was the Piper PA-18 design. Piper attorneys didn't like the liability link and somehow a federal law, jokingly referred to as the "Cub Crafters law," got passed prohibiting the assemblage of an out-of-production aircraft from newly manufactured parts. That's when Cub Crafters got its own, better Cub, but you can't call it that, not if you want to keep Piper attorneys off your phone.

Why should competitors fear little Cub Crafters, run by a father and son (Jim and Nathan Richmond, respectively), which mostly does refurbishment of older Cubs and has just one new model? Because it's planning to grow from 50 to 150 employees this year, has already added a second building, has added a new marketing program since March, and will grow production to four a month by 2006 — that's why. Nathan Richmond is adding a broader market to his customer base — those who fly for fun and "those who don't yet know they want to fly."

There's a historic trend in the works at Cub Crafters. The glass cockpit has been trickling down to the GA fleet for some years now, but will reach the Piper Cub level through the Ranger. There isn't enough room for a Garmin G1000 dual display, but Cub Crafters is looking at smaller displays that will give its Ranger a glass cockpit in the true sense of the term.

One glass-cockpit taildragger doesn't make a trend, of course, but Maule Air is joining the revolution as well. Decades ago Maule Air bought switches for its instrument panel that one might find in a hardware store. But no more. "The small-utility market is going high-tech," said sales manager Brent Maule. "We don't have glass panels yet, but we are in line to get them." That doesn't mean Maule is abandoning its slot in the market as the more affordable of the hard-working aerial pickup trucks on the market. "Our customers want to be able to work it," Maule said. Toward that end, it is no secret among Maule customers that company engineers are hard at work on an aircraft that can carry more, yet land in the famously short distances once illustrated by a photo of a Maule flying out a hangar doorway — having completed takeoff inside.

In a recent survey, 62 percent of AOPA members surveyed said they are generally optimistic about the future of general aviation.

Maule, prior to 2001, was the envy of the industry because no matter what trends drove the market, it generally produced 60 to 70 airplanes a year — every year. Last year as recovery from the slump continued, Maule produced 35, but that could reach 50 in 2005. Employee levels shrank from 100 to 70, but Maule hopes to keep that level and do more with fewer workers.

The Sport category airplane has the attention of all the companies, but only Cub Crafters and American Champion have serious plans to enter that market (see " Sport Pilot Takes Off," page 77). The price goal for a generic Sport aircraft is generally agreed by observers to be $65,000, but that goal is threatened by vendor prices. That's why American Champion has switched from a Continental O-200 engine to an Australian Jabiru engine for its entry based on the original Champ design. The basis for the Cub Crafters design is obvious, but there is a hint that the model could have a full-glass panel, yet still cost "less than $100,000." That may be tough to do, and even if the price goal can be maintained, it runs the price up near a fully certified Part 23 airplane — but this is a time for positive thinking among tailwheel companies, and good news is the expectation.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Closing the Gaps

Three young companies meet the market head-on


If certification of a new aircraft under the current Part 23 regulations was fast, easy, and cheap, every aerospace engineer with a half-baked flying idea would be building a prototype out in the garage. There's no time like right now to sell travel by personal aircraft as the best thing since the internal combustion engine.

Instead, only those nascent aircraft manufacturers with serious fortitude need apply. And, as some companies recently going through the certification game have discovered, it helps to start with more than a sketch on a napkin and a second mortgage. Limited resources within the FAA's certification offices also will continue to have an impact on the timeliness of certification projects through fiscal year 2006, according to Peggy Gilligan, FAA deputy associate administrator for Aviation Safety.

How is it possible, then, to get a new airplane idea off the ground? One tack is to begin your dreams with a kit model that has a good track record. Then prepare to beef it up. Cases in point: Liberty Aircraft's XL2's genesis in the Europa, and Symphony Aircraft Industries' Symphony 160's beginnings in the GlaStar. Both companies will tell you that it takes a lot of effort to turn a kitplane into a production model — with the technological advances that will make the model competitive, or cause it to sell at all. Yet both have made it to market in recent months.

