Saturday, April 13, 2013

Interest Grows in Inexpensive Planes at the Light-Sport Aircraft Mall

LAKELAND | When ultralight aircraft reigned supreme, Sun 'n Fun Fly-In's Paradise City was the place to be during the weeklong event.

"This place used to be standing room only," Jeremy Monnett of Sonex Aircraft said Friday. "Anybody and everybody wanted to be here."

But as ultralights lost popularity to newer light-sport aircraft, the area faltered and drew fewer people, according to pilots who talked with The Ledger.

However, Paradise City's popularity might be on the rebound with this year's changes to the south side of the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. In the last year, fences have been removed, a road paved and more places made for planes closer to the grass airstrip, all allowing for a greater gathering of light-sport pilots on the new LSA Mall.

Sun 'n Fun President John "Lites" Leenhouts said the impetus for the expansion was to get younger people interested in flying.

While the costs of traditional planes can make them financially unattainable for younger people, light-sport aircraft are much less expensive, sometimes half as much.

"We thought the expansion was the perfect opportunity for kids to get into airplanes," he said.

Vendors also were encouraged to set up in that area, as well, along with gyro­coptors.

Light-sport planes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some can land on water, while others are made for a traditional runway. Some look like gliders, while others resemble vintage airplanes. But what defines them as light-sport is their weight and speed, said Gregg Ellsworth, of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association.

Typically, light-sport planes are restricted to 120 knots, or 138 mph, and a maximum take-off weight of 1,320 pounds. If its an amphibian aircraft, the maximum weight can be 1,430 pounds, Ellsworth said.

The changes to the LSA Mall have been openly welcomed by pilots and vendors, Ellsworth said.

Monnett said that while his Wisconsin-based company is no longer is a vendor at the fly-in, he might be willing to reconsider in the future if the popularity continues to grow.

"At this point, we think this is a big step forward," he said. "We may reconsider in time. But in recent years, we've been sitting back trying to see what Sun 'n Fun was going to do with the fly-in. Were they going to focus more on the spectacle, like with the air show, or on the expo part?"

Monnett said he thinks the emphasis has been more on attracting the general public, getting more corporate sponsors and the air show rather than on the business of aviation. But he thinks moves like the new LSA Mall area are steps in the right direction.

Dan Johnson, a light-sport pilot and president of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, flew 15 times to Lakeland from his home in Daytona to attend planning sessions for the new LSA area, he said.

One of the biggest improvements to the area is that pilots can fly whenever they want and don't have to wait for the air show to finish. Before, the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn't allow pilots to take off when the air shows were going on each day.

"This brings a whole new life to the area," he said. But when Johnson first saw the proposed plans for the area, he wasn't happy. However, he now says he is pleasantly surprised and hasn't heard any criticism about the changes.

"I think we hit it out of the park," he said.

Phil McCoy, preside of Light Sport America in Bartow, said he isn't so sure the changes have been discovered yet by those attending the fly-in.

"I've been displaying here for the last three years," he said. "They keep moving us further and further away from the flight line. This is remote enough that people haven't discovered we're here yet."