LSA: We Took the Wrong Road

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In an AVweb guest feature, an experienced pilot who consults on flight training and regulatory efforts sets out his view that general aviation made a bad choice when it took the road toward Light Sport. Intended to take over the two-seat training market, their limitations meant the training community moved to four-place airplanes, driving up training costs and preventing many from learning to fly.

According to the poem, when you choose between two roads in the woods, you choose the road less taken. Sometimes it’s the wrong one. In my opinion, general aviation chose the wrong road when we started walking toward Light Sport Aircraft.

A little over a decade ago, our industry and the aviation community got behind an initiative to develop a sport pilot certificate that didn’t require medical certification for pilots to exercise limited privileges. One of the main restrictions of this certificate is that the pilots only operate aircraft that fall under 1320 lbs (600 kg) gross weight (with some limited exceptions for seaplanes, etc.). This created a boundary under which aircraft manufacturers sought to develop their aircraft.

Limted Weight = Limited Ability

The reality is that this weight limit significantly affected how engineers and aircraft manufacturers developed new aircraft. In order to be marketable, manufacturers had to meet customer expectations and were unable to compromise on parameters such as fuel capacity, cabin size (naturally two people needed to physically fit in the aircraft), or inclusion of modern avionics. Instead, to meet restrictions, manufacturers had to develop aircraft with lighter materials or in most cases, build aircraft that had very limited weight and balance capacity.

In concept, this is not a bad thing. In reality, it has proven to result in aircraft that ended up being far more expensive than original estimates, aircraft that are unable to legally operate with two “full size” adults and full fuel, or aircraft that have proven to be less durable than traditionally certificated aircraft. All of these and other factors have lead to a lack of adoption in the industry beyond some personal ownership.

Training in Two-Place Airplanes

The problem is that our industry has traditionally conducted the majority of initial pilot training in light, two-seat aircraft. New versions of two-seat aircraft that are acceptable to the flight training industry are not being produced; a fact that is the result of manufacturers focusing on light sport aircraft for over a decade. Why is this a problem, you might ask? Many will answer this question with the claim that it is not a problem because four-seat aircraft are available. Indeed they are, but they are more costly. The additional cost of large aircraft increases the cost of initial training, and thus limits the number of people able to afford the training, and the providers able to purchase the aircraft to even provide training.

Historically, much of pilot training was completed in two-seat aircraft. The Cessna 150/152 series and Piper Tomahawks were the most common starting points for pilot candidates for decades. Before that most of the training was done in Cubs and Champs . Few pilots who learned to fly at local airports through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and probably even the 1990s can say that they didn’t spend at least some time an aluminum two-seat trainer. But when we passed the 1990s into the 2000s, these aircraft became less common. The reality is that they are worn out or in large numbers have been shipped to training providers internationally. This doesn’t mean that they are all gone, but as they wear out and are decommissioned, we didn’t have new production aircraft to replace them.

The lack of available two-seat, new production, trainer style aircraft has caused large flight training providers to purchase larger (typically four-seat), and more expensive aircraft than they would have previously used. These aircraft have a significantly higher purchase price and higher hourly operating costs. This is not a judgment, it is just simple math.

Training Costs Driven Up

Because of the increased cost of acquisition and operation, the cost per hour of flight training is higher than it would be with a lower acquisition cost and lower hourly cost of operation. Many training providers (especially local, small scale, traditional FBO style providers) have been unable to purchase new four-seat aircraft due to lack of affordability. Their answer has been to keep going by conducting training in used 1970s and 1980s era four-seat aircraft. Many are in poor shape.

High capacity and quality training providers need an answer, which brings us back to the question of LSA aircraft.

Many will argue that LSA aircraft do provide two-seat aircraft that can be used at a lower acquisition cost and with a lower hourly cost of operation. Both of these statements are true. However, most flight training providers have determined that light sport aircraft cannot hold up to the rigors of a busy flight training operation and the high purchase price means a high rental rate. They cite problems of overall durability, parts availability due to many of the manufacturers being based outside the United States, lack of IFR certification to allow training providers to use the aircraft for more training needs, lack of comfort with engine technology installed (many providers were unfamiliar with the commonly chosen Rotax engine), or lack of sufficient weight and balance capacity. Some light sport aircraft manufacturers will disagree with these contentions, but no matter if they all apply to any one make and model, the flight training community has not considered them viable options. If the flight training community is not using them, we will not be making new pilots in them and they will stay relegated to limited personal ownership and operation.

Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of large enough market footprint. While a plethora of manufacturers cropped up, putting out a couple aircraft per year, and a few that rose above chaff to put out semi-respectable aircraft production numbers, none really met high production numbers one would expect to see with transportation manufacturing. The two biggest US manufacturers, Piper and Cessna both took stabs at the market but got out.

LSA Sales

If we look at the LSA market from 2005 through 2012, we see a total of just over 2400 aircraft registered, with the bulk of these registrations in 2005-2007 as the certification process debuted. Since then, between 2009 through 2012, there was an average of only a little over 200 aircraft certifications per year by all LSA manufacturers combined. This is a drop in the bucket.

Our industry seemed to grasp at the straw that sport pilots would become certified in droves and would purchase these new LSA aircraft. As of the end of 2012, we have seen only just over 4900 total pilots certificated as sport pilots. This is also a drop in the bucket compared to the overall aviation community. Many will argue the point here that pilots previously certificated as private pilots or higher level certificates can “exercise the privilege of a sport pilot” based on their certificate and that the initial certifications statistic is not a true measure of sport pilot activity. Ok, I can give that point up, but if there were that many more doing this, we would see great aircraft sales numbers. Even if all of these pilots were not flying new production aircraft and flying historic aircraft such as Champs and Cubs that meet LSA requirements as certificated aircraft, I think this is a sufficiently small number that it is equally irrelevant. No matter if it is, because as these pilots age, they will retire from their aviation activity and we still need to replace their ranks.

By developing LSA aircraft that didn’t fit the flight training community, we saw aircraft manufacturers put their time and energy into aircraft that were destined to fail instead of developing new two-seat aircraft that would build upon previously successful aircraft and would really meet the needs of the training community. Our aircraft manufacturers spent time, money, and resources developing aircraft that were not successes. The result is that we still have a lack of two-seat, affordable, and efficient aircraft available for the flight training community to purchase.

If the flight training community is unable to provide aircraft at a lower price, then pilots are not able to train at a lower cost. The result is that less people are able to afford pilot training.

We have taken the wrong path in aircraft development. It isn’t the fault of any one manufacturer. We can’t look to any one manufacturer to solve the problem for us out of some sort of misplaced aviation philanthropy. For general aviation to be vibrant, we need the companies that build our aircraft to be profitable and stable. This means they need to make the hard decisions about what aircraft they produce.

There are only a few aircraft manufacturers that really have the capability to engineer and develop new production aircraft. Any prudent company will only do this if they see a strong market need, with a sufficient quantity of capable buyers, and at a profit margin that will guarantee success. On top of these market considerations, there is the significant consideration of how a new aircraft will accomplish FAA certification (something that was a little easier under LSA manufacturing processes). For many manufacturers, this is the stopping point of any further discussion. They have no confidence that a new aircraft will expeditiously and economically efficiently be able to proceed through an FAA certification process, and it isn’t their side of the work that they are concerned about. These concerns are so great that even Cessna, with the Skycatcher aircraft, which could probably handle a gross weight increase, doesn’t even think that pursuing it.

Future Needs

We have the wrong aircraft in our market for the future needs of general aviation. The pursuit of LSA aircraft turned out to be wrong path. Manufacturers are concerned that the market for new aircraft is too soft to reach profitable levels.  And most manufacturers consider the current process of FAA certification for new aircraft to be too slow and cumbersome based on the FAA’s efficiency and requirements.

Where does that leave us?

It leaves us with a need as an industry to look more critically and strategically at the long term needs for our industry. We can’t look to any one manufacturer to solve our problem for us and provide a miracle aircraft. The manufacturers are businesses and will respond to a market that knows what it wants and follows through with purchases.

Is there a still a role for Light Sport Aircraft to play?

Yes, although it is probably only for personal owners. Some of the aircraft fly very well and are very comfortable. The engineering development that has taken place as they have been produced will likely lead to lessons that we can use in future aircraft development.

If we are going to succeed, it is time we think about what the right aircraft for the future is going to be, develop it, and then make sure our regulatory processes will make it possible for that aircraft to be certificated.

Just because we have started down the wrong road doesn’t mean we have to stay on it. It is time for us to blaze a new route through the woods—one that will bring us to where we really need to go.

Jason Blair is an active FAA Designated Pilot Examiner and CFI who consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for general aviation companies.