So Long, Sebring


If concrete could emote, several dozen acres of it in Sebring, Florida, must be sighing in relief. Now that the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo has passed into history, there’s no further need to perforate that historical ramp with expansion bolts for temporary tiedowns.

Given the sparse attendance at this show, you could argue that its demise was inevitable, but I don’t agree. The Expo sustained for 15 years, a run that merits the Sebring Airport Authority and the city itself a respectful salute for hanging in against difficult market realities. Bystanders can carp about lack of promotion, thin exhibitor attendance and Sebring’s relative remoteness, but I don’t agree with any of that either. I think the city and show organizers, plus the on-field businesses, did well enough in supporting the show and if they could have done much more to affect the outcome, I just don’t see it.

The Expo’s retirement is a reflection of the light sport aircraft industry itself. Sales of these airplanes are modest at best, growth is elusive and the segment just never potentiated the way many of us hoped it would. The notion that the light sport rule would unleash torrents of low-cost, market-resetting airplanes persists and is the basis for the claim by some that light sport has been a failure.

That’s wrong, too. When I was in Slovenia last month visiting Pipistrel’s new factory across the border in Italy, I saw a modern facility with three active assembly lines. They’re building more than 200 airplanes a year, a handful of them electric. A few other factories are doing the same. Small production volumes don’t equate with failure. In aviation, we’re saddled with the memory of 1978, when 17,000-plus GA airplanes were built in an era when the village plumber could afford one. With that distorted benchmark of success, anything less is somehow unworthy.

A precise count of the light sport population in the U.S. has been difficult to come by, but my informed guess is about 3000 or about 200 airplanes a year since the rule emerged. Add in the rest of the world, and I’m sure it’s double that. Clearly, we’re not darkening the skies with light sport—or their world equivalent—airplanes. It’s a boutique market and likely to stay that way. So what? If companies can carve a profitable niche in this tiny little pond, we should all cheer.

In the world we all wish for, this would be sufficient to support an annual trade show like Sebring’s Expo. Sadly, it was not. That leaves the recently established Sport Aviation Showcase in Deland still standing. When it launched in 2016, I doubted the industry could support two shows, when the existing event was already struggling. Now we’ll find out.

When the Deland show opened, I canvassed exhibitors and heard two consistent complaints about Sebring: The January weather and the nearby racetrack. Until I moved here, I never realized how crappy the weather can be in Florida in January. The cold fronts that sweep through the northeast bring snow and wind, but here it’s rain and cold wind, which is precisely what people come to Florida to escape. It seemed every year, Sebring would get a gale sufficient to knock down tents, soak the grounds and keep people in their hotel rooms for at least a day.

For as much as I like loud engine noise, Sebring International Raceway’s proximity to the Expo grounds was an irritant. Every time I’d hear a car screaming out of a corner with an engine stumble, I’d want to rush over and urge the mechanics to adjust the fueling or something.

The Deland Showcase date is in mid-November when the weather in Florida is far more benign. Hurricane risk is lower, but the temperatures are more pleasant with fewer cold front gales. Show organizer Jana Filip told me the date could be moved to January, but I’m not sure I’d favor that or if it would even make a difference. January brings more visitors to Florida in general, but who can say if that would impact show attendance?

Neither of these shows proved a draw for people just gawking airplanes, but companies exhibiting often told me they had specific appointments with potential buyers and that made the expense and time of the show worth it.

If that’s enough to sustain the Deland Showcase, we should all be happy about it. If not, so be it. Either way, thanks to Sebring for a worthy effort. 

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  1. You’re addressing the demise of Sebring but really speaking on the larger issue of the success or lack thereof of what was supposed to be a panacea for aviation … Light Sport. Had light sport taken off, Sebring wouldn’t be dying … January weather in FL be damned. If a market existed, there’d be a trade show that’d be nurturing and showcasing it.

