It used to be that January was one of the slowest months of the year. Freezing cold in the northern states combined with short days across the northern hemisphere to produce a sluggish month for all but transport or working aircraft. Recreational flying slowed to the pace of thick syrup pouring from a chilled bottle.
When I lived in Minnesota and owned a big-engine Cessna 150 it was suggested to me by those with hard-won experience that you simply didn’t fly in the very coldest months. Yes, that bit still applied about cold air being thick and therefore the principles of aerodynamics work exceptionally well. Yet parts like gaskets and rubber seals could crack or become brittle, engine starts were harder on the mechanical parts, and even doing a preflight with bare fingers was a safety consideration. To avoid big maintenance bills, I followed the local wisdom and rarely flew in January.
Then came the Sebring U.S. Sport Aviation Expo. From its beginning nine years ago, this central Florida event began to change the conventional view. Northerners had a reason and place to escape winter’s wrath. While not balmy in January, temperatures are often in the 60s and storm systems that troubled northern latitudes rarely reached as far south as Sebring, Florida.
So significant was this alteration that the former starter show, SUN ’n FUN, now became the “season opener,” when huge numbers of recreational aircraft are pulled from hangars and given their fair exercise. Indeed, Sebring became the first show of the year and worthy enough to attract large numbers of Light-Sport Aircraft vendors, along with kitplanes and all manner of gear to support flight. The show has grown and matured to become an important member of the airshow circuit and has spawned several other LSA-centric events at different times of the year. This year’s event was the most versatile to date and sport-oriented pilots flocked to it.
At this year’s show, held Jan. 17-20, we saw several aircraft not before viewed at Sebring: Golden Avio’s F30; the modestly priced Groppo Trail; an amphibian gyrocopter; the Sam LS; and a Tecnam P2008 with the new Rotax 912 iS engine and FlyCool air conditioning installed. World Aircraft showed its new $85,000 Vision LT. And I was given a special briefing on an airplane that I’m not yet at liberty to discuss but which shows that, although the number of new SLSA may have slowed, the intensity of innovation is far from over.
Tecnam lead the show in the number of aircraft on display and that doesn’t even include the popular Twin Rotax model nor the company’s four seater and other larger aircraft. The P2008, now featuring the latest sophisticated systems, is one of the prettiest LSA in the fleet (though that’s a personal feeling, of course). Also from Italy is the Golden Avio F30, the final design from Italian aviation legend Stelio Frati, who achieved worldwide fame for his Falco F8L.
Tecnam and World announced a low-priced LSA to join the ever-popular Aerotrek in the sub-$90,000 (or sub-$80,000) range, proving that LSAs are not all more expensive as some pilots still insist. Yes, several deluxe models go for more than $150,000, but these beauties are loaded with fancy features like autopilots, full glass screens, airframe parachutes, and more. Another lower priced entry we’ll be watching is the Groppo Trail, forecast at $85,000-90,000. In another realm is the soon-to-be aerobatic FK12 Comet with the inverted-capable Lycoming engine.
While too-many underinformed pilots still feel LSA are “too expensive,” others continue to claim that “LSA can’t hold up in a flight school environment,” that they’re built too lightly for the rigors of instruction. At the show, videographer Dave Loveman and I did a series of video vignettes as we spoke with several aircraft manufacturers who gave us information about higher time LSA that are doing just fine training new students to fly.
One of the companies we talked to was M-Squared Aircraft. Proprietor Paul Mather took the time to detail his own experience with a trainer that shows the facts in numbers that we heard from all these purveyors: Given the purchase price and what a trainer can earn, less its operation and maintenance expenses, can yield an LSA that holds its value quite well and can produce earnings for its operator. That students love flying in new flying machines as opposed to tired, worn-out, 40-year-old GA aircraft is no surprise.
Not only do students get to fly in new aircraft that look and smell new, they also get the benefit of modern equipment similar to what might be in aircraft they buy once their training is complete. Lots of the LSA trainers we examined have glass cockpits that help a student pilot learn the latest technology while practicing landings, stalls, turns, and most of the same maneuvers any private pilot candidate learns while flying in a Cessna 172, one of the more common trainers in use today. That the LSA makes less noise and uses less than half the fuel — and probably lower-priced, cleaner-burning mogas — is icing on the cake.