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LSAs, TAAs, and VLJs -- the next generation of GA aircraftLSAs, TAAs, and VLJs -- the next generation of GA aircraft

LSAs, TAAs, and VLJs - the next generation of GA aircraft

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Alan Klapmeier
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Dan Johnson
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Vern Raburn
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AOPA President Phil Boyer (standing) and the
panel respond to questions from the audience.

Whether you're looking for an affordable way to get started flying; practical transportation loaded with the latest technology and the feel of a luxury car; or your first foray into the flight levels, there's never been a better time to be part of general aviation. That was the message from a panel of speakers representing three relatively new segments of the GA industry: light sport aircraft (LSAs), technically advanced aircraft (TAAs), and very light jets (VLJs).

Dan Johnson of LSA Marketing; Alan Klapmeier, co-founder of Cirrus Design; and Vern Raburn, CEO of Eclipse Aviation, spoke before a crowd of nearly 1,000 at the Friday morning general session at AOPA Expo 2005 in Tampa. The three represented very different types of aircraft, but all agreed that, regardless of which type of aircraft you choose, you're bound to find innovative technology and a new perspective on value.

Just what is an LSA? It's an aircraft that meets certain industry design standards, weighs no more than 1,320 pounds, travels no faster than 120 knots, holds one or two people, has fixed gear and propeller, and stalls no faster than 45 knots in a clean configuration.

Johnson has another way to describe them as well: approachable, affordable, and achievable. And that means fun. "Flying doesn't have to be so serious when the costs are more affordable," Johnson said. Visitors to Expo can see the fun for themselves, with a display of 13 LSAs at Tampa's Peter O' Knight Airport.

With acquisition costs as low as $55,000 to $85,000, low fuel burn, and owner repair privileges, buying and operating a new aircraft is now within the means of many more pilots. And the shorter time needed to earn an LSA certificate and the use of the driver's license medical standard make it easier for new pilots to get started.

On the other end of the spectrum are the VLJs that promise to bring the advantages of travel by private jet to a broader market segment. "We're not competing with airlines, we're competing with cars," Raburn told the crowd.

He described VLJs as costing less than $2.4 million, having relatively low operating costs, weighing less than 8,500 pounds, and carrying four to eight passengers. And, he believes, they will make general aviation relevant as a practical form of mass transportation. "It's no longer about rich guys and their toys."

But can mere mortals handle these aircraft? With the right training and proficiency, they can, Raburn believes. "The biggest lie in aviation is that jets are hard to fly. It's right up there with 'the check is in the mail' and 'I'll respect you in the morning,'" he said.

Somewhere in between LSAs and VLJs are TAAs. And perhaps the best-known examples of these are Cirrus Design's SR20 and SR22 models. Their value proposition? "We don't sell airplanes, we sell time," said Klapmeier. "And if we can lower the barriers to entry to give more people access to that time savings, we can expand the general aviation industry."

Lowering those barriers to entry means making GA flying easier and more comfortable, improving aircraft performance, and changing what we mean by safety - and we can start by training pilots to be better decision makers, Klapmeier said.

Safety and insurance were on the minds of audience members as well. During a question period at the end of the general session, one audience member asked about the safety of the new breed of aircraft.

"If you look at the automotive industry, cars have become radically safer, yet we haven't seen a significant decrease in the number of deaths and injuries on the highway," Raburn responded. "The reason is you can't overlook the people. As long as there are pilots, they will be the weakest link."

Klapmeier expressed similar sentiments, urging the flight training industry to focus less on simply building mechanical skills and more on developing good pilot judgment and decision making skills.

"The best thing we can do for proficiency is to change the value proposition so that people fly more," Klapmeier said. "You need to fly hundreds of hours a year, not dozens."

As for getting insurance in your new aircraft, Raburn believes Eclipse has solved the problem. "If you pass our type rating program, you will get insurance," he told the audience, noting that rates would be similar to those for a Beechcraft Baron, although the difference in hull value would increase the total bill.

November 4, 2005

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