Sun 'n Fun's Average Year

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As Sun ‘n Fun drew to a close over the weekend, I’d say that most of the people I spoke to deemed it about average. As I’ve said before, it’s pointless to draw any conclusions about the aviation economy based on how vendors saw the booth traffic or what the daily gate was. We’ve long since passed the point of expecting a booming turnaround.

As I said in a blog last week, I was wondering if we would see at least the outlines of the next big thing. Maybe there is no big thing, just a steady trickle of developments in a market that continues to evolve slowly. Normally, when companies announce what avionics they'll use, it's a snoozer, but Flight Design's decision to use Garmin's G3X in its developmental C4 airplane is significant. Keep in mind, the C4 will be a full-up, IFR-certified four-place airplane. So how are they gonna get away with the uncertified G3X for avionics? Plan A is to certify those boxes as part of the airplane under the new revisions of FAR Part 23. Yup, they’re betting on the come alright and I think it’s not a bad bet, actually.

Plan B, if the regulators fail to deliver on their lofty promises, is to use the airplane’s TSOd mechanical instruments as primary for IFR and the two G3Xs as displays. The airplane will have a TSOd GTN 750 and a TSOd backup radio, so unless the regulators get really chicken^&%$ about it, Flight Design should have it covered. They’ll need this to work if they hope to hit the $250,000 target price for the airplane. That price, by the way, is what a new G1000 Cessna 172 SP cost in 2007. They’re comparable airplanes, although the C4 is faster and its engine is approved for mogas. (Sort of...91 AKI, really.) Wouldn't it have been nice to have a G3X-like box 10 years ago when the G1000 was just appearing. But the displays just didn't exist then. I hope Flight Design makes these numbers. I also hope events in Ukraine, where FD does much of its manufacturing, don’t conspire to give them more headaches. (They’re also building a factory in China.)

Light Sport

There seems to be a substantial body of opinion—if not a majority-- that the light sport aircraft rule has been a mistake. We published one argument for this case last week.  While I don’t share that view, I also don’t think the LSA rule has been a ringing success, either. The reasons are many, but like those who argue against LSA, I do think the big negative driver is that an unnecessarily low max weight has meant that the aircraft just aren’t seen as durable for training. But that doesn’t mean the whole idea is a failure. Just ask Cub Crafters, which recently sold its 300th LSA.

And yet the new designs keep coming. At the show, Glasair Aviation showed off a mockup of the Merlin LSA it plans to introduce. Quicksilver showed its own S-LSA and I suspect we’ll see more at AirVenture. Why, I’m not sure. The market has declared it will support, at most, a couple of hundred airframes a year. Weak sales and low margin has already sent Cessna screaming into the night. I suppose if new entrants can make money on under a dozen airplanes a year, the business case is sound. Maybe. I always wonder what some of these companies might be doing with those investment bucks and developmental energy that might make them more return on the investment.

Rotax Numbers

Okay, I’m giving myself this week’s Wolf-Blitzer-Insufferably-Moronic-Question Award for a comment I made in this podcast. In discussing the torque numbers for the newly announced Rotax 912 iS Sport, I allowed as how the higher torque in certain RPM bands won’t have implications for the engine’s power output. That’s wrong, of course, because more torque at the same RPM means more horsepower.

During that interview, I was glancing at the 912 iS’s new torque curves and noticed that at the RPM where the peak power is measured, both engines had about the same torque, hence they’re both considered 100-HP engines. However, in the middle of the range, the Sport engine, by dint of having its induction tuned, generates a bit more torque, and hence horsepower at a given RPM. Also, I read past the scale on the right side of the graph—it was in Newton meters, not foot pounds. Not that it matters for the basic relationship of power and torque. This was done, by the way, mainly for the U.S. market, where constant speed props aren’t used much on Rotax engines. In Europe, they’re common, so the pilot can just dial up the RPM for max takeoff power. Improved induction gives the 912 iS better power delivery at takeoff revs with a fixed-pitch prop.

Diesel Traction

Continental’s Centurion diesel is popping up in more places and at next week’s Aero show in Friedrichshafen, we’re told to expect more announcements. At Sun ‘n Fun, Glasair showed off the first experimental installation of the Centurion 2.0s, the 155-HP variant, in a Sportsman. The company estimates it will add about a $60,000 price premium over the Lycoming choice. Homebuilders, who are notoriously frugal, may balk at that, but one Glasair builder stopped me near the booth and said he would order a Centurion now if it were available for the Sportsman he's got up on wheels. That’s a single data point, but maybe there’s more interest there than we think. And for reasons we don’t get yet.

