Attracting new pilots: Airplanes go light

-- 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...


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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.

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