Flight Training’s Future Fleet
The face of aviation training is changing and one of the places where the effects can be seen is in how many and what kinds of new aircraft are entering the aviation training fleet. There are a lot of factors driving the shift—a more globalized economy, new investors, training costs and developing technologies, to name a few—but one thing is certain: Aviation training and the types of planes it’s done in aren’t going to look the same ten years from now.
To start with, training fleet sales look to be growing in ways they haven’t for quite some time and, although a vast majority of new training planes sold are still coming from the old favorites, people are actively seeking out fresh options. Some of those options take the form of new technology, some in smaller, cheaper aircraft. Regardless, there is more happening in new training fleets than there used to be.
Part 23 Trainers
To start with the most obviously successful manufacturer of training aircraft in recent years, Piper Aircraft stands pretty much indisputably at the top of the list. According to Piper, last year the company saw a 50 percent increase over 2016 in single-engine trainer deliveries (54 delivered in 2016 and 81 in 2017) and a 70 percent increase in deliveries of multiengine trainers (10 in 2016 and 17 in 2017). With a 2018 Archer costing about $360,850 with standard equipment, Piper has landed multiple orders for 100-plus aircraft in the last few years. The most recent is a seven-year purchase agreement with China’s Fanmei Aviation Technologies for 100 Archer TX single-engine trainers, 50 multiengine Seminoles, one Seneca and one Piper M350. Other significant multiyear orders have come from Florida-based ATP Flight School. Piper reports an order backlog extending into 2019.
Perhaps the only company capable of competing on Piper’s level at the moment is Cessna. Skyhawk deliveries saw a 29 percent increase in 2017—129 Skyhawks delivered compared to 100 in 2016—and the company announced an order from China for 52 Skyhawks this April, to be delivered by the end of 2018. That said, Cessna doesn’t seem to be snagging the same kinds of massive orders that Piper is routinely announcing. What Cessna does have is a well-developed network of relationships with flight schools through its Cessna Pilot Centers and Top Hawk aviation programs, which, while they may not necessarily contribute significantly to aircraft sales, do work to sustain Cessna’s relevance in the training arena. On the low end, new Skyhawks cost about $379,000.
In spite of its top-of-the-line prices, Cirrus has landed a couple of reasonably sized trainer orders over the last year. An order for 20 SR22s came from an aviation college in Japan this February, building on the college’s fleet of SR22s acquired in 2016. Additionally, Lufthansa Aviation Training ordered 25 SR20s in June of last year. Base price for a 2018 SR22 is $609,000. The SR20 starts at $439,900.
Diamond is also still getting a consistent share of new trainer sales, particularly in the multiengine segment. The company announced small but regular orders from Europe and Canada throughout 2017 and 2018. It isn’t yet clear how the recent purchase of Diamond Aircraft by China’s Wanfeng Aviation Industry Co. will affect the company’s direction. Diamond has announced that it plans to continue to develop its DART civil turboprop aerobatic trainer and single-engine DA-50.
One of the newcomers making a run at the U.S. training market is Vulcanair. The company’s V1.0 has been used in Europe for years but was only FAA-certified in late 2017. The all-metal, high-wing, four-seat aircraft is being marketed for its durability and performance. As a direct competitor to the Cessna Skyhawk and Piper Archer, the V1.0 offers a market edge with similar or better performance than the Skyhawk and Archer coupled with a price (about $260,000) that’s roughly $100,000 cheaper than its competition. Whether that will be enough to overcome the brand recognition and established base of its competitors remains to be seen.
While LSAs have made definite inroads into the training market, we don’t have good numbers on their actual market penetration. They’re used at some smaller schools, but generally not at larger institutional schools such as Embry-Riddle, University of North Dakota and ATP. There are arguments for and against using qualified LSAs for private pilot training and beyond. Typical complaints include squirrelly handling characteristics, particularly at the very low stall speeds required, difficulty handling turbulence and crosswinds owing to the light weight of the aircraft, and weight-saving but less sturdy construction, especially in the landing gear.
What’s hard to argue is that LSAs are just cheaper to buy and operate than most new Part 23 trainers. With flight training costs reaching often prohibitive levels in many countries, most definitely including the U.S., there is space in the general training market that just might fit LSA models that prove themselves capable of handling larger training loads for less money.
Vashon’s Continental O-200-powered Ranger is one of the more interesting attempts to bridge that gap. It starts at $99,500, which includes an autopilot and a Dynon SkyView glass panel. The plane has been designed with training and “rugged” flying in mind, sacrificing some carrying capacity to beef up the structure and aiming for flying characteristics that are closer to the heavier single-engine trainers than many LSAs. If the company’s plan to keep cost down with its unique, highly technical manufacturing process proves sustainable, the Ranger will be one of the least expensive new trainers available and the balance of characteristics might just be enough for it to compete with the Part 23 crowd.
The familiar LSA makers such as Flight Design, Czech Sport Aircraft Sport, Evektor, Remos and Tecnam also continue to make appearances at flight schools. Tecnam in particular has been getting small but consistent orders for its various LSA models from flight schools around the world. Perhaps coincidentally, it is one of the few manufacturers to produce both LSAs and Part 23-certified aircraft. As for LSA sales in 2018, the company has already announced an order for six of its P2008s from Florida-based International Aero Academy and a ten-plane order from Portugal. Price-wise, Tecnam’s four LSA models all come in at a base of less than $200,000.
