Is the Vashon Ranger The New 150?
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?