A longtime pilot joke goes, “What makes an airplane fly?” The punch line: “Money!” Forget all that fancy talk about Bernoulli’s Principle.
While it’s true recreational aviation is not the cheapest activity you could enjoy, neither is flying only for folks with thick wallets. If you keep an open mind, some aircraft are likely to fit your budget.
Pilots who fly for enjoyment—aerial sightseeing, short cross-country trips, $100 hamburger fly-outs, and more—can acquire affordable aircraft if they are willing to look a little further.
Taking a survey of the light sport aircraft and/or experimental segments of the market, I offer seven suggestions. I provide a range of aircraft types, but each that is discussed is only one of the numerous others of a similar type available in the light aviation fleet. The choices you have are truly quite amazing. Let’s take a look.
SkyReach BushCat by AeroSport
With operations in Wisconsin and Florida, AeroSport has for many years represented South Africa’s BushCat from SkyReach, one of the most affordable airplanes in the entire LSA fleet.
Base priced at below $100,000, the BushCat adds value through its versatility. The BushCat can be bought ready to fly, as a kit, as a tri-gear or taildragger, on floats or not. It is roomier inside than it may appear. At 52 inches, the BushCat has one of the broadest cabins among all LSA. For comparison, the ubiquitous Cessna 172 has a 39.5-inch-wide cabin.
The Bushcat’s tough and light Dacron-Trilam fabric covered aircraft—needing no paint, which reduces added weight—offers a generous payload and a fuel load (24.8 gallons) good for six hours of flying. Additional features include a center joystick, dual rudder pedals, and unique dual throttles at the end of each outside armrest that fold up out of your way to ease entry and exit.
The BushCat was formerly known as the Cheetah from Rainbow Aircraft. When SkyReach took over manufacturing and professionalized the organization, it rebranded the aircraft as the BushCat. It also made a series of positive improvements to an airplane that flew well, which SkyReach has continuously upgraded and improved ever since.
AeroSport represents the BushCat from two geographically desirable locations in the U.S. Run by Daniela and Jeremy Knoll, the company’s home base is in northern Illinois in Wonder Lake, making it almost a neighbor of the Experimental Aircraft Association about 140 miles to the north in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. AeroSport’s hanger and maintenance facility is located at Galt Airport (10C).
More recently, AeroSport and its partners purchased a large hangar and established a sales, service, and maintenance facility at the DeLand Municipal Airport (KDED) in central Florida. Branching out to a climate that works year-round, the Knolls made a major facility investment and hired Troy Scholte to be their on-site director of maintenance in DeLand.
Scholte provides full manufacturer services for all BushCat aircraft models, but he can also work on conventional (standard category/Part 23) aircraft using his A&P/IA credentials.
If the BushCat doesn’t meet your needs, AeroSport is also a dealer for TL Sport Aircraft and TAF Sling models, and each of these well-established companies offer several models.
Flight Design CTLS by Airtime
“Flight Design is pleased to announce the availability of the (Rotax) 914T option for the CTLS GT 2020,” the German company told journalists amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This also came as the newer, more powerful Rotax 915iS was about to be introduced. Today, that creates an opportunity for some buyers.
The CT-series is the most successful model among all 158 special light sport aircraft (SLSAs) the FAA has accepted. More than 400 are flying around the U.S. Many of these are in excellent shape with fairly low hours, making them possibilities for a pilot who wants top of the line at less-than-new retail.
While the company has been focused on its new F-series, the CTLS remains in production and is actively being sold. The popular model fits regulations in many countries. Another producer, Taiwan-based AeroJones Aviation, builds the model for the Asia-Pacific market. It added another 50 aircraft to the fleet.
The CTLS is well known for its spacious 49-inch-wide interior, huge visibility with no side struts to block your view, sprightly top-of-the-category performance, and tremendous range. CTLS carries 35 gallons of fuel, letting it run nearly 1,000 sm (869 nm) nonstop. With these characteristics, CTLS makes a great country flying machine. As proof, several models have been flown all around the world.
“The design team did a beautiful job integrating the Rotax 914 with the turbocharger and intercooler into the new longer cowling of the CTLS GT 2020,” said company leader Daniel Guenther.
One visual clue of the potent engine is a large NACA inlet. Rotax’s 914 Turbo engine produces 115 hp for a limited time and helps the CTLS operate to higher altitudes and from higher elevation fields.
“CTLS GT is a thoroughly modern aircraft that can reach 140 knots (ktas at altitude) and can climb at better than 2,000 feet per minute,” Guenther said.
With the addition of the Rotax 914T option, the long-running CTLS extends its range again. Numerous other used models are available in America and around the globe powered by the carbureted Rotax 912 and the fuel injected 912iS.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that U.S. companies often offer aircraft kits while their European counterparts lean toward fully built aircraft. These two manufacturing activities require very different capabilities.
