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.


The pilots association is contemplating doing its own survey to see how many members might be following in Gray's footsteps.

Meanwhile, if you count light sport aircraft that have already been registered by the FAA plus the ones that are in the process, there are 2,650 in private hands.

The number is rapidly growing, too. The industry leader, Flight Design of Germany, delivered 44 planes in 2005, 104 last year and expects 160 to 170 this year, says Tom Peghiny, the company's U.S. president.

The real sea change in this emerging business would be if and when Cessna Aircraft, the American kingpin of general aviation, enters the fray. It already has built and shown a prototype.

Should Cessna jump in, said Peghiny, "it legitimizes the whole thing. It will grow the overall market and the acceptance of light sport aircraft in other aviation circles."

'The Catch-22'

Gray's new little plane takes just 5 gallons of regular gas an hour and costs far less to maintain than his Piper twin. But he could make the switch without dropping his full-fledged pilot's license. Any pilot can fly the CT.

His main reason to change licenses is self-defense, to stop taking flight medical exams before he fails one.

If someone has either never taken or never failed a standard private pilot flight physical, they can simply declare themselves fit to fly as a sport pilot. The only documentation they need is a driver's license.

But once someone fails a flight physical, they are banned from flying even as a sport pilot.

"I am 69 and I'm in great health," Gray said. "I'm sure I could pass it for a number of years, but what if I couldn't?"

Dick Wilke, a Bradenton man who has built three planes of his own, knows about that.

Now 77, Wilke had heart attack 20 years ago.

He was ready to make his first solo flight on his way to a regular private pilot license back in 2000, flying out of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Wilke went in for the requisite flight physical and learned that his heart attack disqualified him. He would have to submit paperwork directly to the FAA for an exemption.

Since then, Wilke built himself a new kit plane that fits the light sport category.

"I never dreamed they would throw the monkey wrench in. If you've ever been turned down you'd be in trouble. My best hope is that eventually the FAA decides to eliminate the Catch-22 situation as long as you can self-certify that you are safe to fly and you have a driver's license and your doctor says you are OK."

'Hanging up your sunglasses'

Should the general public be alarmed that there might be more pilots flying around who shouldn't even be driving but still can?

Probably not.

Even before the new, more lenient pilot rules became effective, there were people sliding through the rules, says someone whose chief mission in life is keeping the airways safe.

"Just as you have some people who shouldn't be out there in cars, there have been people who have always been able to get through an FAA physical who were close to the edge," said Rusty Sachs, executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors.

His group has 5,500 members, representing about half of the active instructors working in the U.S.

With the aging of America, the association in recent years has put increasing attention on "recognizing when it is time to hang up your sunglasses."

"The FAA is much more of a stickler for details than the state DMVs," said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association. "Even a drunk driving offense -- if you don't report it and they find out about it, you have a good chance of getting your license revoked."

Sidestepping the drill

As an airplane mechanic, Sarasota's Tate Gabbert kept WW II-era airplanes flying for David Lindsay Sr., previous owner of the Herald-Tribune.

Then Gabbert helped White Sox owner Arthur Allyn start Dolphin Aviation, the largest fixed-base operator at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Now retired, Gabbert has made flying a priority.

"I have had a lifelong passion. But I never either had the time nor the money to become a regular pilot."

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