Sun 'n Fun's Average Year
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.