The Europeans had regulations that encouraged fully built aircraft, while those in the U.S. were restricted by expensive regulations. Thanks to work by EAA over many years, kit building filled the gap. U.S. companies became good at offering kits and supporting builders. One such company emerged when light sport aircraft burst on the scene more than 20 years ago.
Arion Aircraft, based in Shelbyville, Tennessee, offers a U.S.-owned, designed, built, and supported line of aircraft assembled mostly from U.S.-sourced components. At a time when many fine light sport aircraft come from overseas, some U.S. pilots prefer to deal with a company in their own country, in English, and in U.S. currency.
Pilots were captivated by the airplane’s graceful lines and speedy performance. Arion’s credibility was secured after the producer underwent one of the FAA’s intensive audits—six officials scoured the design and facilities for three full days. Led by owner Nick Otterback, Arion completed this exercise successfully, proving its design integrity and manufacturing quality.
New or used, Lightning LSAs are commonly powered by the Jabiru 3300 6-cylinder, 120 hp engine, which gives the model thrilling performance. Yet some pilots want a different engine or other changes, and Arion can accommodate them by offering kits.
Some Lightning builders elect the UL Power engines, and Arion has demonstrated a Lightning with a Lycoming O-320 at 160 hp. When it does not need to obey the LSA rule’s 120-knot speed limit, the Lightning can blaze along at speeds approaching 200 mph. Nonetheless, it stalls at 45 knots clean.
Handling is crisp and clean while not being touchy, and a pilot can land it without special skills.
A new Lightning can top $150,000, but used models can save a large percentage of the original price. Alternatively, you can opt for a standard kit and build it in as small a space as a one-car garage, taking about 500 hours for the average builder.
With engine, propeller, interior, paint, and instruments on top of the kit price, you could get airborne for less than $100,000.
Aero Adventure Aventura
Lots of pilots love the idea of seaplanes…their purchase cost, not so much. Amphibious floats are surprisingly costly. Fitted to a Cessna 210, the float installation and approval alone will cost more than an entire LSA seaplane. On the other hand, the 210 can carry much more, but you see the contrast.
As enjoyable as seaplanes may be, they commonly represent a high acquisition cost with extra maintenance needed. One Florida company offers a vastly more affordable alternative.
Aero Adventure is now a key partner in Aero Affinity, a new organization at the DeLand, Florida, airport, home to several other light aircraft companies about 30 miles inland from the Atlantic coast. Aero Affinity offers a variety of aircraft for most needs and budgets—new and used, kit or fully built. It will also service all of them making a convenient one-stop shop.
Seaplanes are uniquely enjoyable, offering far more places to land than any wheeled aircraft, and usually provide a low-altitude view many pilots only see during takeoff and landing. Given landable bodies of water far outnumber airports, seaplanes even include a safety premium.
If I’ve convinced you seaplanes are desirable but expensive, how much does an Aventura II kit-built aircraft cost when a typical owner completes the building job? The answer in late 2022 was less than $60,000, though we’re all aware prices have been rising rapidly in all areas, so you’ll want to check the current cost. Owner build time is only in the area of 250 hours, depending on your skills and work practices.
What if you don’t want to build? Extending its capabilities, Aero Adventure won SLSA acceptance from the FAA, so it can now offer a fully built SLSA model base priced around $125,000 (please check for the latest quote), which must be regarded as a bargain in ready-to-fly seaplanes.
In business for more than 20 years, Aero Adventure is led by Alex Rolinski, a former banker with an A&P certificate and an energetic young team in DeLand. Aero Adventure can boast some 200 Aventura models built, a conservative estimate since kit builders are not required to report progress to the manufacturer. Adding predecessors like the original Buccaneer, the fleet approaches 1,000 aircraft, showing the appeal of this affordable design.
Readers know off-road vehicles but how about “off-airport” flying machines? Even if you don’t use that term, you may know one of the favorite aircraft that appeals to so-called backcountry pilots. I refer to Zenith Aircraft’s best-selling CH-750.
Many refer to it as the “Sky Jeep.” One glance at an example explains the term of affection.
Evolved over the years from the inventive mind of the late Chris Heintz, the CH-750 has a long and successful history with hundreds of delighted owners. Nearly all were built with its kit, an activity the Mexico, Missouri, company supports wonderfully well. Today, Zenith is professionally run by one of Heintz’s three sons, Sebastien Heintz, the company’s leader for more than 30 years.
Upgraded in 2008, the CH-701 got a bigger, wider, more refined-looking sibling, the CH-750. Though it visually resembles the CH-701, the 750 stands 2 inches taller and is 11 inches longer with a 2-foot-9-inch greater wingspan, bumping wing area to 144 square feet from 122 on the CH-701. Weight also rose to the LSA limit of 1,320 pounds. Since then, the company has continued to tweak and upgrade its line.