If you must build an airplane from scratch, you'd better have deep pockets, stamina, and the intellectual capital to figure out alternatives when your first shot doesn't work. One such company in the piston realm is Adam Aircraft, which has weathered several obstacles on the road to certifying its piston twin — even after a formidable launch and acceleration to first flight, and some heavy hitters on its senior management team.

A place for two

Robert Stangarone, vice president of sales and marketing for Liberty, has been through the certification process 15 times with various companies, even though he was only four weeks on the job at Liberty when AOPA Pilot interviewed him for this article. Still, he had no problem identifying the reason why Liberty pushed ahead with its plan even while it struggled through financing issues and made a cross-country move. "People have been asking the industry for a two-seat airplane with low operating costs, to make it affordable to people who couldn't otherwise justify aircraft ownership."

Liberty's trump card? Stangarone answers, "We're the first certification under Part 23 with FADEC [full authority digital engine control]." The promise is that FADEC will achieve that primary goal — low operating costs. Delivering a low fuel burn and decent speed equates to a lower cost per mile for the Liberty, which could be critical in retaining the lower-cost end of the market in the face of rising fuel costs.

Simplified operation is another advantage of FADEC that should appeal to the modern recreational aircraft customer. "FADEC eliminates controls, like the mixture and primer, plus you can download engine data and e-mail it to your shop." Rather than relying on the pilot as (supposed) aircraft expert — to manage the nuances in engine performance and identify problems to a mechanic — the system allows the pilot to take on more of an operator role. Sound fishy? Well, that's how the airlines have viewed pilots for decades, as skilled conductors of the system, not technical masters.

Another way to control costs? Reduce the price of scheduled maintenance: The XL2 was designed as a modular system, with "all maintenance items under the center of the fuselage, most of them accessible in a belly pan. You can get through a 100-hour inspection in half the time," says Stangarone.

Symphony Aircraft also has identified the two-seat recreational market as its primary niche. After the new company acquired the intellectual property of the now-defunct OMF Aircraft — including the Symphony 160 design and German type certificate — it has spent the past several months putting together the production processes for the airplane.

Symphony President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Costanzo (whose background in the industry includes his most recent experience as senior vice president of Textron's Bell Helicopter commercial business unit) has identified four basic categories in the light-piston-single market: two-seat, small four-seat (less than 2,550 pounds), four-seat, and six-seat-plus aircraft. The Symphony 160, though it contains but two seats, meets both the two-seat and small-four-seat categories because of its 700-pound useful load. "The market has been crying out for a two-seat recreational aircraft. We saw the gap in the market and an opportunity to create something good out of the ashes," says Costanzo. "And we're going to get this first part right."

"The market has been crying out for a two-seat recreational aircraft. We saw the gap in the market and an opportunity to create something good out of the ashes," says Symphony President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Costanzo. "And we're going to get this first part right."

The idea is that a two-seat aircraft with good performance, relatively low fuel burn, and decent range isn't too hard to come by, but to squeeze the most value from the airplane, it has to cost less to acquire and to operate than the standard "small" four-seat aircraft, be just as easy to fly, and offer almost as much payload — all of which Symphony's two-seater does. And new technology will make flying simpler for the pilot — and put flying back into the same recreational realm as boating or riding a motorcycle. Costanzo sums up the bottom line: "The best value proposition is going to win."

Both the XL2 and the Symphony 160 had roots in kitbuilt aircraft — several of the companies that have made a successful transition from start-up to major player in the marketplace have similar beginnings: Lancair and Cirrus come to mind. But even with expertise in aircraft design and production (albeit on a limited scale), every one of those companies would agree that the path to FAA certification held surprises.

Two models for less

On the other end of the piston market, one company is not only attempting to certify a new Part 23 airplane from the drawing board, but it's also making this attempt with a piston twin, with its eyes set on parlaying that experience into very-light-jet (VLJ) certification. That company, of course, is Adam Aircraft. While Adam intends to leverage its A500 into the A700 jet (with two-thirds commonality on parts), the company started with a centerline-thrust twin because it believed in that model's traction as much as that of a VLJ.

