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Sat, Jul 10, 2004

Whither Sport Pilot?

The Wait Winds Down

Everywhere you turn this week at Arlington 2004, in the wondrous shadow of the Cascades, it seems that two words keep coming up... "Sport Pilot."

One of the most breathlessly awaited rulings to come from the FAA, (and one of the few regs that people have actually wanted), has been the promised initiation of a new wave of affordable aviation. While we have bandied about the rudiments of what Sport Pilot is and isn't for several years, especially in light of the fact that this is a rule that has been promised for several years and been delayed by nearly as much, we now seem to be (finally) down to the wire.

As we write this, the published version of the Sport Pilot rule is rumored to be just a few days away (and some very recent inside info reinforces the rumor mill). 'Certain' to be published by Oshkosh, the  industry is hoping for it to show up in the next week so that there will be sufficient time to study it, examine what it really is and isn't, and go to Oshkosh with questions, clarifications, and a shopping list for the FAA.

One of the most interesting byproducts of the years of delay, though, is the fact that of the companies that have managed to survive the loss of market share (from folks who have been waiting for the rule to make their purchases), there have come tighter business models and more determination to be able to weave through the vagaries of a small and fluid market. Better product development, extensive builders programs, aggressive financing, better documentation, Internet builder support, and other online support mechanisms have typified just a few of the many efforts that surviving SportPlane manufacturers have brought to the market in order to survive and stake claim to what has been a shrinking market.

Now, however, as Sport Pilot is apparently moving from promise to reality; there's more anticipation than ever before. While many manufacturers, dealers, flight schools, and other sport aviation businesses seem to think that the model put forth by the FAA and EAA is a bit too optimistic; they are bound and determined to reshape it and mold it in a way that will allow them to build more secure businesses, enlarge the aviation market among those who are already devoted to aviation -- and more important than anything else -- start bringing light sport aircraft products to people who had previously never considered owning a small airplane.

This is where most of the burgeoning Sport Pilot industry/population feels that their future lies. This industry has been preaching to the choir so long, noted one manufacturer, that they failed to realize that it was time to take the show on the road.

"There are thousands of people who've always wanted to fly... there are probably nearly as many who have always wanted to own an airplane, but when they realized that a new airplane cost more than their house,  that dream was dashed. But... when a new airplane is equal to the cost of a luxury car or a boat or RV, that's when we have a fighting chance to sell aviation to people who always dreamed of flying, but never took it seriously."

So... the next week is likely to be an exciting one, and the if the FAA has any smarts whatsoever (definitely in doubt, at this point) we should have the rule with just enough time on our hands to figure out its intricacies before we meet up with the FAA at Oshkosh and start building a better future for the surviving members of the sport aviation community. If the rule isn't released until Oshkosh itself, though, we expect a lot of confusion and misinterpretation until some time passes. However, with our FAA sources telling us that many people within the FAA are still calculating just what this means to them, as well; the delayed announcement of the rule to coincide with Oshkosh could plainly mean that the FAA is still figuring that out for themselves. It's going to be a very interesting summer....

FMI: www.faa.gov

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