The PiperSport seemed like the perfect airplane for launching a new flight school designed for sport pilots, and Tim Fleming bought the airplane after a single demo flight.
Sleek, sturdy, and roomy, with an expansive bubble canopy and an airframe parachute, the all-metal airplane could attract the youthful, technology-embracing new student pilots that Fleming sought. And during the first year in which Fleming, 52, founder of Fleming Aviation in Gaithersburg, Maryland, has operated the low-wing, Rotax-powered airplane, it’s more than met his high expectations.
So when Piper Aircraft announced in mid-January that it was abruptly dropping the PiperSport and severing its ties to the factory in the Czech Republic that builds and supports them, Fleming was in a quandary. Should he rely on the now-orphaned aircraft design to expand his flight school and aircraft dealership? Or should he sell his lone PiperSport and make a new affiliation with another manufacturer?
It didn’t take long for Fleming, a computer software consultant, and his wife, Pat, a former school administrator, to make their decision. They kept their airplane and went ahead with plans to buy a second.
“Piper brought name recognition and some amount of value to the PiperSport because of its well-known brand,” said Fleming, who also owns and flies a Piper Seneca II (and has a dog named Piper). “But the fact that Piper won’t be involved in the future isn’t a show-stopper for me. I need the right airplane to train students—and I’m completely convinced that this is the best one for the job.”
Fleming was introduced to the Piper-Sport at the same time Piper introduced it to the world—at the Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida, in January 2010.
Fleming had flown his Seneca to the event and planned to take a close look at the Light Sport aircraft models on display there. But when Piper announced with great fanfare that it was entering the LSA market by acquiring the rights to the former SportCruiser—modifying it slightly, renaming it PiperSport, and starting a dealership network to sell and service the airplanes—Fleming took notice.
“I liked the way it looks from the very start,” he said. “It’s a sexy, attractive airplane. My flight school was oriented toward young people, and it was obvious this airplane would appeal to them. And it has.”
Fleming bought a top-of-the-line model (retail price: $140,000) with a glass-panel cockpit, IFR instrumentation, and an airframe parachute. He took delivery in early 2010, and the airplane quickly became a magnet for the kinds of students he sought. At a rental rate of $99 an hour, the new airplane compared favorably to older trainers that required more maintenance and consumed more fuel.
“I was busy right out of the gate,” he said, “and I actually had to stop advertising for new students because the airplane was booked all the time on the weekends. Demand has exceeded my expectations from the very beginning.”
Even with adverse weather during his flight school’s first autumn and winter, the PiperSport logged more than 200 flight hours. And its engine and airframe have held up to the rigors of the flight- training environment without protest. The only part he’s had to replace is a fastener on an oil door.
“It’s held up fine,” Fleming said of the red-and-white airplane that appears new despite its frequent use. “Starting the Rotax engine is just like starting a car. Student pilots don’t have any problems with it, but it’s an adjustment for some veteran pilots.”
Kyle Mitchell of Gaithersburg, Maryland, said he chose the PiperSport as a trainer for both practical and philosophical reasons. Fleming’s was the closest flight school that offered sport pilot training, and he liked the idea of a new airplane with an airframe parachute.
“The ballistic recovery system is extraordinarily appealing to someone who has never flown before,” Mitchell said. “And even though it doesn’t matter as much to trained pilots, it still provides the same comfort to my passengers that it once did for me.”
The PiperSport has much lighter control forces than most other trainers—especially in pitch. But Mitchell said the control sensitivity isn’t startling or unpleasant, and light stick forces are just one of the countless new factors that a new sport pilot must master in learning to fly.
The glass panel took some time to learn, Mitchell said. But he also likes the precision and accuracy that the Dynon EFIS and Garmin GPS provide. “My favorite part is a little magenta triangle [on the EFIS] that shows my course corrected for wind,” he said.
Mitchell passed the sport pilot flight test on his first attempt and said he feels much more comfortable taking passengers flying in a new and modern airplane than he would a decades-old airframe.
“It’s really nice being able to take friends and family up in such a sleek-looking aircraft,” he said. “It gives them confidence when the blue-tinted bubble canopy goes down, the full glass panel lights up, and a soft, automated voice speaks to you through the headset. For a moment they forget I’ve only had a pilot’s license for three weeks.”
Piper said it backed out of the PiperSport program because of ongoing philosophical differences with managers of Czech Sport Aircraft, the production facility that builds the airplanes, but did not to say exactly what the differences were.
Competitively, Piper appeared to have beaten rivals Cessna and Cirrus to the punch in the LSA market with the PiperSport.
“After a year working with Czech Sport Aircraft, Piper determined that it is in our company’s best long-term interests to discontinue the business relationship,” said Piper CEO Geoffrey Berger. “Clearly, the company has a different business perspective and approach to the market than Czech Sport Aircraft.”
Piper had scoured the LSA market for many months before choosing the former SportCruiser, rebranding it, and setting up a worldwide distribution network. Piper officials said they never had any doubts about the airplane itself, or its performance.
Competitively, Piper appeared to have beaten rivals Cessna and Cirrus to the punch in the LSA market with the PiperSport. Cirrus had long since halted its efforts to bring a sport airplane to market, and Cessna was running into repeated and frustrating delays setting up SkyCatcher production in China.
Piper marketed its airplane as a twenty-first century reinvention of the iconic Cub, a pilot’s aircraft that would bring back the joy and simplicity of flying. Meanwhile, Piper tried to steer flight training customers to the rugged and time-tested PA–28 Archer and twin-engine PA–44 Seminole for that purpose.
PiperSport dealers had sold about 45 airplanes in 2010.
The group has banded together to form the U.S. SportCruiser Dealers Association and plans to continue promoting, selling, and supporting the airplane it calls the Cadillac of the LSA market. The Czech factory intends to continue producing new airplanes, honoring warranties, and providing replacement parts.
“The only thing that changes is the name,” said Fleming, who learned to fly at age 16 and is a veteran instructor. “Piper brought a recognized brand, but it also brought costs. I don’t think Piper’s actions are going to matter at all to my students.”
While showing off the features of the PiperSport, Fleming’s cell phone rang. It was the general manager of another aircraft manufacturer offering Fleming a dealership as an East Coast representative for a separate line of LSAs.
Fleming said the call came as a complete surprise and smiled. He’d have to take some time to consider the offer. “Whenever one door closes,” Fleming said, “another one opens.”
E-mail the author at [email protected]. Photograph by Chris Rose