One of the marvelous transformations to be witnessed is a lonely expanse of World War II concrete ramp morphing into a colorful, energetic, ultimately cool place to hang out, look at lots of modern airplanes of all kinds, talk flying to your old pals and new friends, catch a forum, participate in a workshop, and take a demo flight — or several — if you’re in the market for a new airplane.
In fact, taking a demo flight is one of the main reasons people come to events like the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida, and is the main reason vendors bring their shiny, new airplanes.
It’s a match made in heaven and all pilots are invited.
With its 15th running held Jan. 23-26, 2019, at Sebring Regional Airport (KSEF) in Florida, the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo is the grandaddy of Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) and Sport Pilot kit shows. Since 2004 when the Sport Pilot/Light-Sport Aircraft regulation was introduced, Sebring’s success has led to a series of LSA events that emulate the original, including the Midwest LSA Expo and DeLand Sport Aviation Showcase.
Smaller shows have proven appeal. While they don’t feature the vast crowds of the big national events, they bring clearly interested, often motivated buyers for Light-Sport Aircraft and Sport Pilot kit aircraft — the latter term referring to any homebuilt design that can be flown by someone with a Sport Pilot certificate with no need for an aviation medical.
Sebring triggered this sector-specific phenomenon thanks to the foresight of Bob Wood, who passed in the last year, but is now memorialized by the big Show Center tent at the Expo named in his honor.
Onsite at Sebring many business owners mentioned the then-ongoing government shutdown. It was having definite effects on the industry. The FAA’s inability to make aircraft inspections — as required for every new Special LSA — prevented some vendors from getting the Special Airworthiness certificates needed to complete deliveries of new SLSA to customers.
Nonetheless, many aircraft representatives were ready to show their latest wares and a few aircraft heralded new offerings.
Cruiser Aircraft, the importer for Czech Sport Aircraft, offered its new SportCruiser LTE, a lighter, simpler, lower cost version of the popular LSA. Powered by a Rotax 912 ULS2 100-horsepower engine, the LTE model comes with a single Dynon HDX digital instrument, cloth seats, and reduced weight.
Marketing and Sales Manager Josh Scheid said the LTE, priced in the low $140,000s, is aimed at flight schools looking to offer a modern new aircraft to students and reap very low operating costs as a benefit.
“A lot of primary training finds students throttled back doing patterns, burning only 2.5 gallons per hour of lower cost fuel,” Scheid noted. “Flight school operators we’ve asked are interested in reducing operational cost.”
He added that Cruiser Aircraft can increase equipment to suit a flight school’s needs, including certified Garmin gear to permit IFR flight training.
Designed in 2013 with first flight in 2015, and FAA acceptance as a Special LSA in 2017, Fusion is one of the newest aircraft in the popular SLSA List, in the #146 spot.
The U.S. assembly site brings in carbon components from Hungary, but the American operation is acknowledged by the FAA as the official producer of the LSA version, according to boss Istvan Foldesi.
This all-carbon-fiber design is a low-wing, side-by-side model with dashing performance featuring quick climb rates with the Rotax 912 ULS. Fusion cruises at 110-115 knots and exhibits very accommodating handling.
Titan Aircraft boss John Williams brought a pair of his sleek designs for attendees to examine.
Everyone, it appears, loves the P-51 Mustang. Likewise, Titan’s impressive 75%-scale T-51 Mustang kit has proven to be a sure airshow visitor attraction and this time was no different. Despite a far lower price tag than the original, T-51 is amazingly true to form.
Having flown the original prototype many years back, I can attest to the appeal of this interesting flying machine. I’ve also flown in a striking Stewart P-51 lookalike powered by a 450-horsepower Corvette engine. Neither matches a full-sized North American P-51 with 1,695 horsepower, but for capable kit builders the T-51 can deliver an intense sensation of nostalgia, plus a taste of what it must have been like for hundreds of 20-something fighter jocks in World War II.
Although the T-51 is not usually built for use by a Sport Pilot certificate holder — larger engines make it too fast — Titan’s replica kit was released in 2005, the same year as the very first SLSA acceptances by the FAA.
More approachable and affordable is the company’s Tornado kit with long, lean lines. In the heyday for two-place ultralights, before Light-Sport Aircraft arrived on the scene, Tornadoes in various forms drew crowds at shows. I can attest to its crisp handling and lively performance. Its taut fuselage was often compared to a fighter jet, motivating some creative builders to equip and paint their Tornadoes to enhance that imagery.
SilverLight Aviation showed off a new removable full enclosure on its gyroplane, a category of aircraft that has taken Europe by storm in recent years and is a fast growing category in the USA. SilverLight enjoyed a good year of business in 2018, according to company officials.
The American Ranger AR1 offers a very large canopy. Optically superb, I found no distortions when looking anywhere on its great expanse of acrylic. The canopy can be removed for summertime or local area flying.
Designer and business owner Abid Farooqui explained that two people are needed for about 10 minutes to remove the big enclosure to permit open air flying. A few more minutes are needed to install a motorcycle-style windscreen that transforms AR1 into the open tandem seater the company first offered.
