I thought those of you who have never been to an air show, specifically the Sebring U.S. Sport Aviation Expo, might enjoy a world's-eye view of what it's like to make the pilgrimage every January. This year, Sebring #8, spawned by founder Bob Wood, was likely the best yet. See, Sebring is simply the country's best light-sport aviation candy store. Unlike Oshkosh, Sun 'n Fun and local air shows that draw aviation nuts like me to enjoy the full panoply of flight, this central Florida show offers no distractions (helicopters, military jets, warbirds, GA aircraft) to save you from full indulgence of your light-sport obsession.
Where to start? How about that sexy yellow-and-white FK12 Comet biplane just ahead...but wait, the elegant SeaMax amphibian is back with a new distributor. And, hold on: There's Zenair's all-metal kit planes, and over there, the Flight Design CTLE fitted out for law enforcement, and wow, the Renegade Falcon taildragger and tricycle sleekster, and CubCrafter'simmaculate Carbon Cub SS. Oh yeah, Sebring. Bring it, baby!
Ahead, just above the white exhibit tent, one after another eager craft flings itself into the air on demo flights with potential customers: high wings, low wings, powered parachutes, motorgliders. Anyone who ever built a model airplane feels that dormant inner-kid persona surge to the frontal cortex.
This eighth year was the most positive in years for exhibitors. One perennial hard worker, Art Tarola of AB Flight, grinned as he reported four contracts signed, with another about to pop. My pal Dan Johnson, LAMA President and LSA mover/shaker, reported 20 sales at the show...with perhaps 50 more waiting in the wings. A very good Sebring indeed.
This was my fourth consecutive visit, and the weather was hands down the best ever. Temps never topped 80. Clear or popcorn skies prevailed, with light, refreshing breezes.
We had just one high-cirrus afternoon, which sent me and my companions in two Flight Design CTLS aircraft on a wild shadow chase all the way east to Lake Okeechobee, light patch-hopping in search of open sunshine for a photo shoot. Pools of light would open up just ahead in the green-and-brown, drought-parched rural flatlands, but alas, the Sunshine State didn't live up to its name this afternoon; the holes closed each time we drew close...argh!
Sebring affords the best chance for air scribes to strap on several LSA in a feast of flight reporting. Manufacturers and dealers bend over backward to work us into their busy demo schedules. Sure, it's good for business, but these working folks know we're all in the game together. Growing the industry is the common bottom line.
There's the human element, too. Over the years, you make and grow friendships among your winged band of brothers and sisters. You share air, gossip and new technologies, reveling in this unique period of aviation history.
I've been privileged to fly through two other flight revolutions in my life: hang gliding and ultralight flying. Many LSA friends and colleagues are carryovers from those earlier movements. And there's a line that runs through all of it: We love pioneering the new stuff, making discoveries and blazing trails together.
Case in point: After the show, I squeezed in some training with Jim Lee, stalwart dealer for the fabulous Phoenix motorglider. Lee has been a soaring pilot all his life, was twice national hang-gliding champion, and set an early cross-country distance mark of 166 miles in 1981 that stood for years.
Flying the Phoenix toward the downwind leg of Seminole Lake Gliderport, west of Disney World, after the show, we felt a little burble around 1,500 feet AGL. "Let's see what we can do here," Lee suggested. We shut off the Rotax—we were an easy glide to the grass runway below—and to reassuring beeps from the variometer, I banked right and felt that wonderful push in the seat known as lift, aka free gas. A few turns later, we had climbed a few hundred feet. A sailplane joined the thermal, and we did a pas de deux around the circle for several minutes. Pure heaven, folks. We left the gaggle of two to enter the pattern for my first engine-off landing in the Phoenix. I got 'er down in one piece, and we rolled to a stop near the clubhouse.
Back to Sebring: The new management of the Expo, led by Director Jana Filip and aided by scores of tireless volunteers, did a fantastic job promoting the event and making sure all went smoothly. There's always a host of after-flying hangar parties and restaurant gatherings, too. Local businesses enjoy the boom that 16,000 visitors, this year's tally, bring to the local economy. There's quality lodging as well, including the new, spacious Majestic Cove condos right on Lake Jackson that Plane & Pilot publisher Mike McMann and I enjoyed.
Speaking of Lake Jackson, an impromptu seaplane base popped up this year right in front of the popular seafood eatery Sunset Grille. I hopped over there for a quick air-to-air shoot with three Legend AmphibCubs. Now there's nothing like climbing out of a sparkling-new Legend Cub and walking 50 feet over a grass shoreline for a sumptuous dinner. Tough job, right?
Flying at Sebring, whether it soars, splashes or rolls, is about as pleasurable as it gets. Lakes big and small dot the landscape. Both east and west coasts lie a few score minutes away by air. The runways on former Hendricks Field (my father, a B-17 pilot, trained there in 1942) handle winds from all directions.
But the real story of Sebring is, as always, the people and the energy they bring to the game. These are long, hard hours for vendors, demo pilots and journalists alike, to be sure. You head for home fairly wrung out. But after a short rest, you remember the faces of your friends, the people who trusted you to fly within a wingspan for a photo, and the demo pilots who patiently shared the finer points of their flying machines with you.
Sebring works for precisely the same reason civilization works best: It feeds the common good, through innovation, dedication, devotion and good old elbow grease...with a heavy dash of fun stirred into the mix.