Is the Vashon Ranger The New 150?

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You can say a lot of things about light sport airplanes, but one of them isn’t that the sky has been darkened with 1320-pound wonders. Sales remain modest at best and a company selling 30 or 40 a year has a smash hit.

Now comes new startup Vashon to reset that equation with a heretofore untested idea: a cutting-edge airplane with a large cabin, an efficient production system meant to drive the price down and a dual appeal as a sort of flying RV and would-be replacement for the Cessna 150. In addition to lifting its own weight, the Vashon Ranger has to levitate those expectations in a market where light sports haven’t made a meaningful dent in the trainer fleet.

What are its chances? Challenged, I’d say, not least of all because I haven’t encountered anyone who claims to understand the overall anemic piston market. Consider this: 2017 was, relatively, a good year for trainer sales. Yet, says GAMA, between Cessna, Piper, Diamond, Cirrus and Tecnam, the market absorbed 334 aircraft that might be considered trainers and even that number depends on assuming all of the Skyhawks, Archers and DA40s went into the flight school segment. So I’d guess the more reasonable number is 225.

We’re led to believe that the chronic pilot shortage and the burning urge of 1.4 billion to Chinese to slip the surly bonds will unleash a torrent of demand any day now and, well, I first heard that in 2005 and I’ve been a bemused bystander since. As explained in this video, Vashon’s belief is that demand is suppressed by high prices and it wants to drive those prices down by building volume. For now, the Ranger is at $115,000, fully equipped. The company doesn’t know if it can make money at that price, nor does it yet know if it can go lower or will be forced to escalate, as so many companies have had to do.

Big volume is planned. But what’s big volume? Is it 100 airframes a year? Or 300? The company is cagey about this, but I’d say if they can approach the lower number and be profitable, the Ranger will be a player. If they reach 300—basically what Cirrus is selling—I’ll be the idiot I always suspected I was. In context, $115,000 is not the lowest-price LSA out there by any means. But with sophisticated two-display avionics including an autopilot, it’s a good value against something like the Flight Design CTLS north of $150,000.

On the other hand, the normal rules of supply and demand don’t seem to apply to airplanes. The best-selling LSAs are the most expensive ones, including the aforementioned CTLS and CubCrafters’ Carbon Cub. And while these airplanes are upper tier for light sports, they’re still half the price (or less) of Part 23 trainers such as the Archer and Skyhawk. Yet they aren’t well represented in the training fleet because schools have a bias against them related to durability, tight cabins, squirrelly handling and lack of payload—but mostly durability and support. That’s not to say light sports aren’t used in training, just not to extent their lower price suggests.

With robust landing gear, a huge cabin and handling like an RV-8, the Ranger addresses these shortcomings. What it does not address is payload. With a 438-pound useful load, it gives up a solid 100 pounds to an airplane like the CTLS. LSAs that push the weight envelope aren’t unusual—the American Legend Super and the Carbon Cub are even heavier. With the Ranger, will buyers and flight schools be willing to work around this limitation considering the price, the sophisticated panel and cabin size? People who insist yes or no either know a lot more than me or a lot less. I just don’t know. I thought Diamond’s DA42 would be a dud.

The reason for the Ranger’s high empty weight is at least partially because Vashon picked the Continental O-200-D. That’s why the Super Legend and CarbonCub are so heavy, too. They bypass the Rotax 912/914 series in favor of traditional aircraft engines that are at least 50 pounds heavier, if not a little more. This choice is an axe with two blades. Do you pick up more buyers for using an archaic legacy engine than you lose for having 50 pounds less useful load? See above. I can’t say. In CubCrafters’ and Legend’s case, they’ve tarted up the basic four-cylinder with either electronic ignition or fuel injection, or both.

That’s my beef with the O-200. In addition to being heavy, the number of carb icing accidents in Cessna 150s is legion. The Ranger is a cutting-edge design that’s even equipped with an integration module. It needs an engine to match, in my view. It’s 2018—no piston airplane should have an engine sans fuel injection and electronic ignition. Vashon says it’s looking at other engine options. Price may be an issue, too. The Rotax 912 iS is more expensive than the O-200-D.

