The Frederick (Md.) Municipal Airport, AOPA’s home base, is a fairly busy place, site of enough training activity for the airport/facility directory to label it “intensive.” Two flight schools on the field, one exclusively fixed-wing and the other primarily helicopter, keep a dozen or so instructors off the streets and mostly out of trouble; between them, they operate about 20 aircraft. Several flying clubs provide instruction to their members, freelance CFIs offer training in everything from gyrocopters to hot-air balloons, and the helicopters of the Maryland State Police Aviation Command make frequent proficiency flights. It’s rarely dull.
With all this going on, an experienced pilot might expect to find a wide selection of rental aircraft. He or she would be surprised. One owner searching for a substitute to rent while his own airplane waited out an engine overhaul learned that retractable-gear singles were almost impossible to find. Exactly one turned out to be available—this at a field that’s home to an estimated 230 based aircraft. Another returned to rental service the following week. Together they were typical of much of this segment of the fleet: Both were more than 35 years old, with bad paint. The first had a fresh engine, old radios, and no GPS. The second paired a Garmin 430 with an engine and airframe that both felt tired—and had no autopilot, if that’s important to you.
Frederick is hardly unique. A large school at another airport nearby operated three entry-level retracts ten years ago. Now they have one. Nor is there a huge untapped market waiting for fresh equipment. None of these airplanes fly every day, or anything close to it. They’ve been known to sit for as much as a month between engine starts, so it’s little wonder that their owners aren’t in a big hurry to freshen them up.
What happened to the complex trainers? Of course, a lot of them have been beaten up. Retractable gear adds new failure modes on both the mechanical and operational fronts without making the airplane any less susceptible to other forms of mischief. In 2010 alone, failures of the gear-extension mechanisms were blamed for 15 accidents and 20 reported incidents, while 18 accidents and 29 reported incidents were the fault of pilots who simply forgot to put the gear down (or put it down in time), horn or no horn. Since incidents don’t have to be reported and the Form 830 definition of “accident” seems to have been written specifically to exclude gear-ups, the actual numbers are almost certainly higher—possibly much higher. Whether they have to be reported or not, gear-ups and gear failures are expensive to repair, and in a soft resale market, it’s a good bet that insurers have become increasingly likely to write these airplanes off instead of fixing them.
Meanwhile, the supply of new aircraft has almost dried up. Beechcraft stopped making the Sierra in 1983, and Cessna ended production of the 172RG in 1985. While the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) reported a total production of 902 retractable-gear piston singles over the past five years, more than 70 percent were high-performance six-seat models. Not many schools want to put a new Bonanza or Mirage out on the line for initial training. Lots of pilots have earned their complex endorsements in Mooneys, but the speed, polish, and, yes, cost of their recent models likewise limits their appeal as trainers. Piper still makes the Arrow, but only by special order; in the past five years, they’ve delivered just 18. Their website no longer even shows the model.
Someone would presumably be making the airplanes if the demand were there. In fact, many schools have decided that there’s no compelling case for offering single-engine complex training at all. With flight hours down and maintenance and insurance costs continuing to rise as the aircraft age and wear, the trade-offs aren’t getting more attractive.
Retracts were more expensive to operate 20 years ago, too, but the market for them was stronger. Would-be owners who wanted to go fast assumed they’d be stepping up to a retractable, while aspiring career pilots saw professional advantages in building complex time. Now slick, quick fixed-gear singles from the likes of Cirrus and Columbia make it possible to go fast without lifting the wheels, and over the past five years they’ve outsold retractable singles by almost three to one. Those pilots who want to step up may find it more convenient to get the complex endorsement while flying off the dual-instruction provisions of their insurance requirements. Anecdotal reports suggest that most of the demand for complex trainers now comes from commercial pilot candidates, who are still required to log 10 hours of training in a complex airplane. Those who can’t accomplish that at their home fields have to do it someplace else, which may create some niche markets if the availability of the airplanes continues to dwindle.