Joe Walker, president of Adam Aircraft, has been through "probably 20 to 30 aircraft certification programs" in his prior industry experience at Cessna and Gulfstream. "From my perspective, in the 1980s most OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] went into turbine products and a gap was created" in the piston-twin segment. "The market has been very responsive," adds Walker, noting that the backlog on the A500 stretches for two years once production begins. Most new piston twins cost roughly $1 million, says Walker. With the A500, Adam approximates that price point — Walker points out that for $1.15 million a customer gets a pressurized, technologically advanced twin with the safety benefits of centerline thrust. "The barriers to entry are high, and that's ultimately best for the customer," says Walker. "When I started out as a flight-test engineer, my data acquisition system was a number-two pencil. Fast forward to today and all manufacturers have digital acquisition systems — the quality and quantity of information is so much better today."

Since up to 70 percent of new sales traditionally come from existing customers, says Walker, the company's basis for the model series is sound, and it plans to facilitate the transition as much as possible. Noting the projected concerns about the ability for pilots to acquire cost-effective insurance in VLJs, Adam has prepared a guaranteed insurance program for its customers who upgrade and meet certain requirements — at least 200 hours in the A500 and more than 1,000 hours' total time. This addresses another gap in the market that Adam sees itself filling: Going from a high-performance piston single to a VLJ should be manageable, but for many pilots it won't be easy — or reasonable to insure.

"The vision to see the future and the commitment to see it through," that's what it takes to certify a new aircraft in the twenty-first century, says Walker. Costanzo likens it to a marathon, with a hard penalty for going out too fast. While aiming for different ends of the piston market, Liberty, Symphony, and Adam are on the cusp of proving they have the stuff to make it to the finish line.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Safety Sells

Air bags and airplane parachutes come to GA


Many believe that pilot and passenger safety will play an increasingly larger role in sales of future general aviation airplanes. Two of the most obvious advances in safety devices in recent years that support this trend are air bags (inflatable restraints) and airplane parachute systems.

While these devices have been proven to improve crashworthiness, their biggest impact on GA is just being realized — new-airplane buyers seem to be more willing to buy when aircraft salespeople can prove that safety is a top-of-the-list feature of their product. New-airplane manufacturer Cirrus equips its airplanes with Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS) parachutes. Cessna, Aviat, Mooney and Zenair are all installing AmSafe's Aviation Inflatable Restraint (AAIR) air bags as standard equipment in their latest offerings; Cirrus and Adam will add them too.

This type of safety equipment also is surging into the GA market — AmSafe has agreements with 11 GA manufacturers and counting, and both companies are working with the FAA to get their aftermarket installations through the STC process. "The market for well-engineered, energy-attenuating devices is huge," says Bob Hagan, president of AmSafe Aviation, referring to his company's inflatable restraints, air bags deployed from seat belts.

The estimated cost of AmSafe's air-bag-seat-belt combination will be $1,500 to 1,600 plus installation per seat, according to Hagan. STCed BRS kits for Cessna 172 and 182 airplanes cost about $15,000, and require as many as 50 hours to install.

"If the unthinkable happens and a wing folds or you lose control of the airplane, what would it be worth to you to have a parachute on your airplane?" says Ballistic Recovery Systems President and Chief Executive Officer Larry Williams.

BRS President and Chief Executive Officer Larry Williams asks this of those who balk at spending the money to install one of BRS's parachute-based recovery systems: "If the unthinkable happens and a wing folds or you lose control of the airplane, what would it be worth to you to have a parachute on your airplane?"

According to Williams, the 2,000 parachute systems (which are used on a wide range of noncertified ultralight-style aircraft) that have been shipped in the past 25 years have saved 177 lives to date. In early April 2005 Symphony Aircraft Industries announced that the BRS will be offered as a factory-installed option on its two-place Symphony 160.

Other safety trends

Other safety devices finding their way into GA aircraft contribute to safety by improving controllability at low speeds. These include vortex generators (VGs), STOL kits, and leading-edge cuffs. Leading- edge cuffs — a slightly drooped and extended outboard wing section — were chosen by both Lancair and Cirrus to comply with the "stall resistant" certification requirement of Part 23 airplanes. There hasn't been any movement to create stall-resistant add-on kits for the retrofit market, but a few companies such as Sportsman and Horton have manufactured drooped-wing leading-edge kits for decades.

