Sun 'n Fun 2011: Green Shoots
This year, going into Sun 'n Fun, I thought about making a blood pact with Russ Niles and Mary Grady to just shoot anyone who proposed any kind of a story related to "recovery" in 2011. Or 2012. No one can answer this, so I just vowed to stop asking the unanswerable and resigned myself to the fact that the show might turn out to be a graveyard with lights. It wasn't, although the graveyard proved true for a few unfortunate airplanes when a tornado roared through town on Thursday.
We always expect to see new things at these shows, major and minor. Although this year was more of the latter than the former, a few things caught my eye as significant. One was Cessna's new Corvalis TTx. Now let's not get wrapped around the axle about this being a bold stroke, because it isn't. It's an incremental improvement on an undersung design that hasn't done that well against the Cirrus SR22. What makes it significant is that Cessna bothered with it at a time when sales have been in the tank for months. At NBAA last fall, Cessna's Jack Pelton took careful pains to report that Cessna continues to invest in R&D during the downturn, even on the piston side. With Garmin's new G2000, the TTx may be a bit more of an advance than first meets the eye. While promising details later, Cessna's Bob Stangarone told us the company was "very pleased" with the number of sales it put in the books at Sun 'n Fun and he's generally not one to sandbag because he knows Niles will call him on it. (I'm far too shy and retiring to do this.)
I was surprised at the number of people who told me they had the best Sun 'n Fun show ever or at least in the past several years. My friend Craig Barnett at Scheme Designers was busy for most of the week, indicating to me that the retrofit market is waking up a little. Into that development comes Garmin with perfect timing on the new GTN navigators. At Sarasota Avionics, Ryan Van Kirk told me they sold nearly a dozen of these systems and that as of Sunday, Sun 'n Fun was looking like the best ever for them, too.
At LoPresti Speed Merchants, they rolled out seven new aftermarket products with similarly strong response, said Rj Siegel, the company's business manager. I haven't heard that sort of thing in at least three years. A salesman for Evektor, an LSA supplier, said he may have all but closed seven deals and at Waco Classic, Peter Bower had a white board with a half dozen commitments on the company's new Great Lakes revival biplane. I'm scheduled to fly the airplane today for a flight review and looking forward to some bugs in the teeth.
Two lesser developments caught my eye as having considerable potential. One is a new self-guided training program from a consortium of Cessna, Redbird and King Schools. It's about time somebody tried this because one of the reasons we don't attract and retain pilots is that we make the training too complicated and force people to plod along with essentially the same syllabi and methods we've been using for years. It's not so much that the training is hard, just overly complex. We did a video on this new program and it seems to have merit.
The other thing I like is that AOPA has teamed up with David Kruger of the Aircraft Partnership Association to provide this service as a branded option for its members. To me, it seems obvious that the market for aircraft ownership and flying participation expands if you lower the cost and partnerships do that. I have never thought it logical to solely own an expensive asset like an airplane, nor could I ever afford to do that. Are there others—many others—like me? Maybe we're about to find out.
What I have not seen—yet—is an attempt by either EAA or AOPA to seriously reconsider how they can support mogas as a means of holding down the cost of aircraft operation. I am increasingly convinced that this is a doable thing, although I think it unlikely to be a major part of the market. Still, cost is a factor for many; a couple of bucks a gallon can make the difference between pulling the trigger on flight training or taking up RVing instead. We need every new start we can get.
Last, the weather that wacked the airfield on Thursday was both unforeseen and unprecedented. I was actually in Sarasota at the time and watched the radar loop. The gust front was moving more than 50 MPH and it rained so hard that water pooled a half a foot deep in well-drained areas. Vendors I spoke to gave the Sun 'n Fun organization kudos for turning things around quickly, with an exceptional nod to the volunteers who worked tirelessly to get the show ready for Friday morning.
Several made this suggestion and it applies equally to AirVenture organizers: a better means of warning outside vendors would help. Lots of booths have live XM and had an inkling of what was coming, but it wasn't reliably conveyed to everyone. On the other hand, I'm not sure anyone could have predicted the final intensity.
Last, several readers have asked about how airplanes that survived were secured and why those that didn't were lost. I spent Sunday morning investigating this very question and will have something to report later in the week. (Mainly, it has more to do with luck than with rope choices.)