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.
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On July 16, 2004, FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey signed the long-awaited light-sport aircraft rule.
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.