For their part, "VGs just make the airplane work better," says Charles White, owner of Micro Aerodynamics in Anacortes, Washington. Claims like this — backed up by numerous testimonials — coupled with the relatively low cost of the STCed VG kits make safety modifications an easy addition to almost any GA airplane.

Despite the fact that anti-icing systems are an almost universally ordered option on Cirrus single-engine airplanes, progress in developing technologically advanced anti- and deicing systems for GA is moving slowly. Pneumatic boots — an ancient technology — are still the standard on many new airplanes. The other system of choice today is weeping wings. This system — first installed on BAE 125-series business jets more than 35 years ago — is decidedly low-tech but it works and is easy to maintain. Will these be the systems of the future? In early 2005 only one of the four modern ice-prevention systems in development (one has been receiving funding since 1995) has advanced past development, let alone been certified for widespread applications.

Nevertheless, it seems obvious that within a decade, new GA airplanes — and many of the older airplanes still flying — will continue to provide safe and economical transportation because of aftermarket improvements. They will be more crashworthy because of the widespread use of ballistic parachutes and air-bag-equipped seat belts, and they will be better able to survive icing encounters because of the lower costs of existing systems and the continued development of innovative deicing systems.?

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Vertical Climb

Helicopter sales on their way up


The piston-engine helicopter world has been less affected by the poor economy of recent years because, unlike the piston fixed-wing world, there are so few producers. That said, life will be especially good in 2005 for Robinson Helicopter Company, Schweizer Aircraft Corporation, and Enstrom Helicopter Corporation.

"It's how much risk you want to take," Enstrom President Jerry M. Mullins says. "No one wants to have aircraft sitting."

The big kid on the block, as far as number of units produced, is Robinson. Deliveries were down in 2002, but the years following that have been phenomenal. The problem for 2005 is how best to reduce an order backlog that stretches to September for both the two-place R22 and four-place R44 models. The effort will be to increase production by the end of 2005 from 15 a week to 20 a week, said company founder and President Frank Robinson.

What boosted sales were the addition of the more powerful Robinson R44 Raven II and, lately, the weak American dollar that is helping companies of all types that sell internationally. It wasn't the training market driving sales. Only 20 percent of R22s, the two-passenger trainer, are bought by flight schools, and almost none of the R44s are sold as trainers. So who are the customers? There are cattle ranchers in Australia and New Zealand, wealthy individual buyers in England, and eager new customers in mainland China and Russia. South Africa is the largest overseas customer because the Raven II can serve mountainous areas with its more powerful engine. Sixty percent of sales are foreign. On the drawing board is a five-place helicopter, but it is years away, Robinson said.

The same theme — can't build them fast enough — is true in other companies. Schweizer Aircraft President Paul Schweizer said his company's difficult days didn't start in 2001 as many would assume, but in 1992 when a string of economic changes and wars throughout the world damaged sales. "I am seeing, in the last six months, a real turnaround to a much stronger marketplace," Schweizer said. His market comes from companies that put their helicopters into a working environment. Schweizer will build 80 this year but could have sold 140 if they could have been built fast enough. He reports long lead times on critical components from vendors.

At Enstrom production grew from seven in 2002 to 17 in 2003, then to 23 the next year, and in 2005, 30 helicopters will be built. Enstrom President Jerry M. Mullins said sales are strong in Asia and South Africa, and this year's big push will be toward the law enforcement market. Even boom markets have their risks — the task is deciding how much to build. "It's how much risk you want to take," Mullins said. "No one wants to have aircraft sitting on the factory floor." The American helicopter market faces tough competition from government-subsidized foreign manufacturers, he added.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Sport Pilot Takes Off

Are you ready for some fun?


Since last July when it was formally announced, the Sport Pilot and Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) initiative had been rolling out one step at a time, laying out an entirely new infrastructure to support pilots, mechanics, dealers, and manufacturers. And in April, the FAA gave the green light to allow manufacturers to produce ready-to-fly airplanes. With the regulatory work largely complete, now come the challenges of building an industry.

