Twelve years ago when Light-Sport Aircraft burst on the aviation scene, pilots were hungry to learn more about these machines. Not only could they be flown without a medical, they were packed with new technologies. Glass cockpits and carbon fiber fuselages are now common, but LSA were among the first to adopt them.
Most of the first LSA came from overseas. Today, we see a greater balance between U.S.- and foreign-produced aircraft. How were Americans to learn about brands they never heard of, such as Tecnam, Flight Design, Pipistrel, Evektor, and more? How about at an airshow?
Small Is Big
While I consulted with the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) about Light-Sport Aircraft in 2004 and 2005, I helped the big member organization produce the EAA Sport Pilot Tour. We went to 13 locations around the country and assembled a flock of then-new LSA for people to examine and demo fly.
More recently, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) saw the logic of local events, choosing to end its larger annual event to concentrate on one-day regional events around the U.S. Association officials report some 30,000 attended in total, more than attended its biggest annual event.
As the Sport Pilot Tour was going on, a small town in central Florida chose to “put their airport on the map” by hosting the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo. Many called this the Sebring LSA Expo because it drew a large number of vendors of these aircraft, along with light kit-built aircraft and ultralights.
Sebring became so successful — many sellers report more orders than at the big airshows — that it spawned other events. They, too, wanted to appeal to this fastest-growing sector of international aviation.
Davids versus Goliaths
In the realm of airshows, two names tend to dominate: EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and SUN ‘n FUN. The business jet and helicopter folks have their own large events, but they are not well attended by the average recreational pilot. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) show is massive, with more exhibitors in its strongest years than even AirVenture. Yet its attendance is a fraction of the throngs of pilots visiting SUN ‘n FUN or Oshkosh.
Some people remember when Oshkosh and SUN ‘n FUN were far smaller. EAA’s event was once populated primarily with homebuilt aircraft vendors and pilots showing off meticulously restored vintage aircraft. In a similar vein, warbirds have long been a major attraction at Oshkosh. Airshow performers further added to the excitement but in years past, you didn’t see many modern military aircraft and business jet makers rarely displayed.
Today some grouse about the relatively smaller footprint of homebuilt and vintage aircraft at AirVenture, but no one can deny the pulsing excitement that is AirVenture, the summer celebration of flight. Pilots around the world dream of visiting Oshkosh like kids dream of going to Disney World.
A Trio of LSA Shows
Other organizers also created events around LSA and light kits and some ran for a time. However, putting on shows is far more work than meets the eye of most attendees and some could not keep up the pace.
A few did, though, and today they represent places that draw the smaller companies and all the pilots seeking more affordable choices in new aircraft.
Sebring’s Expo is the grandaddy of these light aviation shows. Another is Copperstate. The newest is the Midwest LSA Expo.
General Aviation News readers recently got to read Bill Wilson’s review of the new and different flying machines at Sebring 2016. With its more flexible industry standards used to gain FAA acceptance for new aircraft, the LSA and light kit sector is the place where the freshest new aircraft ideas reach the public’s eye.
Smaller (read: lower cost) shows are particularly adept in attracting them.
Copperstate has continued for more than 40 years in Arizona. Over the years it has changed location — and will do so again for 2016, moving to Falcon Field Airport in Mesa for the Oct. 28-29 show. It has also altered its focus. At Copperstate 2015, the aircraft on display were essentially the same types as Sebring, albeit mostly supplied by Western companies.
The Midwest LSA Expo in Mt. Vernon, Illinois is the newest, not yet 10 years old. Airport manager Chris Collins is so well liked by all the vendors and attendees that people return year after year. It may also be the very best location to do a series of demo flights to see which aircraft most interests you. This year’s show is slated for Sept. 8-10.
Why Are Small Shows Good?
The dense throngs of AirVenture and SUN ‘n FUN have visceral appeal. Every vendor yearns for significant foot traffic and visitors to these shows know they can find virtually anything they want in aviation.
However, big crowds can pose problems. It can be hard to speak to the supplier you want. You often have to wait in line. Going for a demo flight is very time consuming and the big shows are not the best venue to check out an aircraft. Costs are higher and finding a room to sleep for the night can be intimidating.
The smaller shows are far more intimate. You can speak to the aircraft manufacturer or dealer much more easily and for a longer time, getting all your questions answered.
While you may have fewer choices present, these smaller venue shows are well populated with the most desirable and best selling LSA and light kits.
Going for a demo flight is not only vastly easier but more enjoyable as there is less traffic in the pattern or surrounding practice areas. I have often talked to visitors who flew their top three, four, or five aircraft in a single day at Sebring, Copperstate, or the Midwest LSA Expo.
Hotels are more readily available. Camping is convenient, often at low cost or free. The airports often shuttle fly-in pilots to nearby lodging or restaurants. You won’t wait for two hours to get a seat for dinner.
One more thing … the smaller shows operate for fewer days. For vendors, this can be important. They don’t become as fatigued and they can return to operate their businesses sooner. They also don’t spend as much so they might offer better “Show Specials” for visitors looking to buy.
None of these smaller events offer anywhere close to the sheer diversity and volume of the really big shows, but they have a definite, certain place for those passionate about affordable aviation. They are here to stay.
If you haven’t been to one of these, I strongly encourage you to check one out this year.