Let’s be direct and simply pronounce it a success. It only took a decade of hard work. I refer to the Sebring U.S. Sport Aviation Expo, which this time of year signals the start of a new season of airshows. Every January — for 2015 the dates are Jan. 14-17 — Sebring Regional Airport (KSEF) in Florida hosts the event many simply know as the Sebring Expo.
But the original goal was not about running an event.
The airport authority and its local support group aimed to build up the enterprise of the airport that sits adjacent to — in fact, is owned by — the world-famous Sebring Raceway. When Mike Willingham took over management of the airport well over a decade ago, I recall a slightly shabby, eerily quiet airport that only seemed to bloom once a year during the 62-year-old “12 Hours of Sebring” race.
After organizing, funding, and building a fine new terminal building with offices and restaurant, Willingham needed to market the buildings and land he was managing. One method: An event … the Sebring U.S. Sport Aviation Expo that began in 2004.
Building the base
Phil Lockwood and his several operations took an early chance on Sebring after careful consideration of various Central Florida airports. Today, his sprawling operation is home to a component and part supply company, a Rotax aircraft engine distribution and overhaul operation (the largest in America), and Lockwood Aircraft, builder of the marvelous-flying, twin-engine homebuilt AirCam. Phil also sits on the Expo board and represents a solid supporter of Sebring Airport.
Over the years, Sebring has seen light-sport and other aircraft businesses arrive. As for many startups, the row is a difficult hoe and several left the industry, giving up their Sebring address. Others were found to replace them and the airport secured non-aviation tenants.
Yet it appears 2014 was the year of noteworthy success as two serious aircraft builders arrived to set up shop. Earlier this year, Sebring Airport Authority signed a deal with Italian light aircraft manufacturer, Tecnam, which sought to establish a U.S.-based division, Tecnam USA.
Tecnam Costruzioni Aeronautiche is a world leader in the construction of light aircraft. The company offers a wider variety of models at multiple certification levels than any other light aircraft producer. Besides the world’s fastest-selling light twin and a new four seater, Tecnam offers these LSA: Echo Classic, Eaglet, Bravo, P2008 (pictured below), and its new Astore, a low-wing model released to celebrate the company’s 65th year in business.
At this year’s SUN ’n FUN in April, the Italian manufacturer announced a large, factory-owned outlet in Sebring. If you love LSA as Sebring Expo visitors do, Tecnam is a company to visit and the Sebring Expo offers an excellent chance to do so.
Dating to 1948, Tecnam (as it is now known) was founded by Luigi and Giovanni Pascale. At it for an astounding seven decades, Professor Luigi remains active, a tireless designer whose work keeps him alive, his family says.
In 2013 the 90-year-old developer unveiled a dramatic new project, the P2012 Traveler, an 11-seat regional commuter airliner. He is also completing the company’s P2010, a handsome four seater aimed at the general aviation market. “Twenty Ten” is based significantly on the P2008 LSA model.
Also competing at the most economical end of the market, flight schools have embraced Eaglet, a docile and student-friendly training LSA that follows the company’s highly successful P92 Echo. Logging more than 20 years on the market, today’s Echo Classic has variations, such as the SeaSky amphibian or the Taildragger. A special Echo Classic Lite sells for around $80,000.
As Cessna taught several generations of pilots, you can learn to fly in Tecnam and you can move up and up, sticking with a brand you’ve learned to love throughout your flying career. Or … stay with the LSA if it meets your needs, something all models can do with great Italian style.
Tecnam forecasts U.S. deliveries of 34 airplanes in 2014. Company officials report sales are split evenly between the P2008 LSA and the Part 23 approved Twin. By any measure in the post-2008 recession period, that is a reasonable performance.
Paradise at Sebring
Signing Tecnam USA as a tenant no doubt felt good for Sebring airport. However, the year ended with another coup.
In November, Paradise Aircraft of Brazil announced it had leased a 5,000-square foot-hangar to launch its U.S. manufacturing and distribution operations. During a visit in early fall, Paradise founder and director Noe Oliveira told me that he was taking steps to build aircraft in Florida. He had an earlier importer/distributor that fell upon hard times and the relationship ended.
After a few years without active representation — but after delivering 14 Paradise P1 Light-Sport Aircraft — Oliveira is back, this time in a much bigger way, much like Tecnam.
Paradise at Sebring will build its new P1-NG (pictured below), the next generation of its well-selling high-wing two-seater. It will ramp up the operation over time. Starting with reassembly of airplanes made in Brazil, the U.S. operation will grow to include greater assembly steps and eventually full manufacturing, said representatives. Initially, five to 10 people will be employed at Sebring.
But the company has big plans for the new location.
Bert Motoyama, director of operations at the new facility, confirmed those plans: “The main focus is to manufacture right here in Sebring, using U.S. sourced parts as much as possible. Eventually, all P1-NG production will take place at Sebring for distribution around the world.”
Assisted by an interpreter in our autumn meeting, Oliveira explained that shipping from the USA is much easier logistically so the company will serve the globe from the Florida facility, aided in no small part by the existence of a government Free Trade Zone at Sebring that should significantly reduce customs and other fees.
P1 and P1-NG are versatile aircraft that vaguely look like an enlarged Cessna 150. Developed for long flights over Brazilian rain forests where only small, unimproved strips are available, P1 looks big for the LSA category. That’s because it was designed around a Brazilian four-seat configuration with the aft cabin converted to luggage use in the LSA category. You can pop out the front seat in a few seconds and stretch out full length overnight. P1 can easily carry golf clubs or your family pet. P1-NG even adds a third door to make loading easier.
Counting Paradise, airport manager Willingham said Sebring has nearly reached full tenant capacity.
“We’re almost to that point now,” he commented in an article to the local Highlands Today newspaper. “We started the year with 200,000 square feet of available space. Today, it’s almost zero.”
So it would appear that the airport’s 10-year-old plan to use Sebring U.S. Sport Aviation Expo as a marketing tool is bearing fruit. As Expo last year reached the 10-year point — by itself something of a benchmark in aviation events — the next airport board meeting better have a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.