Evolution Aircraft - Future Powerhouse or The Next Columbia?

There is no arguing that the Lancair Evolution is a gorgeous, impressive aircraft. It's fast, has long legs, and has more useful load than just about any other 4-place out there. It's an experimental meaning it gives its owner access to the best of cutting-edge technology at the best possible prices, much of which isn't even an option for certified aircraft. Knowing all that, it makes some sense that Lancair has decided to split the Evolution off from all other Lancair models and form a separate company around just that model. Lancair announced their new identity as Evolution Aircraft at Oshkosh last week.

From one perspective, this is a potentially exciting announcement. This means the Evolution has been successful enough that it can probably stand alone. It means that the Lancair/Evolution team is devoted to the model and we can expect it to get better over time. However, the other part of this announcement leaves me a little sad. The second part of this announcement was that Lancair is officially offering all of their other assets for sale. This includes all designs, parts, and other intellectual property associated with all of the other Lancair brand aircraft out there.

Flying Magazine reported that Lancair decided, in part, to relieve themselves of their other aircraft models because they haven't been selling well. I hate to hear that. I've flown a couple Lancairs and I thought they were excellent aircraft. They're a little small for gangly, monkey-armed lugs like me, but that hadn't stopped them from being one of the more popular kits out there. Based on my casual observation, most Lancair kits end up taking upwards of 10 years to build meaning there are probably dozens, if not hundreds, partially finished out there. For the sake of those builders and all the other Lancair owners out there, I hope someone buys the Lancair assets and continues to support those models.

I almost think that Glassair could be a good option for that task. Their original Glassair models are roughly equivalent and competitors to the Lancairs. I've also flown a Glassair and feel that they share a lot of the same strengths and characteristics. Glassair might not lose anything by supporting both lines of aircraft, and they could corner the market on the sleek 2-place type. (Plus Lancair's 4-place IV and IVP models.)

It seems strange that the Lancairs haven't been selling well. In addition to Glassair, Revolution Aircraft has a couple kits with similar specs. Velocity's aircraft look different, but they're essentially in the same segment of the market as well. It seems like there is plenty of demand for this type of kit and someone should be able to do well supporting the Lancair line.

From a different, bigger-picture perspective, I don't know whether to be concerned about Lancair's decision to form a separate company or think of this as the start of an altogether different strategy. You may remember that Lancair formed Columbia Aircraft and marketed a certified version of their 4-place aircraft as the Columbia 300 and Columbia 400 models. It was a great idea, but competition from Cirrus was tough for them. Eventually, Textron (Cessna) bought Columbia Aircraft and is still selling those models as the Cessna TTx. I got a demo flight in one and loved it. The TTx is fast, roomy, elegantly designed...everything you could want in an airplane. Although the Cirrus SR22 has ruled the 4-place piston market for a long time, the TTx is absolutely a viable competitor and seems to be doing well for Cessna.

The Lancair ES... ...became the Columbia 300/400... ...which became the Cessna TTx.

So, was Columbia Aircraft a success or a failure? As part of the deal with Cessna, Columbia had to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I don't know whether that was a result of market pressure, or just accounting gymnastics to make life easier for Cessna. We didn't actually lose the model; you can still buy a factory new one today. On one hand, it's sad that the company doesn't exist any more. However, the owners of Columbia must have made out pretty well because of the deal. It's possible that the people involved see that chain of events as an overall success.

This makes me wonder what will happen with Evolution Aircraft. The Evolution has some significant differences/strengths over the Columbia line. As a pressurized, complex turboprop it's basically in a different segment than the SR22/TTx. Since it's not 6-place it doesn't really have to compete with the TBM-930, or PC-12. If you look at the numbers for the new Cessna Denali it might actually be sort of a competitor to the Evolution, though it seems aimed more at the TBM or the Pilatus. In my mind this all means that the Evoluation is basically the only aircraft in a segment all by itself. (The Cobalt Valkyrie might eventually provide some competition here, but it doesn't offer a turboprop version yet.) This could give it a monopoly in an underserved segment of the aircraft market.

Cirrus has been working on their SF50 Vision Jet for a long time. Part of the reason they started it was the hype over the idea of Very Light Jets. That market hasn't played out like we expected, but Cirrus has another reason to offer something faster and more complex. The SR22 sells for as much as $1M with all the options. It's a fast, elegant, capable airplane. However, anyone who flies an SR22 for long will eventually start wishing he or she could go further, faster, higher, and carry more...and they have the money to pay for that currently non-existent aircraft. I've mentioned some of the turboprops that give those options, but Cirrus is dominant enough among customers interested in the fit, finish, and image of their aircraft that a turbojet is very attractive to them. Unfortunately, the SF50 has been a slow, expensive project for Cirrus. It'll also be a bit of a leap to go from an unpressurized, fixed-gear piston to a jet.