And we interrupt this blog for my standard screech about the LSA weight limit. It needs to be raised. Period. A driving reason it's 1320 pounds is to align with the 600 kg European ultralight limit, but Europe and the rest of the world are shot through with inconsistencies and I can see no reason why the U.S. should cling to 1320 pounds in a universe of 225-pound students and instructors. If the Ranger had a 1500-pound limit—which it easily could—it would be far more appealing.

Among many unknowns is another: market timing. It’s always possible that in a strong world and U.S. economy, demand really is on the verge of a spike and it's further possible that schools may become fed up with Part 23 trainers that cost close to a half-million bucks, or at least enough of them to constitute a viable market. The $115,000 price point—if Vashon holds it—will be an interesting test. It’s far from the $40,000 airplane of light sport fever dreams, but given Vashon’s investment in automated production, it may be as good as it gets. The question is this: Is it good enough?

Comments (33)

On the Vashon Ranger: I support the design, manufacturing and marketing concept. No objection to carb heat.
On LSA for flight schools and as an incentive for leaseback options: Increase mtow to 1700 lbs with instrumentation to meet IFR.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 6, 2018 12:03 PM    Report this comment

The low use full load is IMO a deal breaker for flight training. A training flight should never leave the chocks overgross period.

LSA is an evolutionary dead end. Vashon should have been gone after full certification under the new simplified Parr 23.

Wether or not this airplane is a success does not change the fact that the existing fleet of 35 + year old Cessna and Piper training aircraft are just about used up. In Canada Cessna training aircraft must have had all the SIDs done. There is now a significant shortage of eligible airframes and bidding wars for commercial registered SID compliant C 172's

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | May 6, 2018 12:53 PM    Report this comment

I'm not seeing the stealth demand, at ANY price. That said, ANY viable trainer needs to have a minimum endurance of 3-1/2 hours with one 240-pound soul aboard; 2-1/2 hours with two such souls aboard. This matters not, whether its source of thrust is electric, chemical, or fairy farts.

A compliant electric airplane would be too heavy to get off the ground, let alone comply with the current LSA weight limit.

The arithmetic is as old as the ages. You need a 600-pound useful load, to get that job done. Period.

They might as well certify the thing:
1. I'd rather wait for Godot, than for the FAA to alter those LSA weight limits. Aint. Gonna. Happen.
2. The pilot farms have an institutional bias against non-certificated hardware of ANY kind.

I'm with Paul, regarding fuel injection and electronic ignition. Throw in single-lever power control, as well. Turbo-normalization? Not unless you're training in Denver; maintanance $$. Power output? 125 hp at sea level on an ISO-standard day. Why? More arithmetic. Gotta meet those (unchanged) Part-23 climb-gradient requirements at gross weight. (And who wants to fly Boeing-sized traffic patterns while struggling to climb at minimum-gradient?) Based on the foregoing, the candidate engine becomes rather obvious, doesn't it?

In all of this, I have a feeling that a 2018 WonderTrainer is akin to a brand-new ream of the best-ever carbon paper. I'm not anticipating a long line out the door.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | May 6, 2018 4:23 PM    Report this comment

A racehorse designed by a committee? A simple solution is to increase the LSA weight limit.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 6, 2018 5:13 PM    Report this comment

1700 pounds YARS. Then put all you want at any price. The market will decide who stays.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 6, 2018 5:15 PM    Report this comment

Unless you exclude re-assignments of existing C-150/152s, Tomahawks, etc., any newly-manufactured birds will have to compete with re-furbs of $15k oldies-but-goodies - known quantities in a risk-averse world.
But 1,700-to-1,800 pounds is the right number.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | May 6, 2018 5:59 PM    Report this comment

I took an immediate like to this airplane and what they're trying to do. Considering that it's coming out 10 years after the FlyCatcher fiasco at a lower price with the same engine ... they're either doing something right and are onto something or are nuts? I doubt if they'll be able to hold the price but ... who knows. IF it goes up, it won't sell so if they've incorrectly priced it ... they're in trouble already. Still, I wish them luck

The main problem IS the weight limit. What the heck is the FAA thinking? The pilot shortage is not only real but it's now impacting the ability of smaller airlines to provide service. We need trainers and pilots. Why can't someone wake up on Independence Ave? At Airventure 2016, I addressed Jack Pelton on this very subject and recommended that EAA use the winter meeting with the FAA to try to convince them to increase the limit. He agreed ... but two years later, nothing has changed.