Along with Van’s Aircraft of the RV-series fame, Zenith is among the most prolific kit providers, leading the light aviation segment year after year. One way it has kept the energy is by supporting a variety of engines so pilots can have their preference. Choices have become increasingly powerful.
Takeoff in a CH-750 remains swift with its high-lift slotted wing. Even a more heavily loaded CH-750 can clear the deck in 100 feet or so. Center-stick handling is light and easy, a characteristic you find on all of Chris Heintz’s easy-to-build designs.
Zenith has found a ready market with lots of buyers for its CH-701 or CH-750 models. As STOL (short takeoff and landing) models, Sky Jeeps aren’t built for speed. For pilots who prefer a higher cruise speed to travel cross country, Zenith introduced the Cruzer a few years back. It dispenses with the slotted wings and fat tires. Fitting wheelpants and using only a single-wing strut and a cleaner wing, Cruzer adds 10 knots, yet it can still manage a very short takeoff and landing and retains the easy flying qualities of Sky Jeep.
Unfinished kit projects or a supply of used models offer purchase choices to budget buyers.
A trio of aircraft tick the box for great less-well-known options outside of traditional airplanes for the pilot seeking an affordable flight experience. They include:
• Gyro Technique VX-1 Gyroplane kit
• Evolution Revo or Revolt Weight Shift
Gyro Technique VX-1 Gyroplane
All of the aircraft we’ve discussed so far are conventional fixed-wing, three-axis aircraft, but traditional airplanes only represent part of the magic. A broad group of nonconventional, non-fixed-wing aircraft also populate the LSA space. One of the most popular is the gyroplane.
Some people still say “Gyrocopter,” but that is a brand name from Bensen. Over the past 15 years, European designers took early blueprints and developed the category into some very impressive rotary-winged flying machines. They also improved flight characteristics and made modern gyroplanes easier to fly. Gyroplanes distinguish themselves from nearly all light fixed-wing aircraft by flying well in windy conditions.
Along with the push to build ever-slicker models, the gyroplane industry dedicated itself almost exclusively to two-seat aircraft. Some have added side-by-side seating to tandem. Not everybody needs two seats.
Older U.S.-built gyroplanes such as the Bensen Gyrocopter were single-seaters. Maybe that was best then, when stability was different than today. However, as modern gyroplanes returned to popularity in the segment, single-seaters started a modest revival.
I discovered Gyro Technic’s VX1 at the Midwest LSA Expo in Mount Vernon, Illinois. Developer and machine shop business owner Denis Schoemaker has created a thoroughly modern gyroplane with all modern advances but in single-seat form.
Buyers often say they want a second seat for a friend or their spouse, yet more often than not, these aircraft are flown solo. A single-seat aircraft has some advantages, and pilots can merely enjoy themselves without having to assure their passenger is comfortable. Single-seaters can also cost less, partly because they don’t need as much engine.
Combine these attributes with some of the finest, beautifully accented machine work you’ll ever see, and Gyro Technic truly has something.
Evolution Revo or Revolt
If you’ve ever checked out trikes, also called weight shift control aircraft (FAA’s preferred term for the type), you may already understand the joy of highly simplified control input and great portability at much less cost than fixed-wing aircraft.
Some people think of a (weight shift) trike as a motorcycle of the air. The analogy isn’t perfect, but let’s go with it. Have you ever closely examined a modern motorcycle? Many have become metallic works of art—with price tags to match.
Even veteran cyclists may want to give a close look at a stunning entry from Evolution Trikes called Revo. If you have any interest in trikes, Revo is definitely one you must check out closely to fully appreciate its depth of innovation. In every detail of its construction, Revo is highly impressive. Prices start below $100,000 for the top-of-the-line model. Evolution also offers Revolt (or RevoLT), Rev X, and Rev, the latter a Part 103 entry. New prices start at less than $20,000.
Run by trike pilot extraordinaire Larry Mednick and his wife, Amy (also a trike pilot and instructor), Evolution is a central Florida company located at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport (KZPH), not far from Tampa. With an all-American design and production, Evolution Trikes can provide U.S.-based customer service.
Revo and its siblings are highly evolved creations in the weight shift world. If you take a close look at any Evolution machine, you’ll uncover some of the detailed thinking that went into these best-of-breed flying machines.
Let me repeat: You have many more choices than those portrayed here. This was a good, varied sampling, but it was only a rather narrow glimpse into the affordable aviation field.
Please visit ByDanJohnson.com, where you can search for written articles or video links to nearly every light aircraft that might be called affordable. In the next few months, ByDanJohnson.com will transition to AffordableAviation.com.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine.