What is the best flight school trainer?

I have often been asked this question by the owners of flight schools and looking at what is readily available in southern Africa had me thinking about undertaking some research. The more you think about this, the more difficult the decision actually is. There is simply no perfect light trainer for the task as each choice is compromised in some way which favours another choice that is compromised in another way.

So, what is the most important aspect of this decision? It is not always about how the airplane flies, because someone can be taught on a basic 60-year-old Piper J3-Cub. What is most important is despatch reliability: keeping the airplane available on the ramp so it is always ready for students to fly and constantly producing revenue for the school. Nothing is worse than having a ‘broken trainer’ baking in the sun, whilst two broken airplanes at a school, with only six machines, is a disaster.

Despatch reliability is defined not by the design itself, but more importantly by how easy the airplane is to fix and service with available parts. With that in mind, one can easily see why America’s Cessna C172 Skyhawk remains the ‘gold standard’ for flight schools. It is the world’s most popular aircraft with more than 44,000 + having been built.

Despite the airplane’s various faults, anyone can fix it, the parts are readily available from Cessna or they can be found in the aftermarket or salvage market. I have heard complaints about prices rising for Cessna parts and in some cases parts are becoming harder to find. However, I am pretty confident that the 172 Skyhawk remains the most supported airplane in the training market.

These days, few flight schools can afford to buy new trainers, but the major institutions can and do. We are well and truly into the age of the R5.2 million plus new training airplane. Plug the debt load of that kind of purchase into your spreadsheet and the monthly repayment to the bank is eye-watering. In addition to good despatch reliability, you had better have a steady stream of students and a second shift of instructors.

With this in mind we need to look at two new entries into the training market: Tecnam’s P2010 and the new VulcanAir 1.0. Both from Italian companies. These two airplanes are essentially Skyhawk ‘spinoffs;’ both high wings with struts and both equipped with Lycoming engines. Whilst I like the P2010, if it is bought new, it is just as expensive as the Skyhawk, although it is faster and has three entry doors. Those are ‘nice-to-haves,’ but are they useful improvements in a trainer? Doubtful. Tecnam is a well-established global aircraft company, but if one bought a couple of million rands worth of new trainers from Tecnam, could it match Cessna’s supportability for the Skyhawk? Possibly, but for Cessna, this is a ‘known,’ which is a big investment in support.

The new VulcanAir 1.0 will sell for substantially less than a new C172 Skyhawk or P2010 at about R3.5 million and as with the P2010, it has a third door. It is not certified in the U.S. or South Africa yet and even when it is later this year or early next, VulcanAir will face the challenge of building the same supply chain depth that Cessna and Piper already have. Whilst it is true that the Aircraft On the Ground (AOG) worry can be overstated any capable AMO can repair such an airplane. The unexpected lack of some approved part or shipping delay can keep airplanes grounded for a few days or weeks with owners fuming. Just recall the fiasco Austria’s Diamond and the then-Thielert ‘visited’ on the training business with the early DA42s. So, buying a new model at any price is measuring unknown reliability against performance or other features. The balance will be determined by actual field experience, not by someone like me talking at length about this subject.

These are not the only choices. The Piper Aircraft Company (now owned by the government of Brunei), once one of America’s ‘big three’ – the other two being Cessna and Beechcraft, is still selling the Archer TX into the training market and has just sold a small fleet to the University of North Dakota. We never know what these schools actually pay for the airplanes they buy, but the Archer’s posted base price is in the R4.9 million range. Piper may have a deal-making edge in that it can do what Cessna cannot do. Piper may offer some kind of package that includes twins like the Seminole or the Seneca. A great deal of the flight training today is producing professional pilots and they all require multi-engine ratings. Diamond has the same advantage with the DA40/42 combination, but probably due to higher base prices, Diamond doesn’t have the same penetration in the single-engine training market as Cessna and Piper do, but Diamond dominates piston twin sales, with more than 50 percent penetration.

Also, let us not forget the Cirrus SR20 that really hasn’t been a first-choice trainer, probably because of its high price. However, lately Cirrus has been making inroads. Cirrus sold 25 SR20s to the US Air Force for training at the service’s academy a few years ago and recently Lufthansa, Vincennes University and Parks College have bought Cirrus aircraft for trainers. Cirrus has the advantage of being the highest-volume piston aircraft company and has a healthy growth curve. If it cannot beat Cessna or Piper strictly on price, it can sweeten the pot with support programmes and training materials. I have been told by Cirrus’ South African flight school that students are less concerned about price than they are about despatch reliability and aircraft support. There have been statements about the fact that the Cirrus isn’t as suitable a trainer as the C172 Skyhawk because it is hard to fly and it is faster. Seriously? It may be different, but not hard to fly and is certainly an aircraft that can be used for basic training with great success. I have always maintained that a student can do primary training in any single engine aircraft, as long as it is his or her first exposure to an aircraft.

For someone buying a fleet of training airplanes, say a half dozen or more, the decision matrix gets complicated. What is the demand for training? What can you charge for it? How much will you do? What kind of students? Do you envision new airplanes or refurbished older models? How does debt load figure into all of this? I sure can’t answer any of this in a vacuum. If given the choice, most schools would want to purchase brand new training aircraft, but reality intrudes in the form of hard-nosed investment considerations. Not many schools can afford new aircraft so they are left with some combination of new and used aircraft. Absent tax write-down considerations, used aircraft are always a better value and that seems to inevitably point back to the Cessna C172 Skyhawk, which explains why so many of them are in flight school service. They are good teaching platforms, have predictable maintenance costs and reasonable despatch reliability. In my view, Piper’s PA-28 family of Cherokee aircraft is a close second.

Which leads to the inevitable question: Why doesn’t someone build a new, inexpensive trainer? That’s what VulcanAir is attempting with the 1.0. However, it is not that simple. The airplane business doesn’t thrive on ‘build-it-and-they-will come’ psychology. Airplanes have to be sold aggressively; they don’t fly off the shelves so to speak. Given the size of the investments, buyers are sensitive and perhaps sceptical of the ability of small companies to support their airplanes with parts and service and this is the nut VulcanAir has to crack.

When it announced the new M10 series two years ago, America’s Mooney (now Chinese owned) was also clearly making a run at the trainer market. However, it has since pulled back and is being tight lipped about what will happen to the project. However, I suspect Mooney realised for the investment required and the price it would have to charge, the trainer sales are just not there in a market that is expensively saturated.

Back in South Africa, the locally produced Sling 2 appears to have made extensive inroads into the training market, especially within the Light Sport regime and at basic PPL levels. At a list price of just over R1.5 million new, the investment of several Sling aircraft into local training school fleets appears to be a firm favourite, especially for ab-initio training.  As I said, it is complicated.

Written by Athol Franz | Editor & Owner of African Pilot Magazine

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