Now that 2015 has entered the history books, we will slowly begin to see statistics for the year. My guess is that most aviation media will completely miss one of the big picture perspectives.
This oversight does not represent a knowledge failure, but instead reflects a U.S-centric focus on general aviation.
In the world of conventionally-certified aircraft, such a viewpoint is correct. An estimated 80% of the world’s such aircraft are produced and used in America.
However, beyond our shores lies an international gold mine for small aircraft producers.
Here’s a factoid: According to reports from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, 986 new single engine piston aircraft entered service during 2014, the most recent year for which such figures are known. However, around 3,000 new Light-Sport, Very Light, or Microlight aircraft were delivered.
We’ve known for a long time that elsewhere on the planet, ratios are reversed. In the USA, 80% or so of all aircraft delivered are Type Certified … Cessnas, Cirruses, Pipers, Diamonds, Mooneys, and the like. Only about 20% are Light-Sport, kit-built aircraft, Part 103s, or aircraft such as sailplanes.
Outside the USA, however, the situation is the opposite. Only 20% of all aircraft carry government certification, while 80% of the airplanes pilots fly are what can generically be called recreational. Overwhelmingly these are two seaters and the approval for their operation often comes from government-sanctioned aero clubs.
The method of gaining approval varies by country, a fact that also makes tracking exact aircraft counts very challenging. However, significant forward progress came with the FAA’s acceptance of ASTM International standards.
An industry group devised the approval prescriptions and these are now accepted by aviation authorities in many countries.
Before ASTM, a category referred to as “microlights” gained traction around the globe. Both systems continue. Both enjoy good safety records.
With avgas selling for more than $10 a gallon where offered and with availability a major challenge in many countries, engines that can operate on automobile fuel have earned loyal followings. The Rotax BRP company headquartered in Austria has cornered about 75% of the light aircraft market. This is true in the U.S. as well because its 9-series engines run on avgas, mogas, or any mixture of the two, making for great fuel versatility.
Countries and Totals
Nations boasting the largest number of aircraft trail far behind the USA, but with 200 countries, the figures add up quickly.
Through conversations with many pilots at airshows, I am keenly aware that Americans tend not to think much about aviation in other countries. That statement is less accurate when talking to recreational aviators, as many of them own an aircraft produced overseas. Regardless, the international market is large and growing faster than any other segment.
By my best research, I estimate a worldwide population of light aircraft to include Light-Sport, Very Light, or Microlight aircraft at more than 50,000. Nearly all of these have been manufactured in the last 25 years, while the average age of an American type certified aircraft is now 38.2 years. The U.S. general aviation single engine piston fleet adds up to more than 137,000 aircraft.
Single engine piston type certified aircraft will dominate for years to come, thanks significantly to high build rates in the so-called Golden Age of Aviation, the 1950s to mid-‘70s. Even if the delivery ratio of three recreational aircraft to one TC holds far into the future, it will be 30 or 40 years before their numbers overtake the old guard.
What might be called “greater Europe” is the largest territory for recreational aircraft. Sailplane gliders in Germany alone are a major force, but the Continent has a rich history of embracing sport aircraft. Many readers may recall that the Allies forbade Germany from making powered aircraft for years at the end of World War I. That prohibition may have been a major stimulus for the growth of gliders first and then light aircraft created outside the established aircraft manufacturing system.
The EU accounts for around 40% of worldwide totals, with more than 20,000 light aircraft flying. To compare, even when combining LSA and all Experimental (homebuilt) aircraft in the USA — a major and steadily growing segment — Europe alone is nearly equal. Leaders in Europe include Germany, Italy, France, England, and the Czech Republic, but every country adds to the total. Scandinavian countries add hundreds more.
Outside European countries, South Africa adds more than 6,000, Canada has more than 7,000, while Australia and New Zealand add another 5,000 or so. Aviation interest remains high in Brazil, while Asian countries bring growing counts of aircraft nation by nation.
Two countries are still very small in the tallies of aircraft and pilots, but change is expected. China and India are home to a third of the world’s people and both are embracing aviation like never before.
We’ve observed what China can accomplish with infrastructure and airports in their plans right now. Given the government’s blessing and a push by a growing middle class, the country could bloom like few nations we’ve ever seen. In 10 or 20 years, the aviation firmament may include many Chinese pilots.
India is not progressing as fast, but its military recently contracted for some 200 Light-Sport aircraft trainers built by Slovenian LSA prime mover, Pipistrel.
What About Pilots?
All the preceding discussion is about aircraft. The figures regarding pilot populations still significantly favors the USA.
A major German airshow, Aero Friedrichshafen, has estimated worldwide pilot numbers at something north of 1 million. Of such a figure, the USA has well over half. A third of all Yankee pilots live in California, Florida, and Texas.
Some of the best news about pilots in America is that while the largest age section is the 50-64 group (at close to 180,000), the second largest group (174,000) is aged 20-35. Such interest from a younger cohort suggests that airline pilot shortage we persistently hear about has a solution coming up through the ranks.
While striving for accuracy, solid and reliable statistics are devilishly hard to obtain and are subject to all sorts of inconsistencies. Yet no matter how you cut it, light and sport aircraft are a very substantial sector of the worldwide family of aircraft.
Given entry by emerging aviation countries like China and India with their immense populations, the light-sport, recreational segment looks to remain aviation’s growth sector.