Think of it as trying to inflate a new rubber balloon: It's hard at first, but when it meets a certain threshold, it expands rapidly. The FAA has already trained its first two batches of designated pilot examiners who will administer sport pilot checkrides; appointed the nation's first light-sport-aircraft designated airworthiness representative and given guidance to train more to issue airworthiness certificates; and released a blizzard of information from rating applications to practical test standards. See AOPA's sport pilot Web page (, a central clearinghouse for all the information, including a chart that explains what it takes to become a sport pilot.

The first couple of years, nonetheless, are going to be tough for this fledgling endeavor. Let's say you're in the market for a light-sport airplane. Here's a complicated web to weave in your mind: The insurance company says it won't insure the airplane unless it can be serviced; the bank says it won't finance without insurance; the manufacturer says it's too expensive to provide service from its location; and the flight school says it doesn't have any airplanes to train you with. Sure, you can fly already-type-certified airplanes that meet the LSA requirements such as a Piper J-3 Cub or certain Luscombe 8s, but they're not as plentiful as they used to be and you have aging-aircraft issues to deal with. Sound like marketspeak? Well, here comes the sales pitch.

One company says it has a solution. Borrowing from the "auto mall" concept, has established regional centers across the country that will provide sales, flight training, warranty service, maintenance, and parts for new light-sport airplanes. So far the company has 18 independently owned regional centers and plans to have at least 28. They will provide support for ready-to-fly light-sport airplanes as well as experimental versions where the manufacturer does most of the work for the owner/builder.

"I think the overall market is big enough for all of us," says Tom Peghiny, former chairman of the light-sport airplane subcommittee. President Josh Foss sees three main types of customers. There are the ones who always wanted to build a kit, but didn't have the time. There are the existing pilots who were pushed out of general aviation either because of costs or a medical problem. (The sport pilot rule allows pilots to fly airplanes with a driver's license in lieu of a medical certificate, provided their previous medical certificate wasn't suspended or revoked.) And there are the ones who have no previous flying experience, but always wanted to take wing.

The third type will likely require the most interesting marketing campaign. LSA advocates believe these new pilots can be found in the so-called power sports. Instead of — or in addition to — riding personal watercraft, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles they would fly airplanes, gliders, balloons, powered parachutes, and weight-shift-control aircraft (basically hang gliders with engines attached). To make sure sport pilots will be able to fly airplanes with as few as 20 hours of flight time, sport pilot industry representatives say they were careful about the stability requirements manufacturers will have to meet.

As Larry Burke, president of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA), points out, they don't want to raise expectations too quickly, not without new airplanes to supply the market. One of the best places to find new airplanes is Europe, where companies have been building to the microlight rules, similar to the LSA standards but with lower maximum gross weights. It appears to many industry insiders that there will be an initial European invasion (the first to receive a U.S. airworthiness certificate was the Evektor-Aerotechnik SportStar from the Czech Republic), but in the long term it depends on supply and demand and foreign exchange rates. Some American manufacturers will be importing aircraft models from overseas and at least one foreign manufacturer to date, Fantasy Air, is planning to establish a headquarters in the United States. That way the company says it can address buyers' top concern: factory support. Fantasy Air makes the Allegro 2000, already flying in Europe, from its Czech Republic factory.

In a recent AOPA member survey, 30 percent of the respondents believe that the FAA's new sport pilot initiative is going to result in significant growth of the general aviation population.

American manufacturers such as Rans, Skystar, and Ace, to mention a few, already have existing kit airplanes that meet the LSA performance and weight limitations. The challenge comes in reorganizing the companies to produce products where little or no assembly is required. Traditional manufacturers that already offer type-certified aircraft have plans to bring back old favorites such as Taylorcraft with the Taylor Sport, a derivative of the Taylor Cub, and American Champion with the Champ. Two companies are planning to offer Piper Cub look-alikes: Cub Crafters with the Sport Cub and American Legend Cub with the Legend Cub.

But there's more to the sport pilot initiative than new pilots and aircraft. Some see the way in which the rules came together under the self-regulation concept as the future of doing business with the FAA. There has been a subtle transformation within the agency that only government insiders may have noticed. From redesigning airspace to certifying aircraft, the FAA now sees the importance of involving the stakeholders earlier in the process. The traditional route was to submit comments to an FAA proposal, then pray that you could recognize it when it came out the other side.