When it comes to companies making new inroads into the U.S. training market, Pipistrel Aircraft springs to the front of the list. The company recently announced an order for 15 electric Alpha Trainers from a California flight school. Although the Alpha Trainer is used by flight schools around the world, this order is the largest received from a U.S. source. Base price for an Alpha Trainer is about $93,200, making it one of the cheapest training options available. The other thing that makes Pipistrel’s LSA trainers worth paying attention to is the company’s creation of an electric-powered version of the same model.
Electric airplanes seem to be the darling of the aviation press and while they’re finding some traction in Europe, regulatory approvals for their use in the U.S. seem so uncertain as to make a timeline prediction impossible. As it stands, there haven’t yet been any Part 23-certified electric aircraft and the LSA standards don’t allow for non-gas-powered engines. Given that the U.S. flight training market remains one of the largest in the world, FAA regulation is a significant barrier to the adoption of electric trainers. To be fair, some of that is because the technology might not quite be ready.
That said, Pipistrel’s Alpha Electro is looking like it could be close to providing a usable electric trainer. Southern California’s Sustainable Flight Development recently imported four of the aircraft to begin tailoring flight training programs to the Electro. They are also working with Pipistrel and local companies to develop infrastructure to support electric aircraft. However, the FAA told us these airplanes are essentially technology demonstrators and aren’t approved for any kind of flight training. And no one knows when they will be.
Beyond needing an LSA exemption it doesn’t yet have, the biggest downside to the two-seat Electro is that it can only stay in the air for up to an hour (with 20 minutes of reserve power). That puts some significant limits on cross-countries and other off-airport training flights, which make it difficult to imagine it being a really competitive option until that improves. The upside is radical cost reduction—Pipistrel claims power for the Alpha Electro costs about $3 per hour. The Electro’s batteries can be changed out in three to five minutes and recharged in 45-60. Purchase price for a new Alpha Electro is currently listed at about $141,000.
Bye Aerospace’s two-seat Sun Flyer 2 and four-seat Sun Flyer 4 are also worth watching when it comes to the future of electric trainers. Both have been marketed primarily as training aircraft with endurance up to 3.5 and 4 hours respectively. Both Sun Fliers are too big to qualify as LSAs and Bye has said it plans to pursue Part 23 certification for the aircraft. The listed price lands in about the same spot as similarly sized Part 23 trainers with the Sun Flyer 2 going for $289,000 and the Sun Flyer 4 coming in at $389,000. The Sun Flyer 2 flew for the first time in April 2018, meaning certification is still going to be some time in coming. Interest in the electric trainer is real, though. The company claims to have more than 120 orders on the books.
One of the issues with developing and certifying electric trainers is how quickly the technology is changing. In April of 2017, Airbus abandoned its E-Fan electric trainer, which first flew in March 2014 and was originally scheduled to begin deliveries early this year. The company cited the rapid progression of electric motor tech as one of the reasons it was letting go of the trainer and looking toward a passenger transport hybrid-powered aircraft instead. Until the technology stabilizes somewhat, it will be interesting to see how many companies will be willing to take on the work and risk of certifying trainers that might be obsolete long before they reach the market.
Although there are a few exceptions, the largest and most expensive orders for new trainers these days are primarily coming from outside the U.S. From buying up aircraft manufacturing to large training fleet purchases, China is taking a new interest in aviation and bringing significant financial resources to the game. It’s too soon to tell exactly how that will affect the trajectory of the industry, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where that much buying power wouldn’t shape the market in the coming years.
On the other hand, companies looking to market trainers in the U.S. are going smaller and cheaper. Flight training costs have opened up space for anyone offering a reliable, less-expensive option. Attempts are being made to reduce prices by streamlining manufacturing processes and even more closely tailor aircraft for training missions. Aircraft that run on less fuel, require less maintenance and have lower purchase prices are all looking more attractive to prospective buyers even though they might be smaller and lack some high-end features.
Many LSA manufacturers are working hard to turn their aircraft into the answer to that "smaller and cheaper trainer" question. Although LSAs are edging into the larger training market, the biggest hurdle is still selling them to the crowd that believes everything should fly like a Cessna or a Piper. To continue to make gains, LSAs must prove themselves sturdy enough to handle the kinds of abuse new students heap on an airframe and be similar enough in performance to provide the same type of relatively easy transitions to larger aircraft than are provided by Part 23 trainers.
Last, electric training aircraft sit on the cusp of becoming a real, certifiable possibility. The idea of vastly cheaper operating costs, quieter aircraft and more eco-friendly operations (say goodbye to leaded fuel …) makes the technology appealing. How quickly very real downsides—like the lack of recharge infrastructure at airports and short battery life in the air—can be overcome remain to be seen. If the problems can be tackled efficiently, however, electric and hybrid technology might just reshape aviation training.
Overall, the market for new training aircraft of all types appears to be growing for the first time in recent memory, which makes a lot of sense given the current and projected availability of pilot jobs. How industry growth is manifesting depends a lot on location and where it will stabilize remains largely unclear. That said, the next few years will likely see more significant change in the types and development of aviation training fleets.