Marc Valero | Highlands TodayA major event for Sebring is just around the corner, and it doesn't involve racing or sports cars.
Published: January 6, 2013
Published: January 6, 2013
It's the ninth annual U.S. Sport Aviation Expo Jan. 17-20, which transforms the Sebring Regional Airport into a major event destination for enthusiasts of light sport aircraft and the aircraft industry.
This year's expo includes more events for the public, including a twilight air show and a chance to tour three World War II-era aircraft from the Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom Tour.
In just a few years the expo has grown to become an important event for the community while attracting attendees and participants from across the country and around the world.
Kimble McKay said he and Bob Wood and Ron Owen started the aviation expo in 2004 to develop an economic engine for the area and in particular the airport and the aircraft industry.
The event has done that and is still growing with the airport authority, he said.
"I think we will see it grow as the years go by," McKay said.
The expo was turned over to the Sebring Airport Authority two years ago.
SAA Executive Director Mike Willingham said the aviation expo is a very significant event.
"The reason that the expo exists today is to bring business and industry and people to the airport that ordinarily, without the expo, would just not be here," he said, "so that we have an opportunity to market the airport, the community and the region to them."
The expo has grown exponentially along with the technology and the sophistication of the aircraft, Willingham noted.
Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce President Steven Nyhan said any event that can bring in people from outside to introduce the community to them is great for the economy.
"I know it definitely impacts our hotels, our restaurants and retail stores, and it's good for the community," he said.
The chamber will be at the expo providing directories and maps for the attendees who are from outside the area, Nyhan said.
Personally, Nyhan said he will be one of the volunteers from the Sebring Noon Rotary who will be helping with the parking duties.
Bob Wood, who built and flies his own light aircraft, said the first expo had about 35 exhibitors outside and about 25 inside.
It has grown steadily, not just in exhibitors, but in new features and new ideas and that has been the real strength of the airport authority taking it over because they have more resource and ideas to make it a better show, he said.
Building an airplane is a lot of fun and you can still do it, Wood said. You can actually go in your garage and build your own airplane and go fly it or you can build from a set of plans, buy a kit or purchase a factory-made aircraft.
The allure of the light-sport category is that it is simpler, smaller and safer, he said. It's significantly less expensive than buying a full-blown Cessna, Piper or similar aircraft.
Expo Director Jana Filip said they are adding to the expo each year and this year's focus is to give the local community something to see and do even if they are not a light sport aviation enthusiast.
This is Filip's second year as the event's director, but she was on the founding board and previously worked as a volunteer.
It is the world's only event dedicated to light sport aircraft, she noted. As the first aviation show of the year, all the exhibitors and manufacturers are excited about showing off what is new in their world.
Phil Lockwood said the expo has been well managed and well received throughout the industry.
Lockwood is the founder and president of Lockwood Aviation Supply and Lockwood Aviation Repair located at Sebring Regional Airport.
"It's been the most successful new startup show that I know of in recent years," he said.
The only other events that have the variety of light sport aircraft are the Sun 'N Fun Fly-In in Lakeland and AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., Lockwood noted.
At those large shows, the light sport aircraft are spread out over a very large area and you have to really work at it to find them all, he said.
The Sebring show is concentrated with all the major players in the industry so you get the same displays that are at the big shows and you get to see it all in a very small space, Lockwood said. The attendance at the Sebring expo is quite good, but without the crowds of the big shows it's easier to talk to the manufacturer representatives.
Another plus for the Sebring expo is that manufacturers are able to fly throughout the day, in contrast to the big shows that typically have air shows during the day, which shuts down the airport, he said.
So people attending the expo can fly in and depart anytime during the day and fly the airplanes they are interested in, Lockwood said.
The 2012 event had more than 16,000 attendees, 149 aircraft on display and numerous test drives that resulted in the sale of over 40 aircraft at the expo, according to expo officials.
For more information go to www.sport-aviation-expo.com.
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