Light Sport

Two Years and Counting

April 1, 2007

Training is less expensive, but what about the airplanes?

Two years ago the Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) category began with a promise of inexpensive pilot certificates after only 20 hours of training, and less expensive 1,320-pound, two-place, 120-knot airplanes that can be flown on a driver's license in place of a medical. Has the promise been kept? And is the market demand big enough for the new industry to succeed?

Dealers, engine manufacturers, pilots, flight school operators, two FAA officials, aircraft manufacturers (including those still deciding whether to enter the market), and industry leaders were interviewed to find out.

The overall answer is that even airframe manufacturers are having a hard time predicting the market demand for light sport aircraft, and factual data on numbers of pilots and airplanes lag behind reality, making a true picture of this new industry difficult to determine. But here's a quick answer. Most of those interviewed think two things are needed for the light-sport industry to succeed: Cessna Aircraft Co. must decide to bring its Cessna Sport LSA to market, and hundreds more flight schools, perhaps 1,000, must offer and promote sport pilot training.

The promise

Let's start with price. The promise of a $60,000 airplane is easily found in aviation and business magazines, not to mention Web sites published by industry leaders, from 2002 through 2004. The reality? Now, out-the-door prices (not the base prices) of most best-sellers reach and often exceed $100,000. Today's light sport aircraft are generally purchased by buyers of means, not bargain hunters. A light-sport examiner in Florida said the higher price has "discouraged" many ultralight pilots used to paying $10,000 to $20,000. What happened?

Today, 25 of the 33 manufacturers that make the 46 LSA models now available to you are in Europe, where economies are based on the euro. The exchange rate for the dollar punishes buyers in the United States and can account for at least $20,000 to $30,000 of the cost. Additionally, manufacturing capacity is now so low that demand easily outstrips supply, so manufacturers have no need to negotiate the asking price. Adding to the cost is consumer demand for high-tech glass cockpits — in low-cost airplanes. You can't have both.

The sport certificate

Although only two or three manufacturers offer a true $60,000 airplane, the promise of an inexpensive pilot certificate is coming true, as evidenced by the experience of a flight school in Missouri. The St. Charles Flying Service at St. Charles Airport, has offered LSA training in the Czech-built Evektor Sportstar since July 2005 — one of 15 flight schools using the Sportstar — and has graduated 29 sport students. St. Charles offers a 25-hour package (five more hours than the FAA requires) for $2,860, and nearly all students finish for less than $3,500.

Dennis Bampton of St. Charles Flying Service said the average age of the students is 55, adding that 22 of the 29 had no previous aviation experience and none had held a pilot certificate. About three-fourths of the students were worried about passing an FAA medical exam.

The Sportstar rents for $81 an hour ($12 more than his Cessna 152) and operates for about $52 an hour including gas, oil, maintenance, and engine reserves.

Dan Johnson, chairman of the board of directors of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA), who keeps track of the LSA market online, said only 40 to 50 flight schools in the United States have an LSA trainer. A light sport aircraft is not required to offer sport pilot training. "Although many of them are still not aware, every CFI and every flight school can immediately start sport pilot training, bringing several thousand outlets into play. But to solo a sport pilot student, those schools will require an approved light sport aircraft. As production increases, many flight schools could have one in a year or two," Johnson said.

The present

The LSA movement is here, but the infrastructure to support it is not, according to Tom Peghiny, president of Flight Design USA (dealer for the German CT aircraft) and a director of LAMA. "The market is there for any organized company to sell as many airplanes as it can produce right now. However, we need more flight instructors, more dealers, service people, and mechanics. I think that is the bottleneck of the industry," Peghiny said.

The number of pilots currently in the sport category has disappointed two LSA dealers interviewed for this article. The best available numbers come from the FAA. Larry Clymer, manager of the FAA's Light Sport Aviation Branch in Oklahoma City, said there were 1,226 light-sport pilots at the end of December 2006, including all categories of aircraft. Surprisingly, powered-parachute pilots outnumbered fixed-wing LSA pilots 478 to 440. Clymer said he was "totally amazed" by that. However, the FAA receives no information on how many certificated pilots have simply stopped renewing their medicals and now fly light sport airplanes.

