Sebring LSA Expo: A different kind of airshow

As the curtain closed on the 2013 edition of the US Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Fla., a common comment was overheard escaping the mouths of a handful of attendees. The specific wording varied, but the intent was familiar. Is attendance down? Where are the crowds?

Have no fear — the show, commonly known as the Sebring LSA Expo — is doing just fine, even if it is somewhat misunderstood. Like Rodney Dangerfield, the Expo could tug on its tie, shuffle through an awkward attempt at swagger, and announce, “we don’t get no respect.” But like Rodney in his prime, the show, held Jan. 17-20,  is at the top of its game.

“It was a successful show,” says Expo Director Jana Filip of this year’s installment — and that is perhaps the key to the occasional befuddlement felt by casual attendees to the show.

The Expo measures success on a different scale than other shows. It is that difference that makes the annual event, held on the ramp and runways of Sebring Regional Airport (SEF) in south central Florida, such a treasure. It is more of a product show than a traditional airshow or fly-in. The emphasis is on putting buyers and sellers in close proximity and letting them do their business. The flash and the fun is just gravy for the rest of us.

As those who have attended for all nine years can attest, the Expo has undergone some changes since its inception.

Originally held in October, it was shifted to January after an unusually active hurricane season. Weather has never been particularly kind to the Expo, not by Florida standards anyway. But to those who find a thin overcast with temperatures in the high 50s to be an improvement over the January weather at home, the Expo is a welcome respite from winter.

Even Filip acknowledges the meteorological challenges that have beset them from time to time. “Certainly, Mr. Weather was not on our side,” she joked. But that admission in no way dampens her enthusiasm for what has become the pre-eminent showcase exclusively held for Light-Sport Aircraft in North America.

This year the show was somewhat less LSA specific than in previous years. Some flying eye candy was included in the form of the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour. The B-17 and B-24 stood proudly on the ramp, separated from the main display area by cones and crowd control tape. While the bombers are a long way from being LSA compliant, they drew admirers from the crowd, as they do virtually everywhere they go.

Admittedly, it was somewhat unusual to see a B-24 thundering down the runway on Sunday morning, the final day of the show. It was not at all out of place, however. The love of flight transcends category and class ratings, although most of us would prefer not to pay the fuel bill for an airplane that’s powered by four whopping big radial engines — even if we dream of being aboard just once for a quick circuit at the controls.

Kelly Hardwick III oversees the forums at Expo, and he does the job well. An affable man with a ready smile and a story to tell, he’s volunteered his services for seven of the Expo’s nine years. “The main emphasis is on enjoyment,” says Hardwick of the show. “It’s great!”

A walk through the outdoor display area supported Hardwick’s contention. LSA of every size, shape, and configuration dotted the landscape. Trikes mixed seamlessly with more traditional looking fixed-wing aircraft. Tube and fabric airframes sat confidently aside sleek cousins of composite construction. Aluminum monocoque models were also there to be counted.

All in all, a dizzying number of manufacturers stood ready to show their wares to anyone who wandered near. And that’s the secret to what Expo Director Filip deems success. The Expo is more closely related to a car dealership’s midnight madness sale than it is to a traditional airshow. The focus at Expo is on the buyer, the seller, and the ability to make a transaction that works for both of them. That goes for plenty of products and services that support our aviation habit, too.

Situated inside a large metal hangar for the first time, the exhibit spaces are no longer populated by windblown tent-bound employees. They’re indoors now, with plenty of room to spare — enough, in fact, that couches and comfy chairs were positioned at the center of it all, so attendees could rest at will and make the most of their time in Sebring.

As the show came to a close on Sunday, Jan. 20, after four days of non-stop LSA enthusiasm, weary vendors and cheerful attendees walked, drove, and flew into the setting sun. The promise of warmer weather, bluer skies, and brighter days lay ahead, and the enthusiasm was apparent.

For her part, Jana Filip was as upbeat and forward looking as ever. She reminded me the next installment of the US Sport Aviation Expo is slated for Jan. 16-19, 2014. “I’m making plans,” she said proudly.

The US Sport Aviation Expo may well be the Rodney Dangerfield of aviation events. And as such, it should be at center stage with star billing. It’s just that good. Next year it will hit the decade mark, 10 years and counting. If they keep this up, LSA just might become totally mainstream.

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  1. says

    Hi Jamie … Interesting article. I learned something even though we were there! Wish you could have included a little something about Sam’s art or a photo of the pretty Lyons Studio booth. Otherwise, your story was perfect.

    • says

      I’m glad you liked the story, Mindy. It was good to see you and Sam, as always. Sadly, my commentary about Sam’s art and his interaction with fans didn’t make the published version of the story – but I console myself knowing that Kevin Costner was completely cut out of The Big Chill, and still went on to greatness. I’m thinking that’s going to be the case for you and Sam, too. At least, I hope so!

  2. says

    True. True. This Expo was our roll-out not just to our potential customers -and we met dozens of them- but also to the industry. The B2B aspects of Expo should not be underestimated. Where else can our little fractional shares and management company meet with everyone we need to in one four day marathon? Sure other shows are larger and more hectic, but Expo brings the Light Sport Aviation industry to one place at one time which allows relationships to b built, handshakes to be made and plans to be built. Call it synergy, call it fun, call it good business, call it whatever. But Expo serves an important role and serves it well. We will be back in 2014, and have already asked the staff in our hotel to hold our favorite table for us for our regular morning meeting/eating. Thanks to Jana and her team!

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