For myself, I was seriously looking at LSA's but there was always ... 'something.' Then along comes BasicMed last year and my worries were assuaged. So why couldn't Vashon build it to the new FAR Part 23 rules at a higher max weight? If they envision it as a trainer vs. a last airplane for guys like me, I think they may have made a mistake? Hopefully, the airplane is scalable upward in weight without too many changes?

Every time I look at one of these things and think of how nice it'd be to fly behind a glass panel and have an autopilot, I look at my existing 4 place airplanes and think ... I'll sink some money into 'em and soldier on until I'm done. Even someone who doesn't have an airplane could find either a fixer upper OR a fully decked out airplane for far less money than even this airplane demands.

As you say ... Light Sport wasn't and isn't the panacea folks thought it was gonna be. If Vashon built the thing to -- say -- a 2,000 pound limit at a slightly increased price ... they'd have a great airplane. But up against the 1,320 pound limit ... I dunno? I have serious doubts.

You hit all the right points in your blog.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 6, 2018 6:56 PM    Report this comment

Does anyone actually want an autopilot in a short range plane like this? That's not a rhetorical question by the way, I'm curious if there's really a demand for that in a slow VFR plane or if it's just one of the boss's requirements.

Two glass screens seems like a waste as well when you can just stick an ipad on the right instead.

Posted by: Gareth Allen | May 6, 2018 9:25 PM    Report this comment

I know I am a Luddite but I hate glass panels in basic trainers. When I taught the Private Pilot course my best friend was post it notes. The first hour the only instrument uncovered was the ball and the tach. By hour 2 they got an Airspeed and Altimeter but that was it until maybe hour 5 where they could now see a VSI. Everything you need to know about flying the airplane is available by looking out the windshield and noting how much power you have/need

If Vashon wanted to be different they should have a scalable glass panel where the instructor can start with a Piper Cub panel and work up from there

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | May 6, 2018 10:23 PM    Report this comment

"For now, the Ranger is at $115,000, fully equipped. The company doesn't know if it can make money at that price, nor does it yet know if it can go lower or will be forced to escalate, as so many companies have had to do."

You're kidding right? The company doesn't know if it can make money at that price? Vashon is dead meat before it gets out of the gate. I thought we learned that lesson. VLJ's anyone?

"Big volume is planned."

Yeah, that'll do it. Works every time right? Not. If this in fact is their business model I'm astonished, then again maybe not. I still remember the bust of the late 90s early 00s. Remember "burn rate." Definition: How fast can we burn through money (i.e.) how fast can we lose money. Somebody hit me in the head with a wing tip. I really can't even believe I'm reading this.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | May 7, 2018 2:28 AM    Report this comment

We generally don't fly tail draggers as basic trainers anymore so why would young people want to spend big $$ and time to train with old school steam gauges since -- ultimately -- they'll likely be behind glass anyhow? The guy who is behind this airplane made his money selling glass panels so why wouldn't he put that into the design? It's likely faster and cheaper for him to produce it that way, too? Integrating an autopilot into such a design is likewise easy. For me, a wing leveler would be fine but a full up autopilot isn't much more expensive since everything is integrated. A steam gauge airplane might be MORE expensive to produce?

I agree with the iPad for the second screen. Lots cheaper than paying for a second Dynon. But as Paul has oft said, people want full up everything.

What it really boils down to is ... is this a trainer or a personal airplane? It may well be that it's neither since they chose to design it to LSA standards? THAT is going to be what determines if it's successful, or not. The more I think about it, it befuddles me why they did so since it limits it in so many ways. In fact, I was surprised when I read that initially.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 7, 2018 2:55 AM    Report this comment

Just a reminder:
With the Dynon, a steam-gauge display always is just a few keystrokes away. (Admittedly, it's a reduced-size display.)
With apologies to Burger King, you CAN have it your way.