The FAA instead established the ASTM Committee F37 (AOPA is a voting member) to come up with the consensus standards — the first such standards developed by a nongovernment agency — that the industry will be using to ensure quality in designing and building ready-to-fly and kitbuilt airplanes. The expectation is that with the support of the committee the standards can readily be updated to keep pace with technology. In fact, they're required to be addressed almost on an annual basis.

Tom Peghiny, former chairman of the light-sport airplane subcommittee, says the standards are international in scope, using the metric system as the basis for measurement to spur a worldwide market. He knows of at least three governments that are looking at adopting the standards in their own countries.

Peghiny is a LAMA board member and president of Flightstar Sportplanes, a Connecticut-based company that is importing the German-made Flight Design CT. It's a slick-looking composite high-winger, representing the top of the line in light-sport aircraft with its $85,000 price tag (for the well-equipped version). It comes with either an 80-horsepower Rotax 912 or a 100-horsepower Rotax 912S. In early April, Peghiny had nine aircraft in the country and figures he can import six per month. His customer base is mostly made up of 50- to 70-year-old pilots, many of whom already own other airplanes, but are excited about the new design. Other customers are moving up from ultralights. Flightstar is developing its own service network.

So when it comes to sport pilot and light-sport airplanes, you have to think beyond U.S. borders and consider the rest of the world, already dealing with much higher fuel prices and exorbitant flight-training costs, to truly understand the market potential.

"I think the overall market is big enough for all of us," Peghiny says.

Associate Editor Nathan A. Ferguson is a flight instructor with more than 12 years of publishing experience. He began his career as a newspaper reporter and editor and has been reporting on the general aviation industry for the past five years. He soloed in a glider at age 14 and is ready to experience the fun of light-sport aircraft.

A Surprising State of Maturity

Experimental/amateur-built aviation grows up


Not many years ago, a lot of people in the industry were convinced that the great future of general aviation would be shaped by experimental/amateur-built aircraft. After all, that's where the innovation was — new designs, particularly those using smooth composites, were employing new technology that had yet to be certified. (Some felt that it would never be certified. Looks like Cirrus and Lancair proved them wrong.) The airplanes were sleek and fast. They could use things such as electronic ignition and effective, lightweight autopilots that were just not available to the production crowd. With emerging construction methods, the actual build process of an experimental would be no more difficult than snapping together a full-size Revell model. Have some cake and eat a slice, too.

Experimental-aircraft aviation has always seemed to thrive on this kind of hype, and what might surprise those who have not been watching is that the industry as a whole has matured. The cases of a brand-new company promising a six-seat airplane capable of 300 knots on 80 horsepower using a sleek composite airframe you can build in a weekend are few and far between. "If someone came out with claims like that today," says Richard VanGrunsven, owner of Van's Aircraft and maker of the RV series (the overdog in experimental/amateur-built designs), "they would be laughed off the field. Consumers are a lot smarter now."

Indeed, the vetting process for the average kit buyer is a lot more involved than it used to be. "People come by the facility and want to see how the parts are built," says Mikael Via, president of Glasair Aviation. It's not enough to accept a promise of aircraft performance or corporate stability; today's builders want to see it, touch it, smell it.

Part of this conservatism stems from some fairly visible corporate failures. For example, since I built my Aero Designs Pulsar 10 years ago, many companies have folded. In the great Avid/Kitfox war, only Kitfox survives — and it has hit patches of ice in the cash-flow lane. The airplane born the "Wheeler Express" has come and gone a couple of times and is, currently, a defunct design. These are just a few examples; many builders have been literally left to their own devices when the parent company went under. The bright side of this story is that, as the builder and possessor of a repairman certificate, you can do whatever work is necessary to keep the airplane flying. It's a much less troubling situation than if you owned a short-production-run certified aircraft.

Still, there have been success stories in the category and none rosier than the ascendance of the RV series. Begun 30 years ago, the kits have now become the dominant design. Those in the know quickly and neatly divide experimentals into two categories: Van's and everyone else. While there's something to be said of the herd mentality — the Van's design is extremely well known among even casual builders, so there's comparatively little risk in undertaking the project — the main reason the Van's line has succeeded is that the airplanes themselves are exceptionally good, honest conveyances.