I've written about Cirrus co-founder Alan Klapmeier's exit from Cirrus to pursue an alternate to the SF50. He's formed One Aviation to develop the Kestrel, a composite 6-place turboprop that will give the TBM-930 and Cessna Denali some stiff competition once it's completed. I think that the Kestrel will a perfect step up for SR22 owners who like what they have, but want a little more capability short of a jet. I think that the Evolution could fill that role as well. Dimaond has pursued a similar strategy with their DA50-JP7 turboprop, giving their DA40 and DA50 owners a more capable airplane to step up into.

If Evolution Aircraft doesn't have anything up its sleeve, I think their aircraft will continue to sell well. I think it'll be an easier transition for SR22 (and Cessna TTx) pilots than going directly to a turbojet like the SF50. I can see them eventually offering both an experimental version and a certified version, like Cobalt is doing with the Valkyrie...and I think that's a great thing! If Evolution Aircraft markets themselves correctly, I think they'll start selling hundreds of aircraft to SR22 owners in the next few years.

Given that, I wonder if their plan might not be to have Evolution Aircraft do what Columbia Aircraft did not that long ago. If the Evolution is a perfect step up for an SR22 owner and it's potentially an easier transition than the SF50, wouldn't it make sense for Cirrus to just buy the Evolution like Cessna bought the Columbia? Theres another precedent for something like this at Cirrus. Early in the LSA movement, Cirrus decided to enter the market by buying the rights to produce a version of the Fk-14 Polaris as the Cirrus SRS. They eventually decided that the LSA market wasn't worth their time and abandoned the project, but the point is that they were at least willing to consider buying someone else's design and selling it as their own. The Evolution is a composite airplane with a design philosophy not that far from Cirrus'. I could see them buying the design and marketing it as their own...let's call it the SR33. The difficult design work is all done. They could give it a Cirrus interior and start selling it tomorrow. And if it were a Cirrus product, I am certain that hundreds of their current SR22 owners would place orders immediately. If it worked for Cessna with the Columbia/TTx, it could work for Cirrus too.

One sticky point is that the SR33, uh, Evolution is still only an Experimental aircraft. That's not something Cirrus has sold. I think the lines on this are, thankfully, getting blurred. Experimental aircraft design has come such a long way that the safety concerns of years past aren't as much an issue anymore. Private owners interested in performance realize that they can always get more for their money with an experimental aircraft than they could ever hope for with certified aircraft bound by millions of miles of FAA red tape. Let's be honest with ourselves, the Evolution isn't the kind of airplane you just build a section at a time in your garage either. (I know, I know...there are some builders out there proving me wrong right now. At least, I hope there are. If you're one of them, I applaud you! Keep up the good work! However, I suspect you represent a small minority of Evolution builders.) The Evolution is complex enough and the build requires enough time and expertise that many (maybe even most) "builders" are using factory assistance programs, if not just paying someone else to build the aircraft for them. This likely precludes the option of the owner doing their own maintenance on the aircraft, but again, the Evolution is a very different experimental. I doubt most owners would be comfortable working on the turboprop engine themselves anyway. An Evolution is going to get treated pretty much like a certified aircraft as far as care, feeding, and maintenance are concerned. Given this, Cirrus could rebrand the existing Evolution Aircraft facility as a Cirrus Factory Builder's Assistance facility. They could also hire additional workers and offer a 100% factory built experimental version. They could pursue certification for the model eventually, but they could take their time with that process and make money selling the Evolution in the meantime.

This plan would give Cirrus a way to sell a lot of airplanes to a huge stable of SR22 owners who are eagerly awaiting "something more" in an aircraft. They could even do what many manufacturers do and offer to let a SF50 customer fly an Evolution/SR33 for now and then trade it in once their jet is finally certified and ready. They could offer it alongside the SF50 in the future and let owners decide how much airplane they want to step up into.

This is all a great idea here on paper, right? If something like this is in the works I'm sure they're keeping a lid on it for now, so we'll just have to wait and see what happens. Either way, I think the Evolution has a bright future ahead of it. I think it's a compelling aircraft, and the perfect step up for a Cirrus SR22 or Cessna TTx owner. I'm glad it's been so successful so far and I'm looking forward to watching its continued success. Congrats to the Lancair/Evolution team! Now, will someone please buy the rights to all of Lancair's other airplanes?

The SR22 seems like it could use a new sibling...
...and the Evolution sure seems like a good candidate for the position.