The Lowly 152: The Once and Future King of Training
At last week’s Redbird training conference, I wouldn’t say the attitude toward using LSAs in training was exactly hostile, but it wasn’t warm and fuzzy, either. During his talk on the Redhawk diesel, Redbird’s Roger Sharp said that LSA resale values are a relative unknown and, at least in Redbird’s view, LSAs haven’t yet demonstrated they’re up to the rigors of the daily training regime. Several of the attendees I spoke to shared this view, without flat out ruling out LSAs as a training option for them.
To be fair, I think this was a biased crowd. While they’re receptive to new initiatives in the training process, they also seemed more inclined to favor traditional piston trainers—Cessna 172s and the Piper PA-28 line. At the opening night reception, Piper’s Simon Caldecott won props merely for recommitting Piper to building training aircraft and recognizing that flight training is the door into future GA growth. This is, I’m afraid, preaching to the choir. It’s fine to verbalize this commitment, but it does nothing to address the exorbitant cost of new aircraft. Yes, the FAR Part 23 revision coming in 2015 may help, but even if it reduces the cost of new aircraft by a third—and I think that’s doubtful—it’s not going to help much. I’ll believe the effect of this promised cost reduction when I see it. Meanwhile, Redbird’s Redhawk is both more immediate and economically more potent. Compared to the regulatory revision, it’s moving at the speed of heat.
So if LSAs are deemed too expensive and not durable enough and new trainers like the soon-to-be $415,000 2014 Skyhawk are too expensive, where does this leave us? It leaves us just past the starting line on a growing industry to remanufacture existing airframes. I’ve reported on this before, but one aspect of it that hasn’t emerged yet but I think should is a focus on the low end of the training market, specifically the Cessna 152.
It seems like every time I report on LSAs used in the training market, I’ll hear from several operators who say they either tried to use LSAs as trainers or considered it, only to return to using clapped out 152s because they’re cheaper, more durable and easier to service. These operators seem mixed on whether it matters that the airframes just look like crap. Some say they desperately need more presentable aircraft, others say they’re willing to tolerate rattiness just to remain competitive. I’m not going to pulp the dead horse by again doing the airplane/Lexus comparison.
This suggests to me that there is or there’s going to be a Redhawk version of the Cessna 152. The airframes are out there, because flight school operators are telling me they’re finding them. I can imagine a refurb that includes a fresh engine—the O-235 is very competitive and its overhaul costs a third what the Centurion diesel does--new paint and an upgraded interior. For now, they can do with steam gauges and digital navcomms, which are easy to teach and more than capable enough for a trainer. If the FAA and the industry aren’t just floating BS about the Part 23 revision, it should eventually be possible to install in them equipment like Garmin’s G3X or the Dynon line. The FAA has publically stated that this is part of the goal of the revision. Just because I don’t believe the bureaucracy will ever allow this to happen in a timely fashion if at all, I’m willing to pretend for the sake of argument that it will happen.
So if it does happen, three to five years from now, could a lively business in 152 refurbishment be part of the training mix and what would such an airplane cost? My guess is it could be done and done well for between $70,000 and $90,000. That would bring refurbed 152s into the market slightly under the price of new LSAs and slightly higher than decent used 172s, but less than half of the Redhawk’s cost. If the industry ever shakes off its irrational bias against mogas, fuel operating costs would be comparable to but probably a bit less than diesel operating costs. And this is exactly why Airworthy Autogas is aiming its efforts at the training market initially. The economics aren’t as attractive with $7 avgas.
Increasingly, then, schools could have more choices. For many, new 172s aren’t ever going to be an option unless Cessna stops dissing the light aircraft segment, in my opinion, and gets its prices under control. New management could address the former, but I don’t see how they’re going to reduce prices much. So I can foresee a market where the Redhawk would be a good choice for some schools, a freshened up 152 for others, LSAs for yet others and ratty old, cheap whatevers for those who think they can sell those to customers. The fact is, some are doing that already. And with the exception of the refurbs, the market already looks like what I’ve described above.
In an airplane-selling market that’s seeing decline across the board, I can see some opportunities here. There are probably some STC and PMA targets for the 152 that could be viable. If the numbers can be made to work, there could be a market here worth seizing by a company or two with a little capital and business savvy. Redbird’s sim-centric training seems to be built around airplanes like the 172, but why can’t it be adapted to the 152? And even if it can’t be or it’s not economically practical to do that, motion-based sim-centric training doesn’t have to be the only game in town. And what the heck, in a hopelessly hallucionogenic moment, I can even imagine Cessna offering genuine factory remanufactured Cessna 152s. Who better to do it? Competition is all about having choices. So let’s have some.
Increasingly, when I attend industry events where speakers say things like “we’ve got to find a way to make flying more affordable” or “we’ve got find ways to attract people to flying,” I have the uneasy feeling I’m amidst a conclave of dinosaurs after the comet has already exploded. We are less angling for a return to GA growth here than we are trying to find brief level outs in the industry’s decline until it regains footing in the future.
The growth is far ahead. To me, this whole refurb idea is lot less of a leaky lifeboat than a promised revision of the FARs. But then nobody ever accused me of owning a pair of rose-colored glasses.