Clymer said in February that there were 2,003 light sport aircraft in the light- sport fleet (including fixed-wing, powered parachutes, weight-shift aircraft, gliders, and rotorcraft). New light-sport deliveries totaled about 400 aircraft of all types in 2006; but 82 percent of those were built by just 10 of the present 33 manufacturers. The leader was the Flight Design CT with 92 deliveries, followed by the American Legend Cub with 59 and the Fantasy Air Allegro with 41. A shakeout is predicted in the next year or two that could reduce the 33 companies to 10 or fewer.

Edwin Miller, president of Kappa Aircraft in the United States (dealer for the Czech-built Jihlavan Kappa), said he is concerned about insurance costs. New mom-and-pop flight schools with less than two years of experience could face insurance premiums $10,000 per year higher if they include light sport aircraft in their fleets, compared with long-established, larger flight schools, he said.

One insurance company at first refused to insure light sport training aircraft at St. Charles Flying Service, but backed down when threatened with the loss of the school's entire 26-aircraft fleet. Greg Sterling of the AOPA Insurance Agency said, "Insurance carriers have slightly loaded their LSA rates. As these aircraft are new to the market, their repair costs are still not well defined."

The future

The light-sport industry is waiting to see whether Cessna Aircraft Co. will enter the market with its Cessna Sport. "[From] last August through January of this year we show an increase in fleet size based on the FAA registry of 10 percent a month of growth in LSAs. That rate is something Cessna would pay attention to," predicted Tom Gunnarson, president of LAMA. However, he noted that an artificial spike in the LSA fleet will occur by January 31, 2008, the deadline for registering present ultralight aircraft in the Experimental Light Sport Aircraft (ELSA) category. It is expected that 3,500 existing ultralight aircraft will register.

Larry Werth, FAA light-sport program manager in the Small Airplane Directorate in Kansas City, Missouri, and Directorate Manager Kimberly Smith said ultralight owners must understand that no ELSA certificates will be issued after January 31. The larger ultralights flown after that date will have so many limitations on them that they will be nearly useless, Smith said.

What will Cessna do?

Cessna has 270 pilot centers in the United States (280 worldwide), all of which might add a Cessna Sport to their fleet if Cessna decides to proceed with production. "I can't overemphasize the importance the 'Big C' brings to the marketplace," said Bill Canino, the dealer for the Czech-built StingSport (14 deliveries last year). "Successful LSAs must have Cessna-like dealerships, training, parts, service, quality control, resale prices." Cessna officials briefed AOPA Pilot on February 27 about the status of their plans.

During this briefing Cessna Light Sport Aircraft Project Engineer Neal Willford admitted he was still not at liberty to say much. But after a 90-minute interview asking tough questions and reading body language, here are some best guesses on what Cessna might do. Enthusiasm within Cessna and from the public nearly screams for the project to continue, like the gentleman who sent Willford $200 as a deposit and begged that it not be returned. (It was.) A second prototype will be built, assuming a positive decision is made, and it may look close to the one flying on the day of the interview. That decision is likely to be announced at this year's EAA AirVenture. It most certainly will be powered by a 100-horsepower engine, and the possibility is strong that Cessna will stick with the Rotax, even though "voice of customer" surveys often indicate buyers would rather see an American engine. Only Continental is proceeding with a light sport engine and Lycoming continues to survey the market. Cessna is searching overseas for manufacturers that can help keep the cost down. The price will be "competitive" with today's market, Willford said, and he indicated his belief that most light sport aircraft today are at the $100,000 mark, " or minus $20,000."

Cessna has its eye on the training market to make the Cessna Sport a success, and has positive feedback from Cessna Pilot Centers.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.