Gray Skies Ahead: New Sports Class Aircraft, License Appeals to Older Pilots

Think of the new "light sport aircraft" as the Corvettes of the field. You can't take grandma, the kids and the family dog. There's just no room.

Carlos Gray still likes his 1969 Piper twin-engine Comanche, which can whisk six people through the air at 190 mph.

But love at first sight would better describe the 69-year-old's feelings toward the sporty little two-seater that will be his next plane.

Once Gray flew the Flight Design CT, a $100,000 beauty carved from carbon composite and Kevlar, he wrote out a deposit check and stopped playing the field.

"I just love the German engineering," said Gray, hovering over the open cockpit during a recent air show at Charlotte County Airport. "The way this is designed here, you feel like you're almost sitting in a helicopter. You have a fantastic amount of visibility."

The aviation business and older pilots alike are getting a dose of youth serum from the government's creation of a new class of two-seater aircraft along with a fair-weather pilot's license to fly them.

Cheaper to buy and fly, the new planes and the easily accessible sport pilot license combine to cut the cost of getting airborne from $8,000 to about $3,500.

For now, the phenomenon seems to be finding its biggest appeal among aging pilots with a yen to stay aloft.

"The pent-up demand was from the existing pilot population," said Rob Hackman, director of regulatory policy at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

With a sport pilot license, a pilot never has to take another flight physical. While that might alarm some people concerned about physically unqualified pilots taking to the sky, the Federal Aviation Administration says that if a pilot is cleared to drive, it's okay for him or her to fly this kind of plane with some limitations.

The alternative for aging pilots is that once they fail a flight medical exam, they are banned from piloting a plane on their own, short of a rarely granted exemption from FAA headquarters.

No room for the dog

Think of the new "light sport aircraft" as the Corvettes of the field. You can't take grandma, the kids and the family dog. There's just no room.

But because they are so light, they typically can leap off a runway within 500 feet and cruise at 120 miles mph, sipping gasoline at 4 gallons per hour.

The pilot and passenger feel like they're flying, too, because the more modern designs usually feature acres of plexiglass while some, like the Luscombe Silvaire, are deliberately retro, designed to appeal to the buyer's sense of style.

"People don't get aircraft like this because they want practical transportation, any more than you buy a Harley-Davidson for that," said John Dearden, president of the Luscombe Silvaire Aircraft Co. in Riverside, Calif. "You buy one for appearance and style and fun."

The prices, ranging from $75,000 to $120,000, are roughly a third the cost of a new four-seater single-engine, such as a Cessna or a Cirrus.

C.W. Lehew, owner of Shell Creek Aviation in Punta Gorda, has become a dealer for the SportCruiser, made in the Czech Republic.

"You're looking at less than $80,000 for a nicely equipped aircraft."

Slow to take off

The FAA created the new category of planes and the new pilot's license to fly them in summer 2004.

Since then, what started out as a trickle of interest is picking up and promising to be the next big thing.

"They wanted to bring in more pilots, because they were losing pilots," said Bob Hughes, who is involved in a Punta Gorda-based effort to import the SportCruiser. "They wanted to lower the medical standards because older people were not being able to fly, and they also wanted to get the crazy kite people under control -- the ultralights."

There are only 1,226 registered sport pilots in the United States today of roughly 600,000 pilots of all stripes. That number probably understates the level of interest, said Hackman, of the pilots association.

That is because people like Carlos Gray, who are already qualified as pilots, do not have to notify anybody of their decision to go sport. They simply stop taking the flight physical.

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