For the first time in my aviation life I attended Sun n Fun, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Here are some notes…
The big story is the continuing rise of the tablet. With a $900 AHRS/WAAS GPS (example) stuck to the glareshield, a $150/year app on your iPad or Android tablet will give you everything that a $50,000 glass panel plus $2000/year in data subscriptions gets you. Traffic, weather (free via ADS-B from the Federales), synthetic vision (Microsoft Flight Simulator view of the world), georeferenced charts, etc. The app on your tablet will be improved every couple of months without you doing anything. The $50,000 certified glass panel will languish with ancient processor speeds and painful monthly manual data updates.
[The big war in the tablet world seems to be between Foreflight and Garmin. Garmin right now has an edge in that they support synthetic vision.]
At the opposite end of the avionics spectrum is Bendix-King, a division of Honeywell. These guys are calmly standing by while their products are being ripped out of America’s general aviation fleet and replaced with Garmin. Consider the Pilatus PC-12. This product came with four King EFIS tubes plus a King KLN 90B, a King multi-function display, and King radios. Want to upgrade the GPS with something more modern? King doesn’t make a plug-compatible replacement for the once-popular 90B. So as long as you are cutting a hole in the panel you might as well go with the more popular Garmin systems. EFIS CRT tube fails? King doesn’t have anything new that fits so you should get the Garmin G600 STC from Pilatus and chuck everything that King put into the airplane. It could hardly be better for Garmin if Honeywell’s executives were on the Garmin payroll.
Fans of utility planes will appreciate the Discovery 201, a nearly certified twin with a Russian heritage. Ridiculously slow but you could load a stack of dog crates in through the back doors. Two of the same engines as the Cirrus SR20, which means that if one engine quits you’re trying to climb with roughly the same horsepower and an airplane that weighs 4850 lbs. instead of 3000. No single-engine performance numbers are published. Technam showed its very cute certified P2006T Rotax-powered twin. At almost $600,000 it costs about three times as much as a good used six-seat Beechcraft Baron. If you fly it 5000 hours you may come out ahead due to the lower fuel burn/cost. As with the Discovery 201, single-engine performance seems like a theoretical concept. Each engine produces 100 horsepower and the airplane has a gross weight of 2700 lbs.
Startup flight schools are overtaking 50-year-old schools, e.g., with 3-year-old schools keeping 10 airplanes busy at rates that are 50% higher than their competition. How? Veterans Administration 100 percent funding (with no regard to pricing) for students at flight schools that are affiliated with four-year colleges. This is truly the golden era for schools that can work the federal regulatory hurdles.
The family-owned Daher-Socata was there with the TBM 900, a $3.7 million six-seater sporting a new five-blade Hartzell composite prop that cuts interior noise by about 2 dB. Epic Aircraft is stuffed full of Russian money and bringing their formerly experimental (home-built) six-seat turboprop to market as a certified airplane in 2015 (that’s the goal; it doesn’t seem quite as insane as some due to the fact that they are making virtually no changes to the airframe and the engine is the already-certified PT-6). The certified composite Epic will cost about $2.75 million and beats the 25-year-old aluminum TBM at everything. No bathroom so it is a good thing that the plane goes fast!
Patty Wagstaff gave an inspiring talk about how she became a competition aerobatic pilot. Her father was an airline pilot and her husband was an attorney willing to work hard enough to keep buying her higher performance airplanes. “My husband, now ex-husband actually, gave me the best advice that I ever got,” Wagstaff noted. “He said just try one competition and if you don’t like it we can always sell the Decathlon. Take it one step at a time and don’t worry about getting beyond the next event.” Wagstaff was advocating that all pilots learn aerobatics during their primary training, rather than having to be retrained with “upset training” when they start flying jets. Pilots are generally Fox News libertarians, but Wagstaff could hardly finish speaking due to the demands that the federal government (FAA) get on this problem and mandate that everyone seeking a Private or Commercial certificate do aerobatics. (If you do want to learn aerobatics, Wagstaff now has her own flight school in St. Augustine, Florida. For $325/hour (Decathlon) or $495/hour (Extra) you can take lessons from Wagstaff herself. That’s kind of like taking intro tennis lessons from Venus Williams.)
A good talk with great pictures was given by Bob Jones, a retired medical doctor. He tows a two-seat folding wing Kitfox in a trailer behind a Roadtrek motorhome. Total cost of RV, trailer, and airplane? About $60,000 (all but the trailer were purchased used). Now he drives around to beautiful parts of the nation, pulls into an airport, takes the Kitfox out of the trailer, and flies low and slow to sightsee. He can get the airplane out of the trailer and ready to fly in about 10