At the Redbird booth, Jerry Gregoire told me the current price of the Redhawk conversion using the Centurion 2.0 will be $249,000. Isn’t that creeping up from the original estimate? Yes, it is. Gregoire said the airplane is simply proving to be more expensive to build than originally anticipated. To be fair, Redbird really didn’t make any promises about prices last summer, but had a goal of under $200,000 on a trial-balloon basis.

My view of it was that a price of around $225,000 would have been impressive; $249,000, I'd call not-that-bad territory and it has a whiff of the same old story in aircraft manufacture. One reason for the higher price, I have to guess, is that Redbird switched from the Aspen Evolution system to the Garmin G500. Sometimes I think we’re like crack addicts in aviation, larding up airplanes with more sophisticated and expensive equipment than they really need to do the mission. Then when we get bitch slapped by how expensive they’ve become, we act surprised and launch another bout of hand wringing over how we need to reduce prices. We can be our own worst enemies. In the end, there may be no solution for it. Maybe customers just won’t settle for anything but the highest price stuff, even while they complain about how much it costs.

On the plus side, Gregoire said with volume—and Redbird has big plans for that—the price might settle back to something lower. I certainly hope so. I’m not sure it’s enough to say an airplane is a good value just because it’s priced south of $390,000, which is where new Skyhawks are going. That $200,000 mark, or near it, seems like a sweet spot for buyers. And by the way, to achieve anything, these projects need to drive down the cost of what the customer will actually pay and not just improve profitability for flight schools. If would-be customers don't see price relief, profitability won't matter a bit.

Redbird has some competition from Premier Aircraft, which is doing Centurion conversions of the non-G1000 R and S model Skyhawks. Prices will vary, but the near equivalent of the Redhawk will sell for $289,000. That gets us to about the 2009 model Skyhawk as an equivalent. Redbird sees the market as a fleet lease opportunity through Brown Lease, while Premier seems to be angling for sales.

As refurb becomes a dominant market force, AOPA is shortly to announce its own project in this area. Several sources told me the association is doing a refurb project on three Cessna 152s with a price point of $85,000 out the door. Not that AOPA is getting into the airplane remanufacture business; it’s doing this as a demonstration project. This could be an idea with legs. As mentioned above, LSAs have been found wanting for lack of durability in the training market. But no one would say that about the venerable 152. In my mind’s eye, I can conjure up what a freshly restored one would look like. And I like what I see. My middle section hasn't expanded so much that I can't squeeze into the right seat comfortably.

Press Day

Many major trade shows have press days--a day or even two when the show is open just for press people to meet with companies and get their stories told. Of the aviation shows, only NBAA does this. But some companies are starting to figure this out on their own and are setting up appointments on set-up day. Redbird, for instance, had a major event and I met with them the day before to film the challenge project. It paid off in Google hits and clicks. So did ForeFlight and WACO Classics, to name a couple more.

Bluntly, for us and a few others I've spoken to, Sun 'n Fun just gets harder to cover every year. We blew off several events simply because we couldn't get from the press center to the show grounds or wherever the event was to be held. The golf cart taxi was a nice gesture, but didn't always work because there didn't appear to be enough available drivers. 

So if you're a company looking for press coverage, in the world of Google, you want it out there earlier rather than later. Give us a call or an e-mail before the show and we'll make a point to shoot coverage before the show opens--and this applies to any show. If you're still centering your coverage plan on press conferences, trust me, you're about 20 minutes late. You can do better.

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Comments (15)

Paul, thanks for the encouraging report. I hope that the industry keeps on developing ideas with frugality and simplicity. I agree that Refurbs meeting 2020 equipment requirements at less than $99M (C150, C152, C172 or PA28s and others) can encourage some to return to flying and increase the number of new-starts as well as revitalize our GA industry.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 6, 2014 12:04 AM    Report this comment

Hi Paul; Always good to get your insights. Although I'm a very small fish in aero media world I quit attending S n F when the media center was moved from a very accessible and centrally located spot near the flight line to what me seems to be as far away from the action as possible. A very nice building versus the old wooden shack but that's not the point. If media is important to the shows, then show sponsors must continue to work hard to accommodate and help the media. My 2 cent rant, Best, Steve

Posted by: Steve Ells | April 6, 2014 11:33 AM    Report this comment

I hope Flight Design is successful with the non-certified avionics in a certified aircraft. That could pave the way for the rest of us to add new life to our machines as we all know may actually increase safety in terms of situational awareness, ease of use with features as simple as heading and altitude bugs, HSI's, or basic autopilots to give us overtasked pilots a minute or two to do some problem solving. At the very least, maybe the FAA will conclude it does no harm which is what I think most requlations are born of anyway.