"We are flying real airplanes," says VanGrunsven. "We're a bigger and bigger proportion of what's going on. These aircraft comprise a good percentage of the fleet. I don't think that experimental aircraft will ever take over the fleet for size. Not to discredit anyone, but if you look at an efficient way to manufacture airplanes, this has got to be the worst. But since the other alternatives aren't working too well, then this alternative is becoming more prominent."

At press time, there were 4,100 RVs flying, and airplanes are being completed at the average rate of 1.5 per day. Every day. The beautiful irony of such success is that the RVs are conventionally constructed metal airplanes...rivets and all. The line has expanded from one- and two-seat aerobatic taildraggers to include larger models, a proliferation of tricycle-gear versions, and most recently, a four-seat model that looks, from a great distance, like a very smooth Grumman Tiger with a glandular problem. (That is, it's large.) Built around a 250-horsepower Lycoming six-cylinder engine, the RV-10 is the company's largest design to date and one of its hottest sellers.

Why have buyers plumped for metal designs when there are still excellent composite (as well as tube-and-fabric) models out there? One is Van's reputation for honest flying qualities, understated performance figures, and stable customer support. But more than that is a trick of technology that has allowed metal airplanes to be vastly easier to build.

It's called match-hole construction, and it's used by Van's and Murphy Aircraft to excellent effect. In essence, match-hole design makes it so the builder does not have to create jigs for accuracy. There are thousands of holes already punched in the metal skins. They are generally punched in such a way that the sheets can only be put together one way. When they are seamed up and temporarily held together before riveting, the structure is just about guaranteed to be aligned. This technology has removed a lot of guesswork from the process and spurred sales.

"We are flying real airplanes," says Richard VanGrunsven, owner of Van's Aircraft. Not to discredit anyone, if you look at an efficient way to manufacture airplanes, this has got to be the worst. But since the other alternatives aren't working too well, then this alternative is becoming more prominent."

Nothing has pushed sales as much as the proliferation of both quick-build kits and completion centers. Quick-build kits have been with us for a long time, but the current ones are truly amazing. If you take a GlaStar Sportsman 2+2 as an example, a quick-build wing comes with most of the structure already placed, prepared, and riveted in place (see " Kitbuilt-Bush Fun," June 2004 Pilot). Strategic panels are left open so the builder can run wires and install parts of the control system. But the amount of work done by the factory is staggering, even more so if you know what you're looking at.

Beyond the quick-build kits are specialized centers designed to assist builders to complete their aircraft in as short amount a time as possible. There is an important distinction to make here, however. There are scores of shops around the country that will outright build you an experimental/amateur-built airplane. Your involvement is to write the checks, nothing more. And as tempting as this sounds, it's very much against the rules that say to be eligible for the amateur-built certificate, the builder — the legal manufacturer of that airplane — must do the "majority" of the work. Over time, this has been construed to mean 51 percent of the tasks. At the end of the day, it's up to you to decide what's right and what's truly legal.

Even with that noise in the background, more companies are stepping up to provide their own programs. Glasair Aviation's Customer Assembly Center was designed to work within the guidelines of the law. (Despite the name, understand that you are there to assemble airplanes, not customers.) Currently, the program is in place for the GlaStar Sportsman 2+2. The steps to be performed by the builder are clearly spelled out and make up an accepted list of systems and components the builder must have a hand in. The trick is that you will be working alongside factory employees who are there to answer questions and carry on the work that you have just learned. For example, the rule may say that you should know how to drill and rivet a wing rib. It is accepted that you do not have to drill and rivet every wing rib to receive credit for the operation. In this sense, the factory people take over when you're finished learning how to do, and actually doing, the first rib.

