Sport Expo: The Year Of The Drone
Sometime between mid-January and mid-February, the tourist hordes descend on Florida to escape the winter miseries of the northern tier. They’re often disappointed to learn how sporting a winter cold front can be in Florida, sometimes all the way to Key West.
Great news this year, though: The 13th annual Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring had only a mild front, as opposed to one that has blown over tents and skidded tied-down airplanes in recent years. While Expo lacked the front, it also lacked the hordes, but that’s always been true of this show. It’s what I like to call… relaxed. The crowds are just thin, matching the light sport market the event is supposed to support. It’s never going to be anything other than that, so I’ve stopped pretending otherwise. Attendees should come in knowing that and take it or leave it.
This year, of course, the show has competition in the form of a new light sport event at Deland, the Sport Aviation Showcase. Perhaps in response to that or just the natural evolution of these things, organizers made some improvements at Sebring. The forum venues were better and centrally located and the show itself was moved onto the ramp area centered on the airport’s modern terminal building. This provided three immediate benefits. First, the car parking access was a little easier—at least for press and exhibitors. Second, the flightline, using a parallel taxiway for Runway 1/19 as a runway, was more easily accessible for display aircraft to fly flight demos.
Last, shattering the almost universal truth that airshows have crappy food served by indifferent vendors out of trucks and booths, the airport restaurant provided breakfast and lunch. Sebring’s airport eatery is reliably good and for the two days I was at the show, it did an admirable job of serving customers without unreasonable waits. (It helps that there just aren’t that many people about.) One last thing: The indoor vendor booth was a step-up and even had carpet on the floor, thus pegging my fun meter.
For me, the highlight of the show was the drone presence. Last year, what drones were there were pathetically caged up in a hangar, all but assuring that their capabilities would be hidden from the view of the curious. As I pointed out in this video, this year the drone community had several acres of display tents and open-air, uncaged racing that was fun to watch. (This year, the solution was inverted; the spectators were protected by netting.) Anyone mildly interested in what this new sport is all about could get a good feel for it by watching the pilots race and seeing the FPV footage live. It’s a highly videocentric activity well in keeping with the Facebook and YouTube universe.
There is still some risk, of course. Without containment, one of these palm-sized drones could get away and hit something or someone. Organizer Todd Wahl told me they have two levels of failsafe: a manual kill switch that drops them to the ground and an automatic kill that activates with loss of signal. Still, nothing is foolproof, least of all getting through those race gates at 60 MPH. I looked at a race through the FPV goggles and it’s scary as hell—but also alluring. Every race had a satisfying number of crashes and spinouts and these seem to make a loud thunk against the gates. Sometimes the drone is wrecked, sometimes not. In a bit of irony perhaps misplaced, the pilots had to fly a tight hairpin around a parked Cessna under the horizontal stab and main wing. It was an old, unairworthy beater and it got nailed plenty by the drones.
I give the FAA, the airport authority, the show organizers and the drone racing league kudos for getting this to happen and not just shutting it down out of irrational fear. As you’ve seen from the comments on this blog, there’s a persistent resentment and fear of drones in the GA community, much of it centered on the fact that the pilot—or operators, if you prefer—don’t undergo the same training requirement as pilots of certified aircraft. Face it; they’re a bunch of self-centered 20-somethings with face metal and baggy pants.
Although I don’t share the fear factor, I get why people worry about this. Reasonable regulation and oversight is not a bad thing. On the other hand, it’s a little like buggy owners complaining that horseless carriage drivers didn’t have a clue about feeding horses. In the end, I’m OK sharing the airspace with these kids. They’re the new, vibrant face of aviation—and yes, it is aviation—and I say welcome aboard.
Seguing here to airspace, the temporary tower this year at Sebring was an FAA operation, not the contract deal it has been in previous years. Previously, a private operator called AirBoss did the ATC duty. This show is so sparse that it’s barely needed, but it’s there for pilots who feel more comfortable being directed around the airspace and airport by radio. I’m not one of them, but the tower adds a layer of risk reduction.
To be kind, the FAA operation lacked a certain flexibility. I was out demoing a CTLS for this video early Friday morning returning from the south. There was one other aircraft in the area actually heading away from the airport. Sport Expo has a published procedure that requires flying in from Lake Jackson, about six miles away, then entering the pattern. It is an amusing shadow of the Ripon arrival. With the airport deserted, we asked for a straight-in for Runway 1. Nope, said the controller, you have fly all the way north to the lake, then south again to the airport. From where we were, it added about 12 totally unnecessary flying miles. We told him we could do the demo pattern instead.
Obviously, at AirVenture, you’d expect to see more accommodation in a situation like this and if people like me point that out, maybe we’ll get it in the future.