The Trouble With Trainers


Here in Florida, September was the hottest month on record. Ever. So on Sunday, when the weather finally delivered the fall temperature break, I luxuriated in simply standing in front of the hangar for 10 minutes watching the world go by. And what went by, among others, was what I sometimes call the Cryin’ Shame.

Otherwise, it’s known as a Cessna 177 Cardinal. This one had been gussied up with fresh paint in the modern style and probably had some glass in the panel, too. At a distance, the low-slung, rakish Cardinal—sans struts—is as good looking an airplane as Cessna ever built. And yet, the design is coming up on a half century and sadder yet, it was displaced and outlasted by the dowdiest airplane Cessna ever built. Yes, the Skyhawk.

This once again proves that pilots who say they want new, exciting designs—at the least the ones who aren’t Cirrus buyers—are just flapping their lips to fill the dead air between bites at the pancake breakfast. It also proves something else that seems a constant: Introducing a new trainer and expecting it to succeed is almost an impossible hill to climb. Pilots in general are conservative about this sort of thing to the point of hideboundedness and schools, ever mindful of the bottom line, don’t have the pleasure of experimenting.

My theory may be flawed, but the numbers confirm its underpinnings. The last really clean-sheet certified trainer I can recall is the Diamond DA20. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but as an instructor, if the flight line gave me three airplanes to fly, the DA20, a PA-28 and the Skyhawk, I’d take the Diamond every time. It flies better than the other two, has a terrific safety record, is cheaper to operate and is just plain fun. Yeah, I know, two seats. But the two-seat Cessna 150 once dominated flight training and not by a little. So what happened?

Whether budding pilots got fat, rich and more fickle or the schools wanted more margin, I can’t say. But in the years since the great recession, the most Diamond ever sold in a single year was 34 and this for a new-age airplane meant to pave aviation’s way to the 21st century.

The next attempt never got out of the blocks. The Mooney M10, a sleek little diesel-powered airplane with a glass panel, came out of the ground in 2015, only to be shelved two years later. There may be internal machinations we don’t know about, but I suspect Mooney sensed how moribund and momentum-driven the market is and how limited the volume would be to offset the multimillion-dollar developmental and production costs. And don’t forget this little twist: The impetus for the M10 came out of China about which some people persist in believing bottomless demand for airplanes is soon to be unleashed. “China is coming soon” has carved a place in the pantheon of promissory optimism right next to “the check is in the mail.”

So with the momentum clearly established by the Skyhawk and the PA-28s, now comes the Italian company, Vulcanair, with the V1.0. I reviewed it in this video. Perversely, one thing it may have going for it is that it’s an updated 1960s design originally produced by Partenavia, which Vulcanair bought in 1996. So the developmental costs are sunk and it sells for $278,000, some $113,000 less than the Skyhawk.

Will this get the attention of buyers shocked by the $390,000 sticker on a new Skyhawk? Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. I’ve always maintained that price alone isn’t what depresses market expansion; not for schools and not for individual buyers. Schools are looking for the whole package, the support and the maintenance and parts chain reliability and demonstrated performance. The V1.0 doesn’t have that and will have to somehow earn it if it’s going to muscle into a trainer market that’s dominated by Cessna and Piper but yet totals only about 200 airframes a year.

And consider that group think has us all believing there’s a pilot shortage and we’ll need hundreds of new trainers. Stipulating that the shortage has legs, why isn’t the demand for training aircraft booming? It’s steady, but Piper and Cessna are on track to produce in 2018 about what they did in 2017 or perhaps a little more. I’m guessing that the training demand is trickling, not gushing and the demand for airplanes will follow a similar path. This is nothing to complain about, but the actual sales numbers suggest a tempered view of real market expansion.

With than in mind, the modern successful business model for airplane companies is low volume. Even Cessna has to slum along building only about 100 to 150 Skyhawks. If Vulcanair can prosper in the dozens, it might gain a foothold. Otherwise, the hill just keeps getting steeper and I don’t see that changing much. In my fantasy world, Cessna would revisit the Cardinal and make it do what it was supposed to: put the Skyhawk out to a well-deserved pasture.