New Light-Sport Aircraft Gains Altitude

Owning a plane used to be a luxury almost exclusively for affluent jet-setters.

But a light-sport model introduced in 2004 is leveling the runway. While general aviation aircraft can cost several hundred thousand dollars, sport planes generally range from $50,000 to $110,000.

The price tag alone is propelling the category's swift takeoff.

Just ask Fred Parle, owner of Sport Planes West, a Hemet-based light aircraft dealer. He expanded his operation to the Camarillo Airport in March.

Parle has sold 33 sport planes totaling more than $2 million in the past two years. This year, he is projecting sales to be about $1.5 million to $2 million.

Still, the sport-plane category is almost a secret in aviation circles. A secret that Parle and his son, James, can't wait to share.

"There's only a handful, percentage-wise, of general aviation pilots that know this exists," said James Parle, director of operations for Sport Planes West in Camarillo. "The problem is not the vehicles, the problem is getting people to them."

The single-engine, two-seater plane is lightweight, factory built and tested, and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Most weigh about 700 pounds, compared with a 3,000-pound general aviation aircraft.

The FAA predicts robust growth of this category, said Ian Gregor, communications manager of the FAA Western-Pacific region.

As of March, there were 1,154 certified light-sport aircraft nationwide, up from 233 the previous year, according to the FAA.

As defined by the FAA, the aircraft must weigh no more than 1,320 pounds, including the aircraft, fuel, cargo, pilot and passenger.

Sport Planes West sells nine European models, from the Interplane Skyboy, a low-end type that starts at $50,000, to the UrbanAir Samba XXL, described as the Ferrari of sport planes that starts at $76,997. It climbs 2,000 feet per minute and reportedly outperforms most other small-engine aircraft.

Prices at Sport Planes West peak at $110,000 for "all the bells and whistles" ? options that include autopilot, liquid crystal display, global positioning system and parachutes.

Spend money to make money

Selling the planes requires a substantial investment, said Fred Parle, 47, of Hemet. Many dealers he works with require him to have a plane available for demonstrations, which means he has to own the aircraft.

"We're well aware that aviation isn't a great business to make a lot of money," James Parle said. "There's a joke in the aviation business that in order to make a small fortune, you have to start with a large fortune."

Aviation is fickle because it's dependent on the economy, since an aircraft is an indulgence, not a necessity, he added.

"Believe it or not, $100,000 isn't very much for a new aircraft," James Parle said. "A plane that sells for $100,000 or less is a bargain, considering the level of refinement that you get."

Aside from the initial purchase price, sport planes have lower operating, inspection and maintenance costs, Fred Parle said. The price of an annual inspection, which occurs once a year or every 100 hours, runs $300. The fee is based on the plane's complexity. It can cost several thousand dollars for an older plane that requires major maintenance.

Sport planes were created with simplicity in mind, mainly to keep the price down so more people could afford to fly.

"You start introducing complexities: retractable landing gear, fancy props, higher weights, higher speeds, and the price escalates," James Parle said. "Then you end up back where you were with a general aviation airplane."

Fuel and time efficient

While larger aircraft burn eight to 10 gallons of fuel per hour, the sport planes churns through about four gallons per hour. It can fly 800 to 1,000 miles on 30 gallons of fuel, traveling at 115 to 120 miles per hour, Fred Parle said.

It's also cheaper to get certified as a pilot. A sport-plane license requires only 20 hours of flight time, compared with the general aviation license that requires 40 hours of flying, which can run $4,000 to $6,000. The flight time required for a sport-pilot license cost from $2,500 to $3,000.

The sport-plane training takes fewer hours because these aircraft are flown at lower speeds and altitude. Also, sport pilots are not to fly at night or in "complex airspace" ? areas that have air traffic control towers, said Dick Knapinski, Experimental Aircraft Association spokesman.

Often, those pursuing a private pilot's license become discouraged, Knapinski said.

"Studies have shown that out of every 100 people that begin flight training for their pilot's license, only about 35 ever finish," he said. "The biggest hurdles are time and money. The sport plane offers a great entry-level way to begin flying."

Many flight schools are retiring their aging trainer fleet and replacing them with the more efficient light-sport aircraft, the FAA's Gregor said.

"These are the safest aircraft we've ever sold," said James Parle, 27, of Thousand Oaks. "We're used to dealing with kit planes, which are not financeable and not insurable. Needless to say, a difficult sale. It's harder to sell something the customers have to build and can't finance and can't insure."

Changing with the times

For more than 25 years, Fred Parle has flown, sold, built and test-flown lightweight aircraft, starting with hang gliders. About 15 years ago, when Ultralights were introduced, his Hemet business became Ultralight Safaris. An Ultralight is a kit plane that is more complex and sophisticated than a hang glider. Parle also taught people to fly.

After the introduction of the sport-plane category in 2004, his business changed names again. The Parles now sell only sport planes and no longer offer flying lessons. The Hemet location offers maintenance, which the Camarillo operation does not because of space limitations.

"We don't sell anything in the previous experimental aircraft category, sadly," James Parle said. "The business model was too difficult. We're now expanding. That gives you an idea that business is better and easier than in the kit plane world. So, 2004 meant a lot to us for our small business."

It meant a lot to others as well.

Hoping buyers spread the word

Edwin Miller, owner of Kappa Aircraft, a Pennsylvania-based company that imports Kappa planes, had waited years for the category to launch in the United States.

When it finally did, "it was exhilarating," Miller said. "It was a very good, comfortable feeling that it actually became a reality."

He sells the Kappa planes through five dealers across the country, including Sport Planes West. Miller said he expects sales to double this year as word spreads, and is in the process of bringing on six or seven more dealers.

"Now we're starting to see nonpilots become interested ? people who have always wanted to be a pilot, but couldn't necessarily afford it," he said. "This category really makes it within their grasp."

The sport plane was intended for pilots just starting out and to make flying as easy as possible, but most customers so far are older men, James Parle said.

"The general public and the younger general aviator pilots, they hardly know what this category is right now," Parle said.

Easier to get licensed

Most buyers are in the 65 to 80 age range, who have been flying for decades. In many cases, the pilot fails the medical test due to health problems ? having high blood pressure, diabetes, a pacemaker, or bypass surgery ? and is no longer permitted to fly a general aviation aircraft.

With a sport aircraft, "as long as you can drive, you can fly," Parle said. To train for flying a sports plane, all that's required is a valid driver's license.

The FAA confirmed that someone can obtain a sport-plane license if they fail a medical test. However, Knapinski of the EAA said someone in such a situation still would need to get a special issuance medical certificate from the FAA, which assesses whether the person is safe to fly.

It provides hope for people like Deborah and Bill Stegemann.

A retired army aviator, Bill has been flying for 42 years and he doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon.

"I know when my husband gets to the point when he can't pass his medical, there's still options, other than me getting my license," Deborah said. "It's fabulous that the older pilots can continue flying, if they have a few health issues and can't pass the medical. This is a part of their life, and you take away something that has been with them for 30 to 40 years, and it's like cutting a piece out of themselves."

Parle expects sport planes to become very popular among recreational pilots and flying instructors.

"Because of the reduced operating costs and how refined these vehicles are for the money, we believe the category is going to have an impact on the small, single-engine aircraft," he said.

"This is the hottest category, period. That said, I don't believe the critical mass has been obtained yet."

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