Posted by: Michael Piervy | April 6, 2014 4:37 PM    Report this comment

"One reason for the higher price, I have to guess, is that Redbird switched from the Aspen Evolution system to the Garmin G500."

I'm curious what their reasoning for the switch is. I thought the idea of using the Aspen was to purposely set up a hybrid panel so students could learn both glass and steam-gauge flying.

Synthetic vision is nice when you're in IMC or at night (at least, I image this to be so, since I've never actually flown behind a synthvis panel), and altitude/airspeed/heading trend vectors help add a higher level of precision to your flying once you get used to them. But beyond that, I find PFD displays to be overrated. I wouldn't want to do much flying in IMC without a moving map/MFD, but I could easily make do without the PFD (and may even prefer a 6-pack steam-gauge panel).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 7, 2014 10:58 AM    Report this comment

My takeaway from Sun-n-Fun reports;

1. Dynon Skyview Touch is an oustanding product. I'd buy it in a heart beat. GOOD. 2. LSA's are not for me - NOT SO GOOD. 3. DIESEL traction. Much too expensive to retrofit and maintain. NOT SO GOOD 4. Refurbs with Lyco's - GOOD. 5. Frugality and simplicity in avionic's design beginning to gain momentum.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 7, 2014 11:16 AM    Report this comment

Any bloggers in the area please advise!!!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 7, 2014 6:33 PM    Report this comment

I'm still at a loss to understand why flight schools will incur the added financial burden of G1000-type (using that term generically like Kleenex) glass panels in a basic trainer. While whiz-bang avionics are OK for an advanced trainer and for the private owner who can afford them, why not stick with the basics in a basic trainer, and teach student pilots how to fly the airplane instead of how to fly the avionics?

It's no answer to say, "Well, that's what Cessna and Piper sell." The manufacturers wouldn't sell even one basic airplane so equipped if there wasn't some demand from the training community.

It's also no answer to say, "Well, it attracts more students." Baloney. The statistics belie that position. Where are all the students?

The best way to get more students is to reduce the cost of training, and the place to start is to reduce the cost of the trainers. If the school is large enough to have more than one airplane, make one of them an advanced trainer and everything else basic, with very basic avionics sufficient for the vicinity. A $50K panel in an airplane that would otherwise sell for $150,000 makes no sense at all. For that matter, a $150,000 trainer also makes no sense, when a perfectly good well-maintained (not totally rebuilt) trainer can be had for $50,000.

We've created a whole generation of pilots who think that they can't get from A to B without a panel in a 172 or PA-28 which would have been the envy of nearly every airline pilot only 25 years ago. Yet for most of those pilots, they hardly ever travel more than 300 miles from home, seldom puncture Class B or C airspace, and definitely don't need more than a relatively simple panel in a relatively simple airplane to accomplish their real needs.

Cary

Posted by: Cary Alburn | April 9, 2014 10:33 AM    Report this comment

I agree with you Cary.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 9, 2014 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Of course you make perfect sense, Cary. But it has little application in today's society. It's not unique to aviation by any means. We overeat and supersize and carry too much weight, drive huge, unnecessary energy-inefficient vehicles for 99% of needed tasks, use expensive smartphones just to talk and text, and on and on.

Those who live an energy-balanced life remain in the minority - they don't interest advertisers and manufacturers and are generally brushed aside as not important players in their game. Safety and Security are big draws to most people that allows them a bit less personal responsibility in their lives. This has a snowball effect to the point of false security and dependence to the point of slavery on these things - and manufacturers, of course, love it.

And aviation is no exception. It really has an escalating, never-satisfying energy that if kept fed, looks to all but eliminate anyone without deep pockets. Wish it weren't so, but as Yogi was apt to say, 'The future ain't what it used to be.'

