Business cashes in on recreational flight; Dixmont couple sells aircraft kits

One of the fastest-growing recreational industries in the country is the light-sport aircraft, a plane - which can be purchased in kit form - that costs a third of conventional small planes and requires far less stringent training and medical criteria.

In 2006, there were 500 light-sport aircraft registered in the U.S. By August of this year, that number had increased to more than 4,000.

Linda and Ben Brown are banking that the national interest in light-sport planes will wing its way to Maine. The Dixmont couple recently opened a light-aircraft business, BLB Flight LLC, at the Pittsfield Ron Curtis Airport, where they are offering kits, assisted-construction and completed planes.

The Browns say the light planes they sell - Highlanders - are popular across the country and are perfect for Maine's rugged terrain.

"This plane is for Maine," Linda Brown said. "It's a little bush plane. It's rugged."

Light-sport aircraft's popularity blossomed in September 2004, when new rules and pilots' license criteria were created by the Federal Aviation Administration. The planes must be less than 1,320 pounds, carry only two people, and their top speed is 120 mph.

Because the corresponding sport pilot license prohibits night flying, flying by instrument only and flying in complex flight areas, the time and cost of obtaining the license is far less than a conventional pilot's license.

A conventional license requires a minimum of 40 hours of training and strict medical criteria. Lessons can cost up to $8,000 and conventional small planes, such as a Cessna, can cost around $300,000.

A sport pilot license requires a minimum of 20 hours of training, which lowers the cost to about $2,000. Light-sport planes start at $85,000.

"This is an affordable way for the hobbyist or first-time pilot to get in the air," Ben Brown said. "Twenty years ago, there were 800,000 pilots in the country. Now there are 300,000."

But a lot of people still want to fly.

Richard Knapinski of the Experimental Aircraft Association Wisconsin said, "This industry has grown very, very quickly. Since 2004, more than 40 types of sport aircraft are now offered for sale and more than 1,200 have been sold. That may not sound like a lot, but compare that to 2,500 a year of factory-built, Cessna type planes sold each year. In addition, there are now 2,000 people holding sport pilot licenses."

It's a second career with an exciting outlook for both Browns. Ben Brown used to set up voice-activated computers in the medical field. Linda Brown worked for several central Maine school districts as a special education consultant.

Several years ago, when Ben obtained his pilot's license, he told his wife: "Don't worry. The last thing I'm going to do is run out and buy a plane."

Three planes later, the couple started the light-sport business.

Ben Hawthorne helps with the construction in exchange for flying lessons and Ellery Batchelder of Levant is the couple's chief constructor.

"It's not difficult, building one," Batchelder said. "But you have to get it right the first time." He said a kit can take between 500 and 1,200 hours to complete, depending on the skill level of the builder. "These are made of welded aircraft tubing, just like the big ones," he added.

Batchelder said the light-sport planes are becoming extremely popular with conventional pilots who are in danger of losing their medical status.

"Many of these people are also finding it too expensive to run their own planes," Ben Brown said. "These take half the fuel of a Cessna, go nearly as fast and far." Each plane must be certified and registered with federal agencies.

The Browns felt the Pittsfield airport, with a bevy of commercially owned planes using the field daily, would be a good fit. "We needed a place that was growing," Ben Brown said. "We've had people fly in here from Massachusetts and New Hampshire just to look at these planes."