by Ed Leineweber
When I wrote about Piper’s entry into the Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSA) market in my column last fall (Oct/Nov 2010 Midwest Flyer Magazine), I commented upon the speed with which the deal was struck between Piper Aircraft and Czech Sport Aircraft, manufacturer of what was then called the “Sport Cruiser.” The Sport Cruiser was rebranded as the “Piper Sport,” and distribution was done through a stand-alone network of Piper Sport dealers.
But the lickety-split pace of the deal making was exceeded by the speed with which it came to an end, barely a year later. Although supportive of the aircraft, Piper cited “differences in business philosophies,” and pulled the plug on its S-LSA offering, just as it was starting to really take off.
According to statistics maintained by Dan Johnson, head of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA), as of June 2011, Czech Sport Aircraft had 177 of various derivatives Sport Cruiser models registered in the U.S. This makes the Sport Cruiser second only to industry-leader Flight Design, and outpacing other front-runners such as American Legend, Tecnam and Cub Crafters; and substantially ahead of its big-league competitor, Cessna.
Approximately 70 of the Sport Cruisers on the FAA registry are officially Piper Sports, almost all of which were sold during the short life of Piper’s marketing agreement with the manufacturer. (A few Piper Sports have been sold since the termination of the agreement, as existing inventory is liquidated.)
So what is next for the Sport Cruiser and the former Piper Sport dealers who hitched their wagon to Piper’s rising star, only to have their plans dashed a few months later while enjoying a very encouraging market response?
I caught up with Bill and Todd Kyle, owners of North Iowa Air Service, profiled in my first article, and talked about future plans for this promising S-LSA. If the “animal spirit” that animates so much of general aviation entrepreneurial activity is any indication, the Czech Sport Aircraft offering, now once again known as the Sport Cruiser, is alive and well, with bright, if more modest, prospects for future success.
First, the new marketing structure remains essentially intact, with nine of the original 10 Piper Sport dealers remaining on board, and a new one joining the group, thereby maintaining the original total of 10. U.S. Sport Aircraft, based in Ft. Pierce, Florida, and owned by Don Ayres, remains the master distributor for North America: www.sportaircraft.com. The aircraft are imported into the U.S., reassembled at the company’s facilities in Ft. Pierce and Addison, Texas, inspected by a Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR), and issued their Special-Light Sport Aircraft airworthiness certificates. From there they are distributed to the various dealers around the country. All 10 regional dealers are factory-authorized service centers.
According to Todd Kyle, their business plan for North Iowa Air Service remains unchanged, although they have revised downward the number of aircraft they believe will likely be sold in the next few years, conceding that the Piper branding and support was a major element of the early success of their product. Still, they remain confident that the aircraft itself, the manufacturer, and the distribution and support network, are all solid competitors, and that the Sport Cruiser will get its share of the developing Light Sport Aircraft market in the years to come.
The “new” Sport Cruiser aircraft has undergone several modifications which Todd feels result in significant improvements to an already proven design. These include the addition of an anti-servo tab on the elevator; lengthened flaps (and shortened ailerons), which reduce the full-flaps stall speed to an impressive 24 knots; counter-weights in the elevator to reduce pitch sensitivity; less flare in the wing tips to facilitate night operations; air vents in the canopy; and headset hangars. Specifications for the Sport Cruiser can be found on the U.S. Sport Aircraft website under the “Documents” tab.
The Rotax 912ULS-powered Sport Cruiser is still offered in the three models configured by Piper: the Classic, a trainer version, and the top-of the-line LTD, which almost all buyers are choosing. Featuring the Dynon glass panel avionics options, Garmin GPS and radios, and a ballistic recovery parachute, the price tag here can approach $150,000. Sparser versions are considerably less, but the market appears to prefer the bells and whistles.
So what’s changed? Not much, and everything, you might say. A poor economy and uncertain times continue to weigh heavily on the LSA market, as with most industries. The withdrawal of the Piper brand was a big blow to the guys at North Iowa Air Service, as it was to the importer and the other nine dealers. But these organizations tend to be lean, staffed by experienced pros, who have a passion for their products. The Kyles now have an improved aircraft with a proven track record of market success.
My visit with Sport Cruiser owners at their recent EAA AirVenture get-together in July confirmed that this S-LSA is a capable cross-country airplane with lots of appeal and a solid support base here in the United States. Time will tell, but my guess is that the Sport Cruiser will remain close to the top of the “market share” lists, even without the fabled “Piper” name painted on its nose.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ed Leineweber is a CFII and aviation and business attorney, who now looks back at earlier life phases as a circuit court judge, fixed base operator, and as an airport manager. Ed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 608-604-6515.