When the Sport Pilot/Light Sport Aircraft movement was introduced, it got a tepid reception from some in the aviation community who doubted the viability of the certificate, not to mention the aircraft.
Oh what a difference time, marketing and education make.
It also helps when big players get into the game.
At this year’s AirVenture, the show grounds were abuzz about the look of Cessna’s LSA, the SkyCatcher, as well as the announcement by Cirrus Design that it will collaborate with Germany’s FK Lightplanes to get the FK14 certified in the United States in the LSA category.
“Having Cessna and Cirrus, two key players in the training aircraft manufacturing market, enter the LSA movement validated our vision,” notes EAA President Tom Poberezny.
“We spent 13 years working on Sport Pilot — 10 years in rule making and another three years developing the infrastructure before the rule came out. At first there was this idea that Sport Pilot was designed for pilots who had lost their medical certificates. That is not true. Sport Pilot was designed to lower the cost of airplanes and the cost of flying so that more people could learn to fly and keep flying.”
With Cirrus and Cessna vying for their parts of the LSA market share, the market is here to stay, declares Poberezny.
“You have two legacy companies: Cessna, which has been in the aircraft manufacturing business for 80 years, and Cirrus, which is a fairly new company but dynamically growing. Both of them came into the LSA market for the same reason, but from different directions,” he said. “Cessna, which is a leader in the training market, sees the importance of reaching customers early, that is during primary training.”
And reach them they are. Cessna had an electronic tally board in its AirVenture exhibit that showed exactly how many SkyCatchers had been ordered. The number grew daily during the show. At last count, Cessna had racked up 720 orders for its LSA, totaling more than $75 million.
“It has been very exciting to see the overwhelmingly positive response from our customers on the SkyCatcher,” said Jack Pelton, Cessna’s chairman, president and CEO. “The affirmative reaction to this offering reflects the overall continuing strength in the general aviation market around the globe.”
Pelton noted that the decision to move ahead with the LSA, which came a few months ago, was based on extensive market research done by querying the 300 or so Cessna Pilot Centers (CPCs) throughout the nation, as well as last year’s AirVenture attendees.
“We originally thought the LSA market was a niche market,” Pelton says. “But the more we got involved and saw the potential customers through the CPCs, the more we saw a strong indication that there was a market for a new, modern and fun airplane that allows pilots to rent and fly at rates lower than the C-172. We recognized that there was a niche and enough of a critical mass and that is why we decided to move ahead with the project.”
Developing the SkyCatcher required the company to meet the ASTM standards for LSA, yet try to improve on cockpit comfort.
“What we have is an aircraft with a cabin as wide as a C-206 that allows two people,” he explains. “It’s more comfortable than a C-150 and does great on the $100 hamburger mission because it is more economical than a 1970s vintage C-182.”
Part of the feedback Cessna sought was opinions about the prototype. One of the first things to change was the engine. The prototype featured a Rotax 912.
“Based on our customers’ feedback we went with a Teledyne Continental O-200D 100-hp engine designed specifically for Light Sport Aircraft,” he says. “Continental is a known entity for mechanics at most flight schools and it has a better warranty and Time Between Overhaul than Rotax.”
Another big surprise at AirVenture was the addition of a Garmin G300 panel in the aircraft.
“We have a great relationship with Garmin,” notes Pelton. “We helped with the development of the G1000. Then we went to Garmin and said to differentiate ourselves we’d like to develop a unique avionics suite for the SkyCatcher. The G300 is exclusive to Cessna for a period of time, and has made it a really compelling value proposition.”
Pelton noted that the cosmetic details of the aircraft have yet to be worked out, although the company plans to offer two colors a year.
Deliveries are slated to begin in 2009.
Cirrus Design, meanwhile, is working with FK Lightplanes to get the FK14 certified in the United States in the LSA category.
During a very public press conference at AirVenture — attended by as many customers and passersby as media representatives — Cirrus co-founder Alan Klapmeier said that the company had decided to develop an already existing design because it did not have the time to develop one of its own.
Company officials note that Cirrus Design evaluated several aircraft before making the decision.
“Cirrus concluded, based on many factors, that the FK Lightplanes Polaris FK14 was the best aircraft available with a BRS parachute system and a similar low wing design that fits the Cirrus family of aircraft,” says Dr. T. J. Bartoe, executive vice president of operations.
Another selling point is that Peter Funk, FK Lightplanes’ owner and CEO is “a very talented engineer and has agreed to provide engineering services to acquire an LSA certification in the U.S. in collaboration with Cirrus,” Bartoe adds.
Additionally, the FK14 is “fun to fly and will be an exciting and affordable addition to the Cirrus product line when certified as an LSA,” he notes.
It is not yet clear what the “manufacturing strategy” for the LSA will be, according to Bartoe. “The FK14 will continue to be manufactured in Krosno, Poland, until the LSA certification is completed — approximately 12 months or less— at which time Cirrus will decide what makes the best economic and strategic decision relative to manufacturing,” he says.
While there are many vintage aircraft that fall into the LSA category, EAA’s Poberezny notes that many aspiring pilots are looking for new aircraft that are comfortable and have a certain level of technology.
“They have certain expectations,” he says. “The Cessna cockpit is roomy and stylish and has a Garmin in it. The FK14 fits in the Cirrus family of designs.”
TOO MANY AIRPLANES,NOT ENOUGH PILOTS?
For the past two years LSAs have had their own display area, dubbed the LSA Mall, near the Vintage Aircraft headquarters and an informational booth near the show line at AirVenture. Next year’s Sun ’n Fun also will devote prime real estate to an LSA Mall as the number of LSAs continues to grow.
One pilot, looking at the collection of LSAs at AirVenture, noted that some of the aircraft manufacturers and importers might not be around in a year or so because of a glut of aircraft on the market. Poberezny is doubtful of this saturation, noting that one of the key points of Sport Pilot/LSA is to grow the pilot base.
“There are about 600,000 in the pilot community now,” he says. “If we can grow that number, say to 700,000 in a few years, the demand for product will grow right along with it. You need to grow the market place and demand will take care of itself.”
Poberezny adds the aircraft manufacturers not only will be competing for the training market, they also will be competing for the market made up of already certificated pilots who are looking for a lower-cost aviation experience. He advises that all this will not happen overnight.
“The deliveries of the SkyCatcher are at least 18 months to two years away,” he says. “The Cirrus is probably one year away. Both companies will have to ramp up. Even if they manage to turn out 50 airplanes in one year, there is a good chance those will be training airplanes and destined for the flight schools — but from those flight schools will come the customers.”