Memes are ideas, accepted wisdom and cultural touchpoints that get handed from one person to another via, well, who knows how? By e-mail, television, blogs, word of mouth. They take on a life of their own. When I ask myself how some in aviation get started, maybe I only need look in the mirror. In December 2009, I wrote this little gem about the Cessna Skycatcher: If theres anything that passes for conventional wisdom in the world of light sport, its that Cessna would dominate when it entered the market. In our view, the Skycatcher more or less confirms this.
Yet four years later, the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head and I find myself wondering why I wrote that. So I spent last week talking to more than a dozen people about their impression of Cessnas decision to exit the light sport business. (Note please here that Cessna hasnt plainly said the Skycatcher wont be built anymore; just that it has no future.)
What about this notion that when it entered the business, Cessna would-or so many people said-validate the entire light sport thing as somehow legitimate? Im sure people told me that, which is why I felt it worthy of repeating.
I may have heard it enough times myself that I just parroted it back, says Flight Designs John Gilmore. I think everybody was maybe hoping for the resurrection of the 150. That didnt happen, of course, and with about 200 airframes in the field, the Skycatcher never achieved the market dominance everyone assumed it would. There are a host of reasons for this, but the overarching one is probably price. When Cessna raised the price to nearly $150,000 for an entry level airplane that had weight issues and didnt outperform its many competitors, it gave position holders an opportunity to bail, and they did. In droves.
What are the implications for LSA at large? Not much. No one I talked to told me that Cessnas axing of the Skycatcher resets the market. Theres not too much rumbling going on about this, says Dan Johnson, chairman of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. Within the industry, many had already dismissed Cessna sometime ago for the reason that the airplane never seemed to really meet what the market wanted. So I dont think theres any great rush to say, oh great, now theres an opportunity, or, oh dear, we dont have the validation of Cessna being in the market anymore, Johnson says.
A couple of dealers and Cessna Pilot Centers I contacted say they wish Cessna would have given the Skycatcher more time to mature, but none thought the $150,000 price was right; too much money for too little airplane. One dealer told me that selling the Skycatcher was tough, not so much because of the price, but because potential buyers required extensive education on the limitations of light sport, including not being able to install equipment some of them wanted in their Skycatchers. The fact that the Skycatcher sported Garmin equipment while many other LSAs dont evidently wasnt much of a strong selling point, say the people operating these airplanes in flight schools.
Despite its warts-and all LSAs have them-the Skycatcher gets good reviews from the people using it. Its easy and fun to fly, economical and other than initial problems with door openings in flight and some strut beef-up work, the airplane seems to stand up to the rigors of flight training. But one operator, Jim Whitt at J.A. Air Center in Aurora, Illinois, doesnt think the Skycatcher will prove as long-term durable as the 152 and 172. But he says it doesnt really matter, since the airplane can be operated profitably and replaced as necessary. Hes one who thinks Cessna should have stayed with the program. In any case, he expects Cessna will continue to support the airplane and Cessna confirms this.
Cessna has traditionally owned the flight training market and for years it profitably built on the idea that if you taught people to fly with basic airplanes, they would eventually buy your bigger, high-margin models. Now that theyve abandoned the LSA market, theyve sent a clear message that the company is less committed to low-end training, except for those schools willing to do it in a $400,000-plus Skyhawk. And those schools are dwindling.
Frankly, Im more worried about that segment of the market than the LSA slice. There are still plenty of companies building LSAs so buyers wont lack for choice. And many of the schools I spoke with thought the Skycatcher wasnt a good choice, anyway. Nobody cares if Cessna is in the market. When Piper dropped the Piper Sport, the market didnt hiccup and it wont with Cessna, says Paul Shuch, who operates a one-aircraft flight school with an Evektor on the hallowed ground of Lock Haven Airport in Pennsylvania. Even the CPCs dont seem particularly worried, since they still have plenty of aircraft to choose from and Cessna has bunches of Skycatchers boxed up and ready to ship for anyone who wants them.
While the absence of Skycatchers might not dent the market in the slightest, I think theres cause to worry about Cessna just losing interest in pilot training entirely. Other entities, namely Redbird, are stepping up to fill the void, but Cessna is still a big dog. All of the more than a dozen schools I talked to had either a Cessna 152 or 172, if not multiples, on the flight training and these remain popular choices. It would be a pity if Cessna prices the 172 out of the market entirely. Some say they already have, but I like to think theyll be around for a while. At least until the next generation of light training aircraft emerge, whether from Cessna or someone else.