Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sporty’s 50 Years On The Pulse Of GA

A look at our collective pilot philosophy through the gear we buy and why

My all-access peek into Sporty’s reveals how they have marshaled automation to serve their philosophy of, “It has to be useful, it has to be good quality and it has to make flying more fun.” Orders flow in through computers and are routed to a printer farm where invoices stream out like army ants heading to their colonies. Humans—the live kind—review each order manually and place orders in a tub where a second visual verification takes place. “Nothing goes to shipping until it’s verified by a person,” explains Shevers. The warehouse is a hive of employees—many of whom count their tenure in decades—and college students on Segways rove around moving orders like futuristic androids. It looks fun.

Not following tradition, Shevers’ desk is in the middle of a large, plain room with no dividers, where he’s surrounded by all the other managers. His desk could be that of a mail clerk or telephone operator. There’s no pretense of status here, and all executives are in the same room. Even meetings are impromptu; with managers standing up (“If you sit down, meetings take too long,” smiles Radke). Everywhere, aviation adorns the walls, and the building’s glass-paned windows overlook the panoply of airplanes churning the sky from Sporty’s Academy just outside. And at every desk, there’s talk of gear and flying.

What We Buy

Let’s face it, pilot gear is fun to buy and is a view into the collective heart of aviation. The surprise this year is that the economy hasn’t affected big-ticket purchases, such as the new Bose A20 headset, which Zimmerman reports is “hot and is flying off the shelves.” An amazed Shevers comments, “In the old days, we never imagined paying $1,000 for a headset, but we pay that today, and slightly more!”

Hot items this year also included handheld nav/coms, cockpit video-recorder/camera systems and pulse oximeters, which Zimmerman says are becoming “standard issue.” Technology has brought the price of these devices to under $80, and the benefits (detecting hypoxia early) are obvious. Oximeters slide onto your finger and tell you the oxygen concentration percentage in your blood painlessly and noninvasively.

“The iPad is huge with pilots!” Zimmerman tells me, adding that Sporty’s is “All in on apps,” with their popular E6B application, and more coming. Sporty’s famous courses now are available for the iPad and iPhone and, of course, on DVD and online. During my visit, the darkened digital production labs were abuzz with application development not only for the iPad, but also for the iPhone, as well as the Android operating system (shhh!). Sporty’s is clearly seeing the future.

Flight bags continue to fascinate pilots, with the newest thing being modular bags that allow pilots to add and mix extra compartments based on their personal taste. Pilots like to add components like handheld radios or GPS units, or a water bottle or any number of things, depending on the mission. Today’s newest bags—like Sporty’s “Mission” bag—allow this, using military technology that allows simple coupling of different kinds of accessory pouches onto the main bag, creating an almost infinitely expanding and contracting “living” flight bag.

Another hot trend has been personal locator beacons (PLBs). Lower prices due to ever-improving technology have made these lifesaving units affordable for most pilots, and we’re buying them in droves. The disappearance of our old standby 121.5 emergency frequency is driving PLB sales too. Also in the “safety” category, LED flashlights, backup handheld GPS navigators and portable traffic systems that can be added to a portable GPS system were big sellers.


Add Comment