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Fri, Jan 13, 2006

US Sport Aviation Expo - Day One

So Far It's Slow, But Better Than Last Year

Driving up to the US Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida on Thursday, we saw a plane in the sky.

"Ah, there's a plane. Good news!" and we looked for the other planes that should have been in the pattern.

Except that there weren't any. "A plane, singular. Maybe it's not such good news?" but as it turned out, we simply arrived during a lull in the flying. Some of the lighter birds weren't flying because of a stiff breeze, which we estimated at 10 gusting 16 knots (KSEF has no on-field weather). As the winds died down, more aircraft of more varieties took to the air.

Some of them were instantly recognizable -- the silver-painted prototype of the Sport Aircraft Works' Parrot, the sleek silhouette of an Air Creation trike, or the squatty power-lifter look of an AAI/Groen Brothers Sparrowhawk gyroplane.

And some of them required a little more brain stem thrashing to assign a name to -- Is that one of those Tecnams from Italy? Is that something like a Kitfox? (Something like, exactly, because Kitfox never came back from bankruptcy court). Ah, there's one from Just Aircraft!

One thing that was clear was that a pretty good range of Light Sport Aircraft were here at Sebring. There were other airplanes too -- Bonanzas, a Cirrus, a PC-12, arriving. What's up with that? The folks in those planes were coming to check Light Sport Aircraft out, too. (And we spent an hour in a Saturn in stop and go, construction-addled traffic enroute to Sebring. Ow).

There were a lot of airplanes. Most every LSA we've written about before was here, and there were at least two new ones we haven't written about yet. But there weren't a lot of people, and as we circulated we independently got curious and began to ask exhibitors how it was going.

Boiled down to a consensus, the crowds were small, so small you could scarcely call them crowds. But some exhibitors said that they'd been pretty good around noontime (before we got there) and several that exhibited last year said that the crowds on the first day of that inaugural Expo were smaller still than today's.

Several factors militated against heavy attendance. It was a Thursday, and most folks are at work. This wasn't the original date of the event -- it was supposed to take place in October, and was hastily rescheduled due to hurricane Wilma (this is actually the 2005 event, the 2006 one will take place in October again. Got that?)

Sebring is not exactly centrally located -- well, actually, it is centrally located, adjacent to the Middle of Nowhere; what it isn't is conveniently located. This problem was compounded by the haphazard road work going on, on what seemed to be all of the two-lane backcountry roads that lead to this place.

Why, it's so deep in Florida that you actually see orange trees.

But that let the vendors treat the first day of the Expo pretty much like a set-up day. It was a good day for the people who came to fly; the exhibitors flying demos didn't have long wait times or lines. It was a good day for serious buyers and tire-kickers alike, because there was an excellent (from their point of view) customer to expert ratio.

And most vendors, especially those with experience here from last year, were very confident that things would pick up on the weekend. "Saturday'll be the big day," was something we heard over and over again.

Some Random Observations

* Today's crowd was not young. Median age was probably on the dark side of fifty. Where are all the young people we were going to attract to the sport with Sport Pilot? I come back to the weekday/work thing. The AARP crowd can come in on Thursday, as their wives have had them around the house way too much since they retired.

* Tom Peghiny, ever youthful, says he's glad to have stepped down from the ASTM fixed-wing consensus standards committee -- everyone says he did a great job chairing the committee, but now he can concentrate on Flight Designs. Here's a guy who's been in the sport since the first guy nailed a motor on a hang-glider, and he's long overdue for greater success. Perhaps he'll get there with the CT. There's a reason that's been in the media so much -- it's so damned cute and friendly looking, you want to rub its tummy and see if it rolls over for you.

When we think about the ASTM standards, we often forget the real sacrifices that people like Tom and others (Greg Gremminger comes to mind) made to establish those standards. The costs were many: time away from family and business, money not earned, stress. "Thanks" seems so insufficient. 

* Al Waddill, VP Sales of Groen Brothers, told us that they'd sold 110 Sparrowhawk kits, "but that counts modified RAFs." As Aero-News readers ought to know, before the company introduced the first Sparrowhawk, they made a "Stability and Control Kit" for the RAF 2000 gyroplane, which converts the popular Canadian machine to a more stable centerline thrust configuration with a very large all-flying tail. Groen Brothers still sells the kit.

Waddill, who's been selling gyroplanes off and on since a stint as an Umbaugh 18 (later Air and Space 18A) dealer in 1962, believes strongly that the kit makes the RAF safer. "If you're flying an RAF, bring it to me. I'll install the stability and control kit at cost -- we're not looking to make money off that kit, but we want to make gyro flying safer.

Groen Brothers usually has some kind of show special. Here it was a free set of doors if you bought at the show. Doors add $778 to the already $34,995 cost of the Sparrowhawk II.

* There remains a lot of complaining about the typical $80,000 price of a fully-equipped, well-dressed SLSA. (Special Light Sport Aircraft -- factory-built machine). Many wannabe buyers expected to see these planes in the $35k neighborhood.

The irony, of course, is that there are light-sport aircraft available for that price, or less; but the pilot with the "2-seat ultralight" budget looks at the slick new European speedsters and gets the jones for the $80,000 plane, and won't be satisfied with the plane he can afford.

Here at the Expo, there are some planes that fit your budget and some that fit your dreams... and the people who have made both fit together are looking the happiest of all.

We'll have a LOT more to say about the Expo this week, so stay tuned.

FMI: www.sport-aviation-expo.com

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