As a new year begins, it seems a good time to attempt to measure how the light end of aviation is doing. As 2014 was the 10th anniversary for Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA), it is doubly useful.
We have various ways to assess growth in aviation … pilot starts, new certificates, new airplanes delivered, used aircraft sales, and magazine distributions (also reported at the end of the year), among other methods.
In this article, I use information graciously provided by Rotax Aircraft Engines. If you are a light airplane enthusiast you already know this brand, probably very well. If you don’t know Rotax, I can put the brand in perspective by saying it provides 75%-80% of all engines for one- and two-seat aircraft produced around the world. The remainder of approved light aircraft engines are supplied by Jabiru of Australia, Continental and Lycoming of the United States plus, to a much smaller extent, HKS of Japan.
The company, once known by the name Bombardier, is part of a conglomerate. Headquartered in Canada and on the stock exchange of that country, Rotax builds its recreational products engines and more in Wels, Austria. I have twice visited this sprawling and modern facility and observed the production floor humming with the assembly of thousands of engines each year.
A substantial portion of the large factory is used to build engines for Rotax BRP, and one of the most prestigious sections of the plant houses the aviation engine line. I was told by workers that for hundreds of well-trained and closely monitored technicians, the most desirable positions are building airplane powerplants. Indeed, it is calmer and less noisy and follows a careful pace, befitting the building of airplane engines.
Recreational Aircraft Market Size
Every airplane has an engine, so measuring the sales of aircraft by counting their engines is valid. Let’s consider that a few aircraft, such as Tecnam’s P2006T Twin and Lockwood’s AirCam, use two engines each and the former is more a commercial trainer than a fly-for-fun machine. Readers should also bear in mind that a limited number of engines are used on drones. But Rotax engines are primarily mounted on civilian recreational aircraft.
Rotax reports that its engines are designed for recreational purposes only. The company does not sell directly to customers, instead going through its extensive distributor network.
As detailed below, I believe the market for very light aircraft and LSAs exceeds 3,000 units per year worldwide.
Americans are typically unaware that the rest of the world flies so many light aircraft. These are commonly referred to as Ultralights or Microlights (different than the U.S. version of “Ultralight”), Very Light Aircraft, or Light-Sport Aircraft.
Most pilots in the U.S. focus on traditional general aviation aircraft, for which the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) has reported delivery numbers for many years. However, regular tallies of the FAA’s N-number registration database show that in the United States the ratio is approximately 80/20, traditional GA airplanes to recreational aircraft.
Yet in Europe and most other countries that ratio is reversed, with GA representing only 20% of all civilian aircraft, with 80% recreational, according to people who track such figures. This large percentage includes gliders (very big in Europe), but even omitting sailplanes, the ratio is quite lopsided in favor of recreational aircraft. For most owners, GA aircraft are too expensive to buy and operate outside the USA.
“From 1989 through June 5, 2014, we have sold 50,000 four-stroke engines of the 912 and 914 model designation,” noted Christian Mundigler, key account manager of Rotax Aircraft Engine Sales. “On the two-stroke engine side we sold altogether more than 120,000 units up to now.”
These deliveries show Rotax is far and away the most prolific producer of engines, but other brands mentioned above add powerplants used on recreational aircraft. Assuming their output is about 600 units per year — likely a conservative estimate and only considering production for the light aircraft sector — we see the light, recreational aircraft market probably reaches beyond 3,500 airframes a year, even after accounting for the use of two engines on some models.
In comparison, GAMA will likely report less than 1,100 piston-powered aircraft of all types and sizes from all its members around the globe for 2014 based on information released for the first nine months of the year.
When you include shipments to all countries, the light recreational aircraft market represents a large portion of all civilian, non-commercial airplanes being delivered.
Where in the World?
The United States is well established as the largest aircraft market in the traditional GA world. Yet the 80/20 rule referenced above means the rest of the world has a much greater share of the recreational aircraft market.
Since Rotax engines produce 80-115 horsepower, they are exclusively used on light aircraft, yet account for a disproportionate 68% of all powerplants based on the analysis in this article. That makes the Austrian company the number one piston engine aircraft builder.
With the United States taking less than 1,000 of the company’s annual 3,000-plus aircraft engine production, where are all the others going?
“Averaging over a long term, our main engine market, including two- and four-stroke powerplants, Europe has around half of the share,” reported Mundigler. “The Americas, including North, Central, and South, has about a third of the total. Growing markets are Russia and China, with double digit increase rates in recent years.”
He reported that most are the 100 horsepower Rotax 912ULS, 912iS and 912iS Sport engines.
Besides their modern technology, high quality, small size, and low weight, Rotax engines are popular around the world as they operate well using readily-available automobile gasoline. The 80-horsepower Rotax 912 can even use lower octane auto fuel, while the more powerful models require 91 octane. They run fine on 100LL aviation fuel and owners can mix mogas and avgas in any proportion without concern. Even ethanol up to 10% is acceptable. Around the world, aviation fuel is not widely available and, as American pilots know, avgas carries a substantial price premium. Combined with fuel burn rates of 4-5 gallons per hour, no one should be surprised at the success of the Rotax engine line.
From the above figures, we can see the light, recreational aircraft industry is alive and well and makes up the largest unit volume share of all aircraft delivered each year.