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Mon, Jan 23, 2006

ANN Synopsis: US Sport Aviation Expo In Review

ANN Wraps Up Its On-Scene Coverage

We pride ourselves on being the guys who go there ourselves to find out -- and we saw few of our fellow aero-journalists there -- but we have to admit we bagged day three. The reason was simple: howling winds that kept us grounded, spectators away, and left exhibitors hustling to protect their planes from nature's rage.

It might have been entertaining to photograph, but it didn't advance the narrative of the Expo too much. So we took the day doing other things -- like writing a longer Day Two story than we'd otherwise have done -- and we came back to hit Sebring hard on Sunday, Day Four, and the closing day of the show.

As ever on a closing day, things were a little bit thinner, but the weather was beautiful and lots of flying was happening. Jim took advantage of the opportunity to get up in the Evektor SportStar, the Legend Cub, and one or two others. Nose was still coming off a nasty flu and decided not to contaminate anyone's airplane. Planes we both still want to fly include the Thorp T-211, the CT and the AAI Sparrowhawk (Nose had a brief demo of an RAF with AAI mod a couple of years ago). Nose really wants to try the new T-Craft, too... instant nostalgia with Zero-time Everything!

"This Is The Best Plane At The Show"

Lots of vendors made that statement with the passion of True Believers, but only Danny Defelici of Sport Aircraft Works/Czech Aircraft Works made it about one he wasn't really actively promoting, the Dynamic WT-9. It isn't a light sport aircraft, with its scalding speed and retractable gear, but it's an experimental that can be built very rapidly through the Skyshops quick-build program. Two things are holding it back: price, and supply.

"As you see it here, the plane's about $110,000. That's more than lots of people want to spend, but compare it to, say, the Sting. It goes much faster, and it takes off slower."

We remarked that it looked like a pretty hot plane. Cousin to a Lancair or something.

"Would you believe me if I said I could get that off the runway at 33 mph? I can," Defelici said. He went on to praise the plane's comfort and speed, and to rave about the handling. It was clear that he was pretty passionate about this machine. But, according to Defelici, what holds him back from plugging the composite speedster is that there just aren't that many to be had.

"The manufacturer (in the Czech Republic) is not keen on selling to America anyway, as they can sell all that they can build right next door in Germany. The Germans love this plane."

So sometimes, maybe, the best product doesn't win. On the other side of the coin, the Sport Plane Expo is probably not the best place to promote a 170-kt retractable anyway.

Lead Time A Sales Killer

One thing that seemed to be a near consensus among dealers was that when a customer approached them to buy a plane, he or she wanted to buy a plane NOW. A three or six month delivery delay is a deal killer. Of course, with so many vendors competing, and so many of them offering roughly comparable products, it's very much a buyer's market, as we can see in the vendors' scramble to deal with every customer objection and meet every conceivable customer need. But one thing that even the most well-meaning and customer-service-oriented dealer can't do is accelerate the production line.

Light Sport Egalitarianism

Four months from now you will get the impression that all these guys hate each other, like a parody of Tom Lehrer's "National Brotherhood Week":

"The ultralight folks hate the trike folks, and the trike folks hate the 'light folks, to hate all but the right folks, is an old established rule And the composite folks hate the bushplanes, and the PPCs hate the cub folks, all the wrong ways that we rub folks, and everybody hates the gyros."

Of course, that'll be at Sun-n-Fun, where everybody fights for stick time in the zero-sum game of a cramped schedule where light aviation is somewhere between a reluctant afterthought and an abused stepchild.

By comparison, everybody here got along -- no whining that the powered parachutes went over their allotted time, because there WAS no allotted time. All the vast variety of light sport aircraft flew, they did it safely, and they did it without an army of power-drunk Jobsworths micromanaging things.

Dare I mention that they did this while constantly keeping the intersecting runway open for GA arrivals and departure? How about, that exhibitors were easily able to roll a plane out from their stand onto the taxiway and demo the plane to a prospect at any time?

The contrast between this and the bigger show held just up the road in Lakeland couldn't be starker.

If you want to exhibit and demo a light sport plane at Sun-n-Fun, you need three at least: One for your stand, because once it's on the stand there it pretty much stays until the show's out; one to fly in the LSA exhibition, where you can fly by and people can see your plane fly, but only with the pilot aboard; and one for taking customers on demo rides or introductory lessons, which you have to keep at South Lakeland or Plant City. Here you could get by with one plane and one of those barber-shop clock-signs for your booth: "back at 3:30!"

No surprise that we heard no gripes about the organizers, and no complaints about safety. The pilots flying took safety into their own hands, with very positive results; we saw one tire go flat all weekend, and that's it.  (There was a GA guy arriving that landed gear-up in a Lancair... no injuries, except to his pride, and soon, to his bank account; but it had squatto to do with the show).

About Those GA Arrivals And Departures

There were a lot of people flying in to check-out the expo, and some of them surprising folks in surprising planes. Nose saw one of the Van's factory demonstrators land and depart after a few hours, although he didn't see who was flying that plane -- it was a long way from home.