Glasair President Via says, "We had numerous people come and visit the factory and fly the aircraft, and see that we were stable. Then they'd say, love the airplane but I'm going to buy a completed one. We decided it was necessary to concentrate on what you would call a quick-build kit, but take it a step further. It used to be that 80 percent were buying the base kit, and 20 buying the quick build; now it's just the opposite. We launched our Customer Assembly Center where you can complete the vast majority of the airframe in two weeks and then, if you want, stay on and complete the firewall forward in a week after that. We've touched a segment of the GA marketplace — pilots and owners of 172s and 182s — looking to have a new, reasonably priced utility airplane but who don't have time to build one in the conventional sense."

Glasair President Mikael Via says, "We've touched a segment of the GA marketplace — pilots and owners of 172s and 182s — looking to have a new, reasonably priced utility airplane but who don't have time to build one in the conventional sense."

After airframe and engine work, it's down to electrical, avionics, paint, and interior — not an insubstantial amount of work left, but manageable in a timeframe measured in months rather than years.

In many ways, the Sportsman represents a shift in the market toward utility aircraft. Murphy Aircraft, builder of all-metal aircraft, has been doing extremely well with its massive Moose, which uses a Russian radial engine and goes for floats like Jackie Chan seeking fighting props.

It's not that the so-called "fast glass" is less prominent, but the legacy manufacturers — Glasair and Lancair — have shifted focus considerably. The Glasair line is a steady, though by no means breakthrough, seller, and Lancair has continued to emphasize the high end as exemplified by the IV-P (see " Lancair IV-P: Get Up and Go," April Pilot).

At the other end of the scale are manufacturers such as Flightstar Sportplanes. Tom Peghiny is the designer, owner, and president of Flightstar and has a hand in several areas. His company manufactures the Flightstar Experimental aircraft, a line that you should view as very grown-up ultralights, and is the importer and distributor for the ready-to-fly Flight Design CT aircraft and the HKS two-cylinder, four-stroke experimental engines.

"The experimental side has been a bit slow lately, and I think it's because we have a lot of buyers waiting for the LSA. Even so, we believe that there will be a lot of activity in amateur-built kits from pilots flying under the LSA licensing rules. An amateur-built kit is still the least expensive and most accessible way for people to get into the air," says Peghiny. He also points out that building your own gives you access to a repairman certificate, which in turn allows you to perform the annual condition inspection and make updates and major alterations essentially without restriction. "That's something that has fallen by the wayside in the discussions lately," he says.

If the overall picture in experimentals circa 2005 seems conventional on the airframe side, at least the avionics have done more than keep pace with what's available for production aircraft. Electronic instrumentation has proliferated in this class, with an electronic flight information system (EFIS) on every corner like a chicken in every pot. Dynon Avionics' EFIS-D10A is a good example. At $2,500 complete, this liquid-crystal-display panel fits into a conventional 3-inch-diameter instrument hole to replace a mechanical attitude indicator. It contains an air-data computer and a solid-state directional gyro calibrated by an external magnetic sensor — even an electronic slip-skid ball.

There are, of course, several other vendors of full electronic displays for the Experimental market — still, regrettably, not Garmin — including Blue Mountain Avionics, Chelton Flight Systems, and Grand Rapids Technologies. These models are, increasingly, replacing traditional steam gauges in experimental aircraft. In fact, the most popular discussions among various builders groups are how to properly design the subsystems for the total absence of a vacuum system.

Autopilots, too, are increasingly part of the discussion; there are young manufacturers in this field offering compact, accurate autopilots at a fraction of the cost of traditional brands. While the trend had been to adapt certified equipment for experimental use, more often this is not considered viable. Builders have gravitated to the increased value and higher technology of the experimental-only boxes.

Ultimately, the state of the nation in experimental/amateur-built aircraft is one looking forward as a mature, stable community of well-known manufacturers and established products. While alternative engines and designs are still part of the fold, they are largely overshadowed by fast, lightweight metal aircraft using a conventional Continental or Lycoming powerplant. Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, experimental aviation is perhaps not as exciting from a spectator standpoint, but it's a much better place to be if you're actually thinking about building your dream machine.

Marc E. Cook is editor in chief of Kitplanes magazine. A former AOPA Pilot staff writer, Cook built an Aero Designs Pulsar in the 1990s and has flown a considerable number of Experimental/Amateur-built aircraft over the last two decades. An unabashed enthusiast of the category, he says building another airplane is merely a matter of time.