Everyone knows 2020 was arguably the most unusual year in anyone’s recollection. In such a time of global upheaval, how did the light aircraft industry fare?
This report took a bit more time as the effort to begin counting Part 103 ultralights altered our view of the FAA aircraft registration data. Most of you may prefer this simpler report, but the data hounds among readers can drill all the way down to the last aircraft on Tableau Public.
As always, my sincerest thanks goes to our premier datastician Steve Beste. His work is the primary resource for this report. While I deeply appreciated the work done for years by former data guy (and friend) Jan Fridrich, Steve’s career in databases gave him skills that few others possess. Since he’s also “one of us” — a trike owner and pilot — Steve understands what we hope to achieve better than data experts outside affordable aviation.
We believe the following information is the best and most reliable found anywhere in the world. However, any sharp readers who see errors or omissions are encouraged to speak up. We have often benefitted from reader input and welcome any chance to improve our reporting.
Surviving or Thriving?
“Registrations grew by about 4% in 2020, down from 10% growth the year before,” Steve summarized.
Many may be surprised. Registrations grew in 2020!? Indeed, they did, and that’s without counting Part 103 ultralights that do not need to be registered with the FAA. We’ll have lots more on Part 103s in a couple months (the effort continues to contact all 57 producers currently identified).
Other than Part 103 vehicles…
“The market splits into three distinct categories,” according to Steve:
- Zenair/Zenith, which registered* almost twice as many aircraft (86) as anyone else in 2020,
- Followed by the next four companies, each with more than 40 registrations in 2020,
- And then everyone else.”
Trailing the longtime leader of this segment was Van’s and its RV-12 (we do not cover the other models Van’s sells), followed by Kitfox, Rans, Sonex, and Just.
The leading registrations were almost all kit-built planes that can be flown by someone with a Sport Pilot certificate or using those privileges with a higher certificate, what we call Sport Pilot kits.
Van’s RV-12 can be bought factory-built as an SLSA, but of the 54 RV-12s registered in 2020, only 11 were ready to fly, Steve reports.
Builders completed their kit-built planes at a good pace in 2020. In the chart below, the red line shows factory-built aircraft, SLSAs, and ELSAs. The brown line shows kit-built aircraft.
“Historically, most of ‘my’ kind of aircraft have been factory-built, but that’s no longer true,” Steve observed. “Now factory-built and kit-built are on par.”
Indeed kits have been rising faster since about 2015 — where from 2005 (when the first SLSA were accepted by FAA) through 2014, ready-to-fly aircraft were pulling away.
Why is this true? Many reasons might explain, but affordability is a key element and, no question about it, investing your labor reduces the cash outlay to have your own airplane.
At the same time, the sophistication of Special LSA has risen over the years. Features such as bigger, more powerful engines, autopilots, big fancy panel displays, leather interiors, complex manufacturing with carbon fiber, and the cost of complying with ASTM standards has increased the cost of some SLSA beyond $200,000. At this price point, some readers note a recreational aircraft can cost more than your house (not in California or New England, perhaps, but in many U.S. regions this may be true).
“Look at the slope of the lines,” Steve advises. “The brown (kit) line is steeper, especially last year. That means two things: First, a lot of people finished their kit planes in 2020 — more than finished them in 2019 (so that’s how they spent their lockdown time). Secondly, people are buying more kits than factory-built aircraft. Of course, there’s a lag in the data*. Some of those 2020 completions represent purchases from years before. Still, the kit segment has overtaken the factory-built segment.”
*Registrations are not sales or deliveries. Kit-built aircraft are rarely registered in the same year they were delivered, so kit registrations in 2020 may not reflect 2020 sales, which could have been lower or higher. Special and Experimental LSA of any kind are likely to be registered the same year they were manufactured. Over time, registrations and deliveries tend to align.
Special and Experimental Light-Sport Aircraft
Aside from fixed-wing Sport Pilot Kits, Italian gyroplane maker Magni more than doubled its registrations.
Among ready-to-fly (RTF) models, Scoda’s Super Petrel amphibian had a breakout year.
