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

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.

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."

Coming along the path a little later than Wilke, Gabbert knew the flight physical drill and decided to sidestep it.

"I know I have some problems," he said.

He received his sport pilot license in September, and in February plunked down a $20,000 deposit toward delivery of a SportCruiser, the bubble-canopy beauty being marketed in Southwest Florida by Lehew's Shell Creek Aviation.

Lehew has been flying his demo aircraft all over the country, catching air shows, and taking orders left and right.

"Once people fly them they can't do without them. They are going almost faster than the manufacturer can keep up."

THE HARLEYS OF THE SKY

LUSCOMBE SILVAIRE

Retro-looking replica of classic two-seater last made in 1960. Made in Riverside, Calif., just gearing up for sales.

Basic price $90,000.

Typically equipped: $105,000.

SPORTCRUISER

Bubble canopy low-wing plane, made in Czech Republic. Gearing up for U.S. sales

of 300 per year.

Basic price $75,000.

Typically equipped: $80,000.

With latest avionics: $92,000.

FLIGHT DESIGN CT

High-wing plane designed in Germany and made in Ukraine.

Basic price $95,000.

With latest avionics: $115,000.

THE NEW RULES

FAA rules for light sport aircraft

* Maximum gross takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds; 1,430 pounds for seaplanes.

* Maximum speed in level flight 138 mph.

* Single- or two-seat aircraft only.

* Fixed (non-retractable) landing gear.

* Can be manufactured and sold ready-to- fly under new certification category with less government oversight than regular airplanes.

* Can be converted from being experimental or kit-built aircraft, but only for use by the owner.

Pilots

* Sport pilots generally are limited to flying light sport aircraft or ultralights.

* They are limited to daytime flying and good-visibility weather.



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