    It may well be unrealistic to gauge a niche subset of airplane production by the 1978 numbers. On the other hand, what would you gauge success by if not by production numbers? People speak either with their wallets or their feet, usually; they either buy one or walk away. Lookie Lou’s don’t add to a company’s bottom line. Piper and Cirrus took up the light sport idea and gave it up. Even the mighty Cessna Skycatcher — which I ordered then walked away from over the China thing — couldn’t find success and wound up chopped up … even the serviceable spare parts and new engines! Many others thought they had still another aviation “great idea” only to meet with reality. Over a hundred manufacturers building something around 200 airplanes per year is insane. I’m sure the LAMA guy will disagree with me but … reality is reality.

    Having attended more than 10 of the shows and flown four airplanes as a serious prospect, year after year I left disappointed. At some point, the dollars you spend have to be compensated for by what I call the “Big Five.” Price … Performance … Payload … Range … and Safety. Light Sport didn’t provide any of that. Prices were too high; performance (for the most part) was anemic; payload didn’t exist and range … fuhgetabout it. Finally, safety couldn’t be built into such a light weight machine. So what’s the point? Only the introduction of glass panels gave the segment a recent boost … but not enough. Ya gotta have two or three of the five to be successful. THAT is why the Carbon Cub sells.

    To be fair … bumping against the totally ridiculous 1,320 pound rule was the major culprit. And who is to blame for that? You know what I’d say. Now toss in the introduction of BasicMed which more than 40,000 pilots HAVE availed themselves of and the final nails in the coffin of light sport were inserted and driven home. Why buy a LSA if you can still fly your C172? The demise of Sebring is but a mirror image of same.

    Hopefully, the EAA MOSAIC idea will materialize before the rapidly dwindling group of aging pilots with the interest and wherewithal to spend that kind of money meet their maker. Providing for a few of my big five HAS to happen or else it won’t work, too. From MY vantage point, only the introduction of BasicMed has done anything positive. That said … keeping the oldies flying for a few more years is only gonna work so long. If something more positive doesn’t come out of DC soon, even more “demise” stories will emerge providing fodder for your blogs.

  2. First, thanks for bringing back the Comments section; much appreciated. Second, it’s too bad that Sebring didn’t survive, but as you say, it is a reflection of the struggle light sport has fought from the beginning. If uncertainty is the enemy of stable aircraft production, LSA has weathered a near-perfect storm of government muddling that has clouded the future from the get-go. Things are not improving either, what with all the conflicting rumors, misstatements and various “initiatives” being bounced around between the FAA and the alphabet groups regarding future changes. Reference the Aviation Consumer January edition article on the subject. Small wonder LSA can’t seem to catch a break. It would be nice if someone could come up with a draft master plan for the near and mid-term goals for revising the standards so that everyone could see where we are headed. But, the current obsession over UAS rules seems to have eclipsed any hope of that. The FAA has too much for on its plate and something is going to get dropped. I fear LSA will be the broken egg.

  3. One good thing that LSAs did for GA was to show that a few relaxed regulations didn’t mean increased accidents or risk, particularly with regard to medical certification and pilot training. I think BasicMed wouldn’t be here (yet) if it wasn’t for the Sport Pilot rule’s “driver’s license medical”. And while I don’t know how much (if any) Sport Pilot training has reduced the monetary and time cost of earning a certificate, any little bit helps.

    And I view BasicMed as more than just keeping a few older pilots in their 172s. I see it helping out younger people have an easier path to the pilot’s seat. I know many pilots who could easily pass a 3rd-class medical but choose not to go through the unnecessary hoops and have switched to BasicMed instead. Since it still requires an initial evaluation by an AME, it doesn’t help a whole lot for new pilots, but it does at least take away the recurring visits.

    One final observation I’ve noticed of LSA is that there are a few stand-out companies, and at least one of them (FlightDesign) is taking to building a certified Part-23 aircraft with a fresh design perspective. I hope things work out for them (and others), because that may be where the true future of light non-LSA GA lies.