Yet all is not well. Icon sunk from fifth place to 15th, with just 13 registrations, down from 42 last year. AutoGyro’s numbers dropped 38%. “The largest gyroplane manufacturer in the world is reportedly undergoing a ‘corporate restructuring,’” Steve noted.
We do not cover the Primary Aircraft category where some AutoGyro models may appear after they spent generously to achieve that certification with FAA. With the coming LSA regulation preparing (we believe) to allow SLSA gyroplanes, the advantage in having Primary Category approval is diminishing.
Whatever the explanation, Italy-based Magni surged from well behind the market leader to race ahead in the American gyroplane market for 2020.
LSA Seaplanes — a category all its own
Two companies stand out from the rest in 2020.
“Progressive Aerodyne’s SeaRey is the leader among amphibians now that Icon has slipped,” Steve says.
This must be particularly delicious for those working at the Tavares, Florida, airplane manufacturer. SeaRey existed long before Icon Aircraft. Once solely a kit builder, after adding SLSA models Progressive has steadily marched forward, even during ownership and management changes. Searey’s steady performance year in and year out wins the match against A5. These days, the two are priced dramatically differently and Searey remains a great value.
Coming in 2021, however, is New Zealand’s Vickers Wave that expect first flight this spring.
Although presently a kit producer, Aero Adventure will begin offering a fully-built model and its price point is sure to attract new buyers for this long-proven design.
One statement is true for LSA seaplanes and all other recreational segments: The ease of market entry compared to conventionally-certified “legacy” airplanes is sure to keep developers on their toes, demanding they continually make their aircraft more desirable.
Fixed wing, three axis aircraft have dominated Light-Sport Aircraft since the start. However, what I term “alternative aircraft” — anything not a fixed wing three axis model, including trikes, gyroplanes and powered parachutes — have long made up about a quarter of the total and this remains true.
In this new year, I suspect we will find that Part 103 ultralights will factor in significantly. Among these lightest powered, wheeled aircraft, fixed wing, three axis will be the lion’s share but alternative aircraft represent a percentage you cannot ignore.
My expectation is that unit sales of Part 103 fixed wing and alternative models may exceed the total of SLSA/ELSA models sold. They are less costly by a wide margin — in some cases only one-tenth the cost of a deluxe Special LSA.
Reviewing the charts and tables accompanying this report, Steve noted, “Except for Magni, gyroplane registrations were down. This hot segment seems to have cooled a bit in 2020.” I would add that this could change a lot once the new regulation is announced and ready-to-fly gyroplanes can be sold by any company that earns FAA acceptance via ASTM industry consensus standards.
“Trike registrations were flat overall,” Steve said. However, he added, “Evolution Trikes had a big comeback in 2020. Interestingly, they registered only one of their high-end Revo trikes. Fortunately, Larry Mednick branched out into the mid-sized RevoLT and the single-seat RevX. The latter is like a high-performance ultralight, so perhaps its numbers are a side-effect of the boom in ultralight sales this year.”
Evolution also makes a Part 103 model called Rev that also experienced a robust year in 2020, Larry reported.
“Powered parachutes (PPCs) recovered from 2019, but Powrachute brand may soon be the only company in the segment,” Steve wrote.
The Michigan producer — which also manufactures components for Evolution Trikes — nearly doubled its registrations from 2019 to 2020.
Six Chuter came back from zero in 2019 but its numbers are small.
Some other PPC producers have models that show up nowhere. SkyRunner and its gnarly, large, and “twin-engined” combo powered parachute and ground vehicle made several sales to the U.S. government and military. These units require no FAA registration so do not appear in our tabulations. No other powered parachute make emerged into the statistics opening the door for new entrants.
That’s our look at affordable aircraft in 2020. Building a kit can be a largely solo activity and sport aircraft are flown solo most of the time. Therefore 2020 was not the horrid year it was for someone working in hospitality, restaurants, gyms, churches, or other “non-essential” activities.
If you’re one of many who kept flying in 2020, good for you! Enjoy your aerial freedom!