A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

June 2007

New Kids on the Block

(John Richardson's TURBO PELICAN parked under the wing of a 747.)

Light Sport Aircraft, the newest category of machines for the recreational flyer, have seemingly given aviation a huge boost. There was a time when there were dozens upon dozens of airplanes to browse as we walked the ramp at local airports. Over time, most disappeared. Or did they? The Canadian Civil Aircraft register shows a steady increase in the number of planes in Canada since 1959. The early to mid 1990’s saw a levelling off in that number, but since 1999, there’s been an increase every year. This is in contrast to the numbers when we talk about pilots. The number of private pilots peaked in 2003, but that’s been in a freefall ever since. It would be even lower if not for the recreational pilot category.

Since 2004 when the new rules for LSA (in the U.S.) took effect, it seems there’s news of new models being introduced on a monthly basis. There’s a new frontier to explore and at this point, the total number of pioneers is up around forty. That’s right, forty different, new planes, from different manufacturers available now to choose from. Most are from European countries. No longer are we limited to Cessna, Piper, Taylorcraft, Mooney, Citabria, and the tiny handful of others we’ve grown up with. Practically every aviation publication you pick up has articles about how they fly, how they perform, the fuel consumption and so on. There’s no question that these tiny, two seat planes offer many remarkable and revolutionary design ideas. This is the time in aviation history, with the change in some rules, when designers and builders are introducing some new and exciting products. Today it’s almost impossible to find a new aircraft constructed of tube and fabric. Even the gold standard “all aluminium” is passe. New tougher, stronger and lighter Kevlar and glass products have replaced them. 

It’s a feeding frenzy among the magazines as they scramble to fill their pages with the great news of this revolution. If you were to believe all the hype, you’d expect to look out the window and see the sky literally full of spiffy new sport airplanes. 

But sadly, I don’t think so. These new airplanes might very well be the vehicle that pilots have dreamed about owning, however the big question is ..... who can afford to buy them?  All referral to price in the advertising, the articles and websites, is a casual mention.  But the fact remains, you’ll not soon be flying in one for less than about $100,000 bucks!  

In all my travels last summer, I was fortunate to see just one of the new planes in the LSA category. It was a model from the Czech republic and was being used as a working aircraft rather than for simple recreation. If the Katana qualifies as an LSA, you’ll notice there aren’t too many around apart from those owned by flying schools.  But clearly, private ownership isn’t impossible. There are surely some pilots out there who are able and willing to lay down that kind of cash for a weekend airplane. I would suggest another idea could be a shared-ownership arrangement. 

Forty different manufacturers are now competing in a market that will not be able to support them all.  History is on the verge of yet another repeat performance.  Just like the automobile. That highway is littered with the remains of carmakers who for one reason or another, failed.  Duesenberg, Packard, Blackhawk, Studebaker, Crosley, Elgin, DeSoto, Avanti, Auburn, Cord, the list goes on .... and on. Most people have never heard of, or have long forgotten the stories and promises. The same process of elimination occurs with almost any product or service through a period of time. The process of elimination, consumer acceptance and rejection is a normal part of the cycles. The “dot com” period is now the “dot gone” era. And it didn’t take long. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an enthusiastic pilot, and one who thinks this time for revolution and change in our industry is long overdue. But I believe it will be over, long before we’re tired of it. The products out there today are undoubtedly superb, the technology far superior to what we could buy in the early airplanes from the major manufacturers. But is it that much better?  Are there enough pilots who can afford to spend $100,000 for a recreational vehicle? There may be enough to support a small number of companies building these airplanes. The strongest will survive, there will be mergers, the rest will dry up and fly away.

Meantime, I look forward to opportunities to fly a few of the new breed of sport airplanes. They’re classy, clean and fast. Most appear to be at cruising speed even when they’re on the ramp standing still. The sports cars of the air. I think it’s still early in this revolution. Manufacturers claim big sales figures over the past several years in their home countries. I searched for several hours attempting to find some North American numbers, but was unable to come up with anything to report. However, it may just be too early in this whole affair.Time will tell. It’s a good time for optimism. We haven’t seen anything like this in decades.

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