What's The Best Flight School Trainer?
I got an email this week from a reader on the cusp of making a small fleet purchase for a few flight schools. I was asked for an opinion on the various choices in the training market. The more you think about this, the more difficult the decision actually is. There’s simply no perfect airplane for the task. Each choice is compromised in some way that favors another choice that’s compromised in another way.
So what’s the most important aspect of this decision? It’s not how the airplane flies. You can teach someone to fly in a broken-down Tri-Pacer with a tired engine, raggedy fabric and mold-stained seats. Flying is flying. What’s most important is dispatch reliability: keeping the airplane available on the ramp so it’s always ready for students to fly and constantly producing revenue for the school. Nothing is a bigger drag on the P&L than a broken airplane baking in the sun. Two broken airplanes at a school with only six is a disaster.
Dispatch reliability is defined by the design itself but more importantly by how easy the airplane is to fix and service with available parts. With that in mind, you can easily see why the Cessna 172 remains the gold standard for flight schools. Despite the airplane’s various warts, anyone can fix it, Cessna can supply the parts or they can be found in the aftermarket or salvage market. I’ve heard complaints about prices getting higher on Cessna parts and some cases harder to find, but I suspect the Skyhawk remains the most supportable airplane out there.
These days, few schools but the major institutions buy new trainers. We are well and truly into the age of the $400,000-plus new training airplane. Plug the debt load on that kind of purchase into your spreadsheet and the monthly nut is eye-watering. In addition to good dispatch reliability, you’d better have a steady stream of students and a second shift of instructors.
With that in mind, my correspondent asked about two new entries: Tecnam’s P2010 and the new VulcanAir 1.0. These two airplanes are essentially Skyhawk knockoffs—both highwings with struts, both equipped with Lycoming engines. While I like the P2010, bought new, it’s just as expensive as the Skyhawk, although it’s faster and has three entry doors. Those are nice-to-haves, but are they useful improvements in a trainer? Doubtful. Tecnam is a well-established global aircraft company, but if you bought a couple of million dollars' worth of new trainers from them, could they match Cessna’s supportability for the Skyhawk? Possibly, but for Cessna, it’s a known. (And even some owners complain about parts prices and availability for Skyhawk support.) That’s a big investment on faith in support.
The new VulcanAir 1.0 will sell for substantially less than a new Skyhawk or P2010 at about $260,000. Like the P2010, it has a third door. It’s not certified in the U.S. yet and even when it is later this year or early next, VulcanAir will face the challenge of building the same supply chain depth that Cessna (and Piper) already has. While it’s true that the AOG worry can be overstated—after all, any capable A&P can repair such an airplane—it’s also true that this is aviation. The unexpected lack of some approved part or shipping delays can keep airplanes grounded for a few days or a week or longer, with owners fuming. Just recall the fiasco Diamond and the then-Thielert visited on the training business with the early DA42s. So buying a new model at any price is measuring unknown reliability against performance or other features. The balance will be determined empirically by actual field experience, not by someone like me bloviating about it.
These aren’t the only choices, of course. Piper is still selling the Archer TX into the training market and just sold a small fleet to the University of North Dakota. We never know what these schools actually pay for the airplanes they buy, but the Archer’s posted base price is in the $370,000 range. Piper may have a deal-making edge in that it can do what Cessna can’t: offer some kind of package that includes twins like the Seminole or Seneca. A great deal of the flight training today is preparing professional pilots and they all require multi-engine ratings. Diamond has the same advantage with the DA40/42 combination but probably due to higher base prices, Diamond doesn’t have the same penetration in the single-engine training market as do Cessna and Piper. But Diamond dominates piston twin sales, with more than 50 percent penetration.
Don’t forget Cirrus. The SR20 really hasn’t been a first-choice trainer, probably because of its high price. But lately, Cirrus has been making inroads.
It sold 25 to the Air Force for training at the service’s academy a few years ago and recently Lufthansa, Vincennes University and Parks College have bought Cirrus aircraft for trainers. Cirrus has the advantage of being the highest-volume piston aircraft company and has a healthy growth curve. If it can’t beat Cessna or Piper strictly on price, it can sweeten the pot with support programs and training materials. I’ve been told that institutional buyers are less concerned about price than they are dispatch reliability and post-sale support.
I’ve heard arguments that the SR20 isn’t as suitable a trainer as the Skyhawk because it’s hard to fly and it’s faster. Seriously? It may be different, but not hard and certainly not something you couldn’t do primary training in. I’ve always maintained you can do primary training in any single, as long as it’s the student’s first exposure to an airplane.
For someone buying a fleet of training airplanes—say a half dozen or more—the decision matrix gets complicated. What’s the demand for training? What can you charge for it? How much will you do? What kind of students? Do you envision new airplanes or older models refurbished? How does debt load figure into all of this? I sure can’t answer any of this in a vacuum.
Irrespective of cost, viewed from the vantage of a flight instructor, my first choice would be Diamond’s DA40. It’s easy and fun to fly and has a center stick, which all airplanes should have, in my view. From the flyability and performance perch, everything else is about even. None of the airplanes on the list above are particular standouts. Nor do I think there’s a substantial enough difference in long-term operating costs among the flock to justify selecting one over another.
But reality intrudes in the form of hard-nosed investment considerations. Not many schools can afford new so they’re left with some combination of new and used aircraft. Absent tax write-down considerations, used aircraft are always a better value. And that seems to inevitably point back to the Skyhawk, which explains why so many of them are in flight school service. They’re good teaching platforms, have predictable maintenance costs and reasonable dispatch reliability. Piper’s PA-28 line is a close second, in my view.
Because operating costs are always a consideration, I’d really consider one of the Skyhawk diesel conversions, say the Redhawk that Redbird has been promoting. From the reporting I’ve done, these have good reliability, good flyability and performance not substantially less than the gasoline version when considered against the operational savings. What gives me pause is that I can’t judge how successful this program has been. Redbird declines to say how many of these airplanes they’ve sold. Last time I checked, it was a little over a dozen. Has the fleet expanded beyond that? Redbird won’t say. But even a refurbished avgas Skyhawk can be a money maker and at less than a quarter the cost of a new model, it remains a good value.
Which leads to the inevitable question: Why doesn’t someone build a new, inexpensive trainer? That’s what VulcanAir is attempting with the 1.0. But it’s not that simple. The airplane business doesn’t thrive on build-it-and-they-will come psychology. Airplanes have to be sold aggressively; they don’t fly off the shelves, so to speak. Given the size of the investments, buyers are sensitive and perhaps skeptical of the ability of small companies to support their airplanes with parts and service. That’s the nut VulcanAir has to crack.
When it announced the new M10 series two years ago, Mooney was clearly making a run at the trainer market, too. It has since pulled back and is being cagey about what will happen to the project. But I suspect it realized for the investment required and the price it would have to charge, the trainer sales just aren’t there in a market that’s quite—and expensively—saturated.
Like I said, it’s complicated.