When I flew the enclosed AR1 at Sebring, I asked pilot/instructor Greg Spicola to proceed as though I was a new gyroplane student. That’s close to accurate as I have about four hours under my belt in a variety of gyroplanes. However, except for a few differences associated with a spinning wing, AR1, like all gyroplanes, can be flown essentially as you’d operate a fixed wing LSA.
“Power before pitch” was a mantra Greg drilled into me and that, with a few other differences — such as operating the rotor pre-rotator and learning to brake the rotor disk before making abrupt turns on the ground — are easy enough skills to acquire. Doing so only takes a bit of “unlearning” so fixed wing habits don’t result in the wrong actions by the pilot.
These aircraft are special in many ways — the ability to descend vertically (although not land that way) and to make seriously tight turns about a point — that combine with massive visibility at affordable prices, all of which explain some of the growing popularity of these aircraft types.
Among real bargains are a class of LSA called powered parachutes. With the lowest training requirement in aviation — FARs specify only 12 hours are required to earn a Sport Pilot certificate in them — these aircraft offer a docile type of flying that boast the best visibility in aviation combined with slow flying speeds (30s mph) that allow you thoroughly absorb the view.
Infinity Power Parachutes‘ Frank Williams displayed the current line-up of Infinity models at Sebring.
The Challenger is a single place, Rotax 503-powered, true Part 103 aircraft that sells ready-to-fly complete with big off-runway tires, a 375-square-foot canopy, and engine instrumentation for mere $17,000. Given the average price of a new car in America is twice as much (reported at $33,000), I’d said Challenger qualifies as a bargain aircraft.
The two Commander models are powered either by the Rotax 582 (65 horsepower) or the Rotax 912 (80-100 horsepower). These tandem two-place aircraft use a 500- or 550-square-foot canopy.
Like Challenger, Infinity offers the two Commanders ready-to-fly as Special LSA. Delivery takes only four weeks and your aircraft will be delivered factory test-flown.
One surprise arrival on the Expo’s final day was the hidden-from-view but not forgotten Aeromarine Mermaid LSA seaplane.
Chip Erwin’s creation was the forerunner of the modern LSA seaplane category. The Mermaid arrived about the same time as the LSA sector was given birth by the FAA’s new regulation. This clean sheet design wowed crowds at SUN ‘n FUN and many responded by putting down deposits. For complex reasons I won’t go into here, Mermaid never made the splash many anticipated, but neither has it disappeared.
Before Mermaid, we had Progressive Aerodyne‘s Searey and Aero Adventure‘s Aventura. Both those models have been upgraded to ASTM standards compliance, but early in the new millennium it was accurate to call them “ultralight seaplanes” built of gusseted aluminum structures covered with sewn Dacron surfaces. Appearing thoroughly modern, the all-metal Mermaid took a leap forward in the then-new category.
When Mermaid arrived at Sebring 2019 it replaced another LSA seaplane that chose to exit its space early. The shoulder-wing design steadily attracted interested pilots. Mermaid was the first LSA seaplane to declare compliance with ASTM standards and was catalogued #28 on the popular SLSA List at ByDanJohnson.com.
Sebring Success Story?
So, after 15 years, has Sebring accomplished it goals? In one very concrete way, yes!
Not only has this first-of-the-year event become the season kick-off — often while the north endures weather events such as a Polar Vortex — the show has also accomplished two worthy goals.
The Sport Aviation Expo has put Sebring’s airport on the map, in much the way auto racing popularized this central Florida town. In turn, this has encouraged numerous tenants to establish operations at the airport, bringing new revenue sources, as well as excitement about better services and product availability.
Lockwood Aviation Supply and Lockwood Aircraft, developer of the twin-engine AirCam, has been a tenant for many years. More recently, light aircraft giant Tecnam set up its U.S. operation at Sebring, occupying a large hangar.
At this year’s Sebring Expo, we learned of more additions.
At the end of a very strong Friday when crowds were at their thickest, many attended Duc Propellers USA’s grand opening party celebrating the French prop maker’s new American headquarters at the Sebring airport.
The new facilities will provide North American sales, service, and maintenance for the Duc line of props.
Duc has made great inroads into the Light-Sport and Sport Pilot kit space. At the kick-off party, Duc assembled an impressive number of airplanes from the Expo — each fitted with Duc props, of course — providing a mini-airshow right outside the hangar door.
Veteran FBO and flight school operator Lou Mancuso recently established the Sebring Flight Academy at the airport. This new enterprise is set up to help young people get their training in preparation for commercial flying, doing so in an innovative and very economical way. Although he had many choices, Mancuso selected Sebring for his new operation.
During our exit video interview with Sebring Regional Airport Executive Director Mike Willingham and Executive Assistant Bev Glarner, the two leaders revealed the newest tenant to sign up for space. Art Tarola’s A-B Flight, one of the representatives for Evektor and its Harmony and SportStar LSA, will now call Sebring home.
Yes, Sebring is definitely on the map these days and the Sport Aviation Expo helped put it there.