    As for Sebring and Sport Expo…I would be more interested in the racing going on at the track than the LSAs on the ramp.

  4. It’s always tough to have to cancel a regular event, but I live in Florida and only went once. As pilots we feel obligated to support out industry. We also have to choose how we spend those AMUs. In my case that usually means one major show per year and if I am lucky one AOPA event per year. We join AOPA, EAA, and other professional organizations and some of us are able to join multiple organizations as well. Everything has a price. I think Sebring did well to carry the event for as long as it did and my hat is off to them.

    Personally, I have very little interest in the LSA segment but if it was the only choice for flying I am sure I would think differently. I think in a perfect world LSA would become another part of Sun N Fun or Air Venture and present themselves in those venues. They are already are at those shows and I usually see people visiting those displays as well.

  5. The best selling LSA in the USA is a carbon copy of NASCAR teams (past and present) approach to rules, guidelines, and specifications. That being, designing and implementing applications to the rules, that in practical use on race day is borderline cheating.

    You prepare two cars, one for tech one for racing. The racing version gets acid dipped bodies. One side of the engine has a larger bore than other side. Just make sure a tear-down inspection due to a claiming rule is on the smaller bore side. When one gets caught, argue that the rules allow for these modifications, do something different to take advantage of whatever weakness may be in the following years rule-making as a result of the alleged infraction. All of racing is a challenge to the rules and taking advantage of every opportunity to push as far as a team can go to the fringe of that rule. And if the rule is vague enough to allow for some “creative thinking”, go for it. This is a part of the appeal of NASCAR to most average folks. It’s sort of the American way.

    This is what CubCrafters has done with the Carbon Cub. The LSA rules define the weight limit, top speed, stall speed etc. Stuff in the biggest motor (180HP with electronic ignition and use it for take-off only). Fly all the rest of the flight on 80HP…yeah right. Useful load is 424LBS yet the X-Cub with the same engine is 1084lbs. Sure, Mr FAA ramp checker, I am never over the 1320 gross weight limit…but please pay no attention to that moose in the back seat. This airplane exploits every aspect of the LSA guidelines and in a certification way is “legal”. How many are being flown at these legal limits…and at 80-100HP? Probably as many NASCAR teams cars that are totally tech legal on race day, at the time of engine start up.

    As a result of their considerable efforts to make a Carbon Cub “LSA legal”, it has turned out to be the best, long term seller because it has all the attributes of a much heavier airplane…because as typically flown, it is a heavier, full size airplane. It exudes strength, brawn, horsepower, back-country capable, testosterone enhancing style of aviating. Now compare that to a Rotax powered modified European class ultra-light that has been neutered to fit the present USA LSA rules. This is good ol’ Yankee ingenuity at its best.

    I believe Deland can learn a lesson or two from CubCrafters when putting together their LSA venue. Make it another unique American type of event rather than the Sebring’s international flavored approach. Sun-N-Fun and Oshkosh have their own unique identities refined over time. They are truly American aviation icons beyond the events themselves. Sebring seemed to not have its own identity other than it was an LSA exposition. That alone was not enough. If Deland combines the LSA venue with an American flavor by inviting type club participation of LSA qualified Champs, Chiefs, Luscombes, Cubs, etc for example, maybe an aerobatic display by an appropriate LSA, and lots of demo rides in both old and new LSA’s, they can gain an identity that will draw non-aviators to the event for nostalgia and curiosity sake, while still showcasing the multitude of LSA manufacturers for those with checkbooks in hand. Showcase the range available to the buyer and the non-aviation public that you can purchase a $15K Chief to a $250K GEE Whiz glass panel LSA and fly with no medical. In other words sell the premise of LSA rather than a bunch of manufacturers with difficult to pronounce names.

    CubCrafters has tapped into that American mindset better than most. And they have taken advantage of all the wiggle room the LSA rules allow. Big engines, big airplanes, and big wheels.

    Deland has an opportunity to do likewise.