Attracting new pilots: Airplanes go light

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May 27--Inside a brightly lit hangar at Yingling Aviation on Tuesday, two Cessna Aircraft 162 Skycatchers were delivered to the Experimental Aircraft Association, an industry trade group. Pilots will fly the planes to EAA headquarters in Wisconsin, where they will be used for introductory flights to stimulate interest in flying among young people.

While Cessna has delivered three Skycatchers so far, the small planes will become a more familiar sight in the months and years ahead as production and deliveries increase. Cessna has more than 1,000 Skycatchers on order.

In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration added a new category of aircraft, "light sport."

Today, 75 manufacturers around the world -- from mom-and-pop operations to large companies -- offer 107 models of light-sport aircraft. Only two are sold by the major traditional airframe manufacturers -- Cessna and Piper Aircraft.

So far, the industry has "done pretty well, but it hasn't set the world on fire," said Dan Johnson, chairman and president of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association.

That is expected to change.

According to the FAA, 6,800 light sport aircraft are in operation in the U.S. That is expected to more than double by 2030.

That doesn't include international demand, which is expected to soar as countries around the world adopt light sport rules similar to those in the United States.

China and India are expected to become strong markets for the aircraft, Johnson said.

"I see a downstream potential for more than 5,000 (airplanes) a year worldwide," Johnson said.

"I think that is conservative."

The market

So far, many buyers of light sport aircraft are current pilots, Johnson said, who may already own a Cessna 172 or Beechcraft Bonanza.

Some have sold their other planes. They've "decided one of these light sport aircraft can do the job for them," Johnson said.

The small planes cost less than new, larger single-engine aircraft, burn less fuel, have roomy cockpits and operate with lower costs, he said.

A two-seat 162 Skycatcher, for example, lists for $112,250 and costs $62 an hour to operate. The larger Cessna 172 Skyhawk, in comparison, costs $269,500 and $104 an hour to operate.

In its 20-year aviation forecast released in March, the FAA predicted the U.S. light-sport fleet to increase by about 825 aircraft a year until 2013, then increase by about 335 aircraft a year.

By 2030, it predicts the U.S. light sport fleet to grow to 16,311 planes.

Of Cessna's Skycatcher orders, 39 percent are from international customers.

Thirty-two percent of the orders are from Cessna dealers, while 26 percent are from Cessna pilot centers, which train pilots. The rest are from retail customers, said a Cessna spokesman.

The number of orders "guarantees a good start" for the Skycatcher, said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia, although the numbers can be "tough to sustain."

The FAA's forecast also predicted a downside for the single-engine market as a result of the growth of light sport aircraft.

The light sport category "could erode the replacement market for traditional piston aircraft," the FAA report said.

Cessna officials disagree.

"It's very likely to have the opposite effect because light sport aircraft will bring new pilots into the industry," said Cessna spokesman Bob Stangarone. "These pilots are likely to grow into larger single-engine piston aircraft, increasing the market."

Learning to fly

Industry experts hope the new light sport category will encourage more people to learn to fly -- especially as the number of pilots declines.

In the past 20 years, the number of U.S. pilots has fallen from more than 800,000 to fewer than 600,000.

"The industry has to do something," said General Aviation Manufacturers Association president and CEO Pete Bunce. "I think the light sport (category) is one of those ways we can do that."

It's a good starting point, experts note.

The FAA has adopted an entry-level pilot license called a sport-pilot certificate. Pilots have fewer requirements to meet but must operate with more restrictions than private-pilot certificate holders.

They also must fly aircraft that meet light sport aircraft definitions. Among other requirements, the planes can't weigh more than 1,320 pounds, carry more than two people or cruise faster than 138 mph.

Sport pilots can go on to earn their private, instrument, multiengine licenses and so on, said EAA chairman Tom Poberezny said.

"The hardest thing in aviation is to take that first step," Poberezny said. "Once you do, you're hooked."

Flight training

At least two Wichita flight schools are adding Skycatchers as training aircraft.

Late next week, Yingling -- a Cessna authorized delivery center for the Skycatchers -- will have one for use in flight training.

Steve Dunne, president of Midwest Corporate Aviation Aircraft Sales, a Cessna dealer, has six on order. He's sold two of them. The other four will be used in flight training or put into inventory for sale.

"I see it revolutionizing the training side," Dunne said.

A sport license reduces the flight hours needed to earn a license, Dunne said.

"Someone can go out, fly around and build time sooner," he said.

Increasing the number of pilots can also help the used- and new-aircraft markets as pilots go on to buy their own aircraft, Dunne said.

But David Dewhirst, president of Sabris Corp., a flight management company, questions the savings for students and flight schools.

A late-model used Cessna 172 is less expensive than a new light sport aircraft, he said.

And the difference in operating costs will be outweighed by the longer time it would take during a lesson to fly from an airport like Wichita Mid-Continent to a practice area for instruction, Dewhirst said. That will cut down on actual instruction time.

"I would be surprised to see the cost of a light sport license to be significantly less than the cost of a private pilot certificate," Dewhirst said.

Kansas Pilots Association president Al Madero said the light sport category has advantages. He likes that it will encourage people to fly and keep older pilots flying because holders of sport pilot certificates don't need an FAA medical certificate.

"There's no problem with learning to fly in a little light airplane," Madero said. "Once you learn the basics of flying, it's easier to step up to a heavier airplane."

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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