How Important Is a Pilot’s First Airplane?

Why older trainers often have the edge on newer ones.

A trio of classic Cessna 152 trainers tour Pennsylvania. (Mark Deangelo)
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Prior to its collapse, the light airplane end of the general aviation industry had manufactured enough of those durable little airplanes to last through several generations of student pilots. Factor in the next heavier tier of light singles—Cessna’s 172, Piper’s Cherokee, and other manufacturers’ equivalents—all of which can be acquired on the used market at or below new trainer prices—and there’s simply no apparent need for a newly manufactured FAA-approved trainer.

Student pilots today can get their flight training in a college or flight academy setting, where they’ll most likely encounter fleets made up of recent models of certificated four-place trainers such as Piper’s Archer TX, a 180-horsepower airplane listing for $338,200.

But most wannabe pilots follow another road: to the local airport. There they will find a flight school and, the odds say, a Cessna for instruction. Here, the airplanes are likely to be well used and have a market value closer to $50,000. The odds also say that the flight school doesn’t own the airplanes; it leases them.

With no purpose-built trainers in production in the United States, attention turned to the LSAs, small, inexpensive, two-seat aircraft limited in such areas as weight and speed but unburdened by the costly requirements for an FAA airworthiness certificate. Although the FAA would not issue such certificates for the LSAs, the agency was an active participant in the discussions that created the criteria under which the aircraft would be produced and sold in the United States.

Under former CEO Jack Pelton, Cessna began to explore the category as a possible entry point for people just coming to aviation. The newbies would need an airplane with a low price and curb appeal. “We went out on a covert mission,” Pelton recalls about the time when some “key folks ran down to Sebring, Florida, where they hold the Light Sport Aircraft show.” This was around 2006, and Pelton asked the team to look at the market. “We wanted to know if this was something we should be part of,” he says. “The general consensus was that this was a fascinating new market opportunity to bring people into aviation at a much lower price point.”

At Cessna, Tracy Leopold, Skycatcher and Skyhawk program manager, says that at the time, the thinking was “We have a pilot shortage, and this was a way to get excitement and a lower cost point for someone to learn to fly.” Both she and Pelton say that the company proceeded because of one important factor: the network of Cessna Pilot Centers, where the company’s single-engine line is sold and serviced and where the company has taught people to fly for over 50 years. Although nobody has hard numbers, the company reckons its training programs have introduced about half the world’s pilots to flying.

Ian Twombly, editor of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Flight Training magazine, notes that the Cessna Pilot Centers are required to add one new airplane to their flightline every two years. “The CPCs balked at the cost of a Skyhawk,” he says. Cessna now lists that airplane’s “starting price” at $289,500.

The LSA category was created with the idea of providing new pilots with a lower cost of entry, hassle-free. Anyone with a driver’s license can operate a light sport aircraft, without passing the FAA medical examination required for a private pilot’s license. A concurrent creation, the Sport Pilot license, has restrictions: The holder is limited to day visual flying in restricted airspace, among other factors. With the private pilot license, most of the restrictions go away.

Pelton recalls, “We also recognized that while Light Sport was an interesting category and rating for an individual, our real motivation was the Private Pilot. And it could all be achieved in that Light Sport Airplane. If somebody wanted to…get just a Sport rating, that was great, but we thought if we built the right product, it would encourage them to continue on with their Private Pilot License.”

And Pelton had one possible regret: “I had gone out publicly and said that the airplane needed to be under $100,000,” he admits. But that was before the company had searched the world for a build site and before it had gotten feedback from flight schools that drove changes that pushed cost up. There was criticism when the price rose, but Pelton says some expectations were simply not attainable. “And nobody else was out there with an airplane similarly equipped at the price point lower than where we were at.”

About George C. Larson

George C. Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot's license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

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