Light Sport Aviation aims to break cost barrier to flight freedom

by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News
MEXICO, Mo.— Even as world media focuses on the rich and famous pursuing dreams of space tourism, out here on a rural airport about 90 miles west of St. Louis, a small company is working to make the thrill of light sport aircraft flying available and affordable to middle-income people.

Zenith Aircraft Company, an independent, privately-owned company formed in 1992 by the late aeronautical engineer and designer Chris Heintz, continues to be owned and operated by the founder’s son, President Sebastien Heintz.

In an exclusive interview with Aerotech News and Review in early July, Sebastien Heintz talked about the history, growth and future prospects in light sport aircraft manufacturing. While homebuilt aircraft, registered with the X for experimental, have been constructed and flown by the thousands for decades, introduction of the Light Sport Aircraft category for “pre-fabricated airplanes” to be assembled by buyers, came in response to what was seen as a steepening death spiral for the general aviation industry in America.

General aviation piston-engine airplane sales began a steep decline in the late 1980s, as five-figure prices for new Cessna, Piper and Beechcraft planes rose to mid-six figures. The general aviation legacy builders responded to the downturn by building fewer single and twin models and relying on growing sales of corporate twins and jets to those who met the quarter-million-dollar threshold for ownership and operations.

Cost increases were driven primarily by product liability lawsuits. The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 brought some relief by limiting product liability for items built 18 or more years before an incident. But ultimately the manufacturers were still paying up to 30 percent of the price of the airplane for insuring against liability.

That concern led to passage of the Small Airplane Revitalization Act of 2013, the intent being to cut red tape and some regulatory rules that made building and maintaining small recreational airplanes unaffordable.

The legislation resulted in amendments to Federal Aviation Administration Part 23 requirements going into force by 2018.

What all this means is a question for folks stopping by the Zenith Aircraft Company and other Light Sport Aircraft exhibits at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc., July 26-Aug. 1.
So, what’s the price of a Light Sport Aircraft?
Heintz would explain that the price of an LSA depends on what the buyer wants and needs in performance, optional equipment, instrumentation, powerplant, and — most importantly — the pure joy derived from flying, an ultimate expression of human freedom. Steeped in the principles of business and marketing, Heintz says general aviation traditionally misunderstood what motivates private plane buyers. “People buy airplanes for the same reasons they buy boats, because it’s fun, not because it’s less expensive.”

He scoffs at any notion that light sport airplanes are for utilitarian personal transportation. And owning a pleasure boat, it turns out, costs about the same as a light plane.

Prices of Zenith kits start at around $17,500, with middle of the market kits beginning around the mid-twenty-thousands, and top of the line kits opening just over $32,000. Then there’s the question of how soon you want it? Unless buying an aircraft already assembled by another light sport owner, the buyer is also the builder of at least 51 percent of the pre-cut, pre-drilled wings, tail assembly and fuselage.

Some buyers start with just purchasing the plans and coaching on what’s involved, buying next sections of the plane sequentially. Heintz says someone experienced in working with sheet metal and tools would begin with a lead, but almost anybody who can follow directions can do the job, with consulting available from Zenith to get over any rough patches. The basic tools are a blind rivet tool and screwdrivers.

In what Heitnz called the Eight-Day-Wonder at Oshkosh in 1976, Zenith assembled a complete aircraft kit at the EAA gathering. On the other edge of that experience, Zenith’s website features an interview with a pilot who leisurely assembled his Zenith aircraft over seven years, and then flew it for two years more at the time of the interview. Heintz said that for many people, the greatest joy and satisfaction comes from the creation.

While there’s set number attached to the cost of building a kit airplane, learning to fly it with a sport pilot license and maintaining it, the range of costs fall well below the price for owning and flying a 20 to 40-year-old legacy aircraft from Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft. Prices for restored legacy aircraft can start around a quarter-million dollars, and pilots must have full private pilot certificates, requiring nearly twice the instructional hours for a sport aircraft pilot certificate.

Reduced instructional time for light sport pilot licensing reflects the restrictions on flying an LSA: Night flying, banned; instrument flying, prohibited; paying passengers, not allowed. It’s all about VFR. If you can’t see it, don’t go is a kind of rule of thumb.

Although light sport aircraft aren’t especially fast and certainly not stressed to handle aerobatics, they do offer advanced design and technological features that make them highly flexible. Zenith has been a leader in creating light sports aircraft designed to operate as STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft, making operations possible from farming fields, rural roads, and empty lots. Zenith’s most recent STOL airplane, the STOL CH750 Super Duty, takes off after a 100-foot roll, with a Continental engine, and lands in 125 feet.

Asked how Zenith Aviation came to locate its factory in Mexico, Mo., Heintz pointed to the middle of a state map on the wall. Ninety miles west of St. Louis, “We’re right in the middle of the country,” he said, adding that nearby Interstate 70 provides fast, reliable shipping to customers across the country, and increasingly, abroad. And then there’s the family-friendly local community airport where Heintz leases his headquarters and 20,000-square-foot factory, with access to two paved runways. And Zenith is the only commercial enterprise on the field, employing a local economy-boosting 20 skilled people.

The boss says, “We do on average one kit airplane per working day.” And he expresses little interest in following the footsteps of airplane makers who went corporate, got on the Wall Street imperative of quarterly goals over long range strategy, and ended up being merged out of existence.

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