Posted by: Dave Miller | April 9, 2014 2:46 PM    Report this comment

Well, It ain't over yet but we sure are slow in getting that more glass glitter does not make for more and better pilots - it makes for more expensive aircraft and less pilots.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 9, 2014 8:56 PM    Report this comment

Paul,

I am surprised to see you appearing to jump on the diesel bandwagon while at the same time discounting LSA. Jet A is not cheaper, the airplanes cost more, and the fuel is not readily available at the small GA airports I fly at.

I thing the answer is a combination of burning cheaper Mogas and modern, more efficient power plants (UL Power or Rotax for example) instead of the same old engines we have been using for ever. Granted the availability of Mogas is far less than Jet A, but the industry could, with the help of new companies like Airworthy Autogas, move in that direction.

Sam

Posted by: Samuel Walsh | April 9, 2014 9:38 PM    Report this comment

Paul 's-not-here-man!!!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 10, 2014 5:39 PM    Report this comment

Cary, In the non-certified market we've just about reached the tipping point where a simple glass setup (Skyview, GRT, AFS, etc) is equal to or better than a standard "steam" panel in terms of weight and cost. It's certainly the case for an IFR panel, and it's also why so many LSAs have gone to glass. If the Part 23 revamp goes as intended, you'll soon see that apply to certified airplanes, too. Besides, some of the systems now have a "steam gauge" mode available if you really want to fly with it. So why would you bother with steam in a new airframe if glass would be cheaper, lighter, *and* more capable?

At a personal level, having flown the same VFR airplane for a decade with a VFR-minimum steam panel, and then very recently with a new Skyview installation, the glass wins hands-down. I know some people believe there's an unwritten rule that pilots must use every feature on every flight, but that's simply not true. Flying with the Skyview for a simple fun flight involves no more button pushing or knob twisting than it did on the old steam panel--just set the altimeter, maybe zoom the map in or out, and you're done. The hardest part of the transition, to me anyway, has been shifting from MPH to knots and having to re-learn all the speeds. The Skyview really shines on cross-country work. The GPS and map are nice and large and easy to read, the autopilot is convenient for hour-long legs with no turns, and the weather datalink gives me a complete weather picture (translated METARs, radar, etc.) in an easy-to-understand visual and text format in less time than it would take me to even look up the frequency for FSS or Center.

As I see it, the more information I have available, the better, whether that's traffic, weather, position and navigation, a PFD, or AOA. I may not need all of it all the time, but I'd rather have it and be able to ignore it or turn it off, than not have it and be really wishing I did.

Posted by: Bob Martin | April 10, 2014 7:26 PM    Report this comment

"I am surprised to see you appearing to jump on the diesel bandwagon while at the same time discounting LSA. Jet A is not cheaper, the airplanes cost more, and the fuel is not readily available at the small GA airports I fly at."

Not discounting LSA at all, Sam. I was actually making the point that I don't accept the argument that LSA was a mistake, even if it hasn't proven to be an overwhelming success. Some companies have done and are doing well with it. Others, not so much.

As for diesel, it's almost certain to be part of the mix. It gets down to how expensive your capital is and how you want apportion costs in a flight training operation. If a school operator wants new airplanes, and some do, the diesel is around 20 percent more expensive to purchase, but more than 30 percent less expensive to operate. I've crunched the numbers on this numerous times and they always come out in the same place. Schools can make money with diesel conversions.

It's also true that if mogas were embraced, it competes favorably with diesel economics, when the price delta against avgas is in the $1.50 to $2 range. While I think this is a terrific idea, it's also one that I think is just never going to happen because buyers just aren't willing to look at the numbers fairly. The bias against mogas is deep seated, irrational and, in my view, unlikely to change.

Perhaps a major sales and PR campaign could changes this, but both engine companies are cool to the idea and so are FBOs and schools I've talked to. If it's ever to work, it will have to be from grass roots up.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 18, 2014 4:24 AM    Report this comment

I'm probably the target audience for LSA. 57 yr old private pilot, enthusiast, retired, etc... The problem boils down to cost. 1/2 mil for a new airplane is just out of the question for the majority of American middle class families. The run-out 40 year old junk I see for sale locally just looks unsafe to me. My only access has been a local military flying club, but I am no longer current due to the fact that just a 1 hr jaunt to the practice area twice a week runs the flying bill way up over a house payment. LSA promised low cost fun. Sure a rickety ultralight flivver can be had, and some will come on here and flame me one way or the other, but the bottom line is still there: get safe reliable flying down to the price that the masses can afford or no one will participate on a recreational level.

Posted by: Mechani Cuss | April 22, 2014 4:21 PM    Report this comment

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