Cessna's Light Sport Changes Everything.


I'll admit it. I wasn't really seeing what the new Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) rules could do for aviation. Yes, the LSA rules are simplified and costs for a new airplane can be lower. And, yes, you can fly an LSA with a valid driver's license instead of an FAA medical certificate. But the first LSA offerings have been either versions of pumped up ultralights, or re-creations of classics such as the Piper J3 Cub. Why pay nearly $100,000 for a new Cub when the real thing in perfectly restored condition can be had for a fraction of that?

But Cessna boss Jack Pelton and his people do understand what an LSA can do for Cessna and for general aviation, and now I get it, too. Training is the answer. An LSA from Cessna has the potential to boost the flight training business to levels we haven't seen in decades.

If Cessna builds an LSA it will come in ready to train new pilots at less than $100,000 in today's dollars. If Cessna can't hold to that price, Pelton says the company won't build an LSA. That is about 60 percent below the price of a new Skyhawk, Cessna's lowest priced trainer now available, and that level of cost reduction will matter. And, for the first time, fuel bills matter in light singles compared to overall operating costs, and an LSA could nearly halve fuel expenses. A Cessna LSA could dramatically reduce the cost of learning to fly in a new airplane.

Cessna is not yet committed to building an LSA, but it did unveil a proof-of-concept airplane at Oshkosh. The sleek, high-wing single may have drawn more attention during the week than any other of the thousands of airplanes on display at Oshkosh. Everybody I spoke with made a special trip to examine it, and everyone had an opinion-nearly all positive.

There are several reasons an LSA from Cessna holds such great potential, but the most important are confidence, cost and style. Many in general aviation have wondered about the LSA certification standards that designate more of the task to the airplane manufacturer, with less monitoring by the FAA than for a standard airplane certification. Much of our aviation system operates under designated authority, whether it be a pilot examiner giving a check ride, or a designated inspector at a manufacturer certifying that a new airplane meets the requirements of the type certificate. We couldn't operate without the FAA designating much of its authority to people it tests and then monitors.

But up to this point the new LSA introductions have been from companies with little or no history in airplane production, and many are from outside the borders of the U.S. I don't think these are unqualified manufacturers, or that their inspectors don't know or don't follow the rules. But the bottom line is I just don't know. There is no history behind these LSA startups to provide confidence. A Cessna LSA would change all of that.

Cessna would not be subjected to different LSA standards than any other company, but it would hold itself to the highest standard: its own. Cessna has built more airplanes than nearly the entire rest of the industry put together. It has created dozens of models from scratch, and many, many more as derivatives of existing airplanes. It knows how to design and build airplanes. And Cessna is huge. It has way too much at stake to risk any corner cutting on an LSA. The company that has built about half the world's business jets is not going to take any chances with its reputation on an LSA.

Cessna is also in the best position to control the cost of a new LSA. You may be able to point to a company that sold an airplane for less than Cessna, but what you can't do is find one that has been in business for 79 years that has delivered equivalent airplanes for less money than Cessna. Many of us are fans of all kinds of airplanes, but none who are knowledgeable would ever say that another company delivered more payload, speed or durability for less money than Cessna. And of equal importance, no company has a more extensive field support network to keep its airplanes flying.

Finally, there is the styling question. I admit that I have been stuck on measurable improvements and fundamental aerodynamic advances as being most important. But Cirrus, and some others, have proven me wrong. The Cirrus is a great example of how an airplane can create a perception of total newness, even a breakthrough, without any actual revolution in aerodynamics, structural or powerplant technology. The style, the shape, the advanced avionics and sophisticated marketing have all worked to make the Cirrus a success because it is perceived as a revolutionary airplane.

Cessna can do the same thing with its LSA. The proof of concept it brought to Oshkosh is very sleek and modern looking. The cabin is many inches wider than a Cessna 152, and I am certain that Garmin can supply a dazzling panel full of electronics that are up to the minute in capability, but very modest in size and cost. Nobody will look at the new Cessna LSA and believe they are learning to fly in their granddad's Cessna 150.

A Cessna LSA could also supply a steady stream of nearly new airplanes at a low cost for the pilot who has no particularly demanding travel mission, but simply wants to own and enjoy his own airplane. Over the years only a small minority of trainers such as 150 and 152s from Cessna, basic Cherokees from Piper, or the Musketeer series from Beech were bought directly by individuals. The way it worked is the airplanes went into a flight school where they worked hard for a couple or three years as trainers, and then were sold to individuals at a greatly depreciated price. Flight schools kept their fleets new and fresh but individuals got a good deal on a nearly new airplane. Compare that to the existing fleet of basic singles available now that average more than 30 years of age and you can see how a nearly new Cessna LSA that had served a couple years as a trainer would be a very attractive deal.

A Cessna LSA would also provide the missing link in a complete training package. The most successful learn-to-fly programs were the ones Cessna operated in the 1960s and 70s that were a total package. The ground school materials and flight training were all designed around the airplane, and then sold as a complete learn-to-fly course from a nationally branded Cessna flight school. Cessna has hundreds of Cessna Pilot Centers and could re-create a learn-to-fly package based on a new LSA that would be complete, easy to understand, and nationally and internationally available at a consistent level of quality. There really is an opportunity to transform flight training and I'm so pleased that Cessna has recognized it, and is seriously considering it. A new LSA may not directly add many dollars to Cessna's bottom line, but it would reinforce Cessna's strategy of keeping pilots in the family, from LSAs to jets. Best of all, it would be nothing new for Cessna. The company has done this before. After all, Cessna has taught the world to fly, at least the big majority of pilots, and I am hoping that unbroken record of success will continue.