A more surprising arrival was a Citation X. The Cessna hot-rod (look at it, it's all motors!) disgorged: a team of high-ranking Cessna executives. Were they looking for some firm to buy? Getting ideas for the long-rumored Cirrus-Killer? Sizing up some of the smaller planes as competition for the 172? (A big portion of SLSAs are going to flight schools and FBOs, which can conduct training in them and rent them, and buy three or four of them for one 172 pink slip). Or were they just here to check out the show? Could be. A lot of high-ranking Cessna types, including CEO Jack Pelton (who wasn't in this group), love sport aviation, so maybe it's nothing more than that.

Whatever it was, they weren't saying.

Another Feather In the Organizers' Caps...

We already mentioned how they managed a safe, friendly, low-drama show, but we also have to laud their flexibility. Walking around on the last day of the show, we kept hearing that this show was MUCH better in terms of attendance, and more importantly, qualified prospects in attendance, than last year's (October, 2004's), despite the hurricane-induced date change.

There were several possible causes of the improvement: the word on sport aviation is getting "out there," the vendors did more to help promote it, the second of any event is usually better attended than the inaugural.

But one thing exhibitors kept mentioning was that January might just be a better time to hold this event than October. "We're getting a lot of snowbirds," Steve Cohen, who represents the Brazilian Corsario seaplane in the US, noted. He wasn't complaining. Other vendors noted the exact same thing. People from cold climes were just about sick enough of snow to come to Florida.

The organizers kept hearing this, too, and they quickly spread the word that the Third Annual US Sport Aviation Expo would NOT take place, as scheduled, in October 2006, but in January 2007. This might have caused some exhibitors to shuffle schedules, but if any of them were unhappy about it, they didn't mention it to us. Every one we spoke to about the change gave every appearance of being delighted. Now that's operational flexibility in action.

The specific dates for the nest Sport Aviation Expo are January 11-14, 2007. It's already marked on our calendar.

Sport Pilot Student Licenses

We mentioned earlier that EAA had a Designated Examiner giving out free Sport Pilot Student Licenses. Aero-News asked EAA's Ron Wagner how that program went.

"We issued, I think, 73 licenses. We only had the Examiner for that day, and we ran out of daylight, and at the same time he ran out of forms, so he had to stop," Wagner said. He went on to explain that the form was quite time-consuming to fill out, and any mistake requires that it be started over from the beginning. "The FAA is very particular about how this form is completed." So Wagner thought that the Sport Pilot Student License giveaway was a great success, and EAA will definitely be doing it at Sun-n-Fun and again, of course, at Oshkosh.

"Oshkosh is best, because it's home and we can pull everything together there," Wagner assured us. They won't be running out of forms at Oshkosh.

At least one of the freshly-minted students was using the living daylights out of his license, and had logged his first two hours of instruction before the end of the show.

This tells us that it's a real good thing to have a lot of DEs and plenty of forms at these shows. It might even be an opportunity for a DE to make a few bucks issuing the licenses, although it's probably better for the sport if they keep doing it on a volunteer basis.

Summing Up

I've never felt so positive about the Sport Pilot rule and Light Sport Aircraft certification than I was at the end of the Expo. This is really looking like a new way to bring new blood to our anemic sport and industry.

In talking to some of the new Sport Pilot prospects, I found that barriers that most of us who fly under traditional rules thought were trivial really were barriers keeping motivated people out of flying. And they weren't all the barriers we'd think. One thing I heard over and over again was that the TIME that it takes -- both in instructional hours and in calendar months -- to earn a Private Pilot License was prohibitive to these new pilots. (And, truth be told, there's a lot of nonsense we have to teach a PPL student because the curriculum can't keep pace. Case in point, the single largest number of questions in the PPL written question bank concern... ADF and NDB, obsolete navigation technology that's on the fast track to being an artificial reef somewhere).

The money is actually less of a barrier than the time is. And young people these days are exceptionally resistant to learning stuff that they know is useless, and that they're learning just "because." A Sport Pilot candidate can learn what he needs to fly safely in very short order. If you fly Day VFR in Class G airspace you are never going to see a Constant Pressure Chart or need to know how to track a VOR. You can learn that stuff if you LIKE, but you no longer NEED to, just in order to undertake pure pleasure flying.

It's clear that many of the complaints we had at first about SP/LSA came from people who were already certified pilots and who were seeking an alternative means to fly -- many of them older and de-medicalized. What we're hearing from the younger folk who are the intended target of SP/LSA is different.

To the extent that things are price-sensitive, the vendors are responding with simpler, cheaper airplanes. As we frequently have said, we heard "$65,000" this year the most, when we were hearing "$85,000," last year. The $85k planes are still there, but they've been joined by downmarket siblings. The cheapest way up at the show, apart from entry-level PPCs, was a $25k (asked) Corben Baby Ace. That's a very affordable machine, from where we sit. There were a number of new kits and even fully-constructed aircraft in the $45k neighborhood, as well.

And there were a whole lot of planes that appeal not just to the novice, but ought to be catching the eye of the experienced pilot. Indeed, so many planes are getting SLSA certification that WE can't keep up, and we get their press released directly, usually. More variety, more choice, more performance, less money. What's not to like? That must be why we kept bumping into line pilots who were enjoying a busman's holiday at the show.

Planes, trikes, PPCs, gyroplanes, hey, if it gets air between you and the ground, it's all good. It's a very exciting time to be an aviator; it's going to be twelve very intense months before the same cast assembles in Sebring next year. Maybe we'll finally have a light-sport airship by then (the one category and class not yet represented).



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