The availability of an autopilot is useful for real-world instrument training.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | May 7, 2018 4:22 AM    Report this comment

"You're kidding right? The company doesn't know if it can make money at that price? Vashon is dead meat before it gets out of the gate. I thought we learned that lesson. VLJ's anyone?"

This is why I consider it my calling to write about production economics, Thomas. Every single aircraft or engine project I've covered has started with with a target price and escalated. It was true of the Skycatcher, the re-start 172s, the Cirrus models, the Diamonds, Icon and even, I recently learned, the Boeing 777.

Even at small scale, serial production is full of inefficiencies and unknowables and once the line is started, the manufacturers look for build hours and costs to eliminate. Vashon's large unknown variable is the high degree of automation they're relying on. And it's impossible to know if they can add more and reduce build hours further and how that might reduce the price. And if reducing the price has a meaningful impact on sales volume.

People in aviation should understand this reality and not labor under the assumption that all these companies are too dumb to figure it out. They're not. It's just that it's about impossible to calculate costs forward and still have a realistic sticker price.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 7, 2018 5:07 AM    Report this comment

Essentially what you're saying Paul is they don't even have the slightest clue. Correct? That being the case, how can they even come up with a number. How about somewhere between $100,000.00 and $1,000,000.00. It's a pie in the sky guess at best. It makes no sense whatsoever. I'm sorry, I just don't buy it.

Who if anybody in their right mind would invest in a company with a business plan like the one you have just described? "Invest with us. We don't have a clue what our product will cost, when it will come to market or how many we will sell, not a clue. We don't even know if we will make money. However, we can guarantee you we will take you're money with a smile and quickly lose it."

I guess I shouldn't have asked that question. Hey, I'm in. I have to much money anyway. I have never heard of anything so insane.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | May 7, 2018 5:44 AM    Report this comment

Do these people actually hold a straight face when they make these pitches to potential suckers, I mean investors?

Posted by: Tom Cooke | May 7, 2018 5:57 AM    Report this comment

Has any company ever proposed a pricing structure that has come in less than estimated once final manufacture has begun and streamlined?

Posted by: Tom Cooke | May 7, 2018 6:06 AM    Report this comment

"Who if anybody in their right mind would invest in a company with a business plan like the one you have just described? "

The Chinese. They seem to be buying up lots of aviation companies.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 7, 2018 10:10 AM    Report this comment

"Essentially what you're saying Paul is they don't even have the slightest clue. Correct?"

No, I'd say they have a very good hack based on the best information available. But in serial production, especially aircraft, you simply can't predict with much accuracy ahead of time where you'll be able to take cost out. Or how much. Even on a small airplane, it's a pretty complex set of variables sometimes influenced by outside vendors who have their own unknowables. If Vashon built in a 20 percent margin over what they think is the real number, the airplane would sell for $140,000. No help.

I'd have to look at the historical data, but Cessna on its jets may have held the original price and maybe Gulfstream has, too. Not sure. I came across an article recently about Howard Hughes bitching at Lockheed over cost escalators on the Electra. I'm sure it goes all the way back to the Wright Brothers.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 7, 2018 10:43 AM    Report this comment

In my experience, figuring out the direct costs of manufacturing is pretty straightforward. Figuring out the indirect costs of overhead... That's a different kettle of squid. And those costs are NOT directly proportional to volume - not by a long shot.
Sometimes you get the squid; sometimes the squid gets you...

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | May 7, 2018 10:49 AM    Report this comment

I think this plane will be a hot pre-seller when the taildragger version is announced at Oshkosh.

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | May 7, 2018 1:06 PM    Report this comment

To their credit, the top guys at the company understand volume production and vertical integration which will help manage outside vendor uncertainty in cost control. Unlike Icon, who appeared to be clueless about volume production until they actually tried to build the planes, Vashon has the factory and CNC capability in place for efficient manufacture before they started taking orders. I agree with Paul that their largest impediments are the idiotic FAA limitations on LSA and the 1950's engine technology that they chose. To me, electronic ignition and fuel injection would be a must before considering the plane. The dual Dynon screens may seem like window dressing, but training schools are not real crazy about futzing around with iPads in the cockpit, and the dual screens eliminates that.

As far as financing is concerned, venture capital gurus have plunked down large sums on crazier business models, so who knows? Overall, I would not bet the mortgage money on them succeeding, but I give them a better chance than anyone else who has recently tried.

Posted by: John McNamee | May 7, 2018 2:39 PM    Report this comment

Think 26,000 VFR/IFR trainers world wide over the next 20 years. THINK VASHON!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 7, 2018 3:35 PM    Report this comment

It's a good concept. It's a pity it's not cool-looking like say a Bristell, Gobosh or Flight Design. It's a little too rugged for my taste. Krueger's other designs (RV's) have a lot more visual appeal. The Vashon looks like a scaled down version of his Sky-4 Design

Torode is an astute businessman. Think he'll either figure out aircraft volume manufacturing or we can close the book on low-cost-high-volume GA aircraft.

Will be interested in the V2 version of this aircraft. Legend Cub's early versions are 70-90 lbs heavier than their 2009 and later brethren. That kind of weight loss and a Rotax engine would solve the weight problem.

With all that said, am actually considering two for our flight school. Have no doubt it'll be a money maker. Would like Vashon to succeed. The more they sell, the quicker they can iterate.

Posted by: Serena Ryan | May 7, 2018 4:32 PM    Report this comment

"Lockheed over cost escalators on the Electra"

That should be Constellation.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 7, 2018 6:08 PM    Report this comment

I don't easily get exited about an LSA design but I am about the Vashon Ranger Redwood. Here's the website for specs and prices:

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 7, 2018 9:01 PM    Report this comment

Make that excited.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 7, 2018 9:26 PM    Report this comment

"The Chinese. They seem to be buying up lots of aviation companies."

...and that speaks volumes, doesn't it.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | May 8, 2018 5:05 AM    Report this comment

Will the Vashon be able to fly IFR? If not then how useful is it to a flight school?

Do most flight schools allow use of an autopilot during IFR training? I had an autopilot in the plane during my training but never used it.

Posted by: Gareth Allen | May 8, 2018 11:44 AM    Report this comment

Will the Vashon be able to fly IFR? If not then how useful is it to a flight school?

Do most flight schools allow use of an autopilot during IFR training? I had an autopilot in the plane during my training but never used it.

Posted by: Gareth Allen | May 8, 2018 11:44 AM    Report this comment

Good question Gareth. Here's an interesting article:

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 8, 2018 1:27 PM    Report this comment

"Do most flight schools allow use of an autopilot during IFR training? I had an autopilot in the plane during my training but never used it."

Most examiners I know (at least in my area) will expect instrument candidates to be able to use the autopilot if it is installed and functioning in the aircraft. At least one even tests that you can fly a coupled approach if the autopilot is so capable.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 8, 2018 1:32 PM    Report this comment

Rafael, according to that article the answer would be no, since only Experimental LSAs can be used IFR, and Experimental LSAs can't be rented out or used for compensated flight training. That would put a damper on demand by flight schools I would think

Posted by: Gareth Allen | May 9, 2018 3:40 AM    Report this comment

Raf ... I remember that article about flying IFR in an LSA. I re-read it to remind myself of its tenets.

Frankly, why would someone buy (and pay for) an S-LSA and then turn it into an E-LSA in order to fly IFR? Further, you can't use an E-LSA for compensation or hire. So once you've turned an S-LSA into an E-LSA, not only do you have that problem but you've degraded the value of the airplane. So that then begs the question ... why put all that high end equipment capable of IFR into an S-LSA? Sounds like Catch-22 to me.

The whole LSA thing is just plain nutty. The choice of the O-200 makes maintenance a bit easier for 'regular' A&P's (no special Rotax training required) but then what is supposed to be a 'high tech' airplane isn't really high tech without the fuel injection and electronic ignition as Paul opined.

If they're marketing the thing as a modern day C-150 replacement, it has to stay an S-LSA. That automatically precludes IFR flight. And if a private user converts it to an E-LSA, he's seriously degraded the value of the airplane. It could be converted back but only by Vashon ... who might not be so willing to cooperate?


Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 9, 2018 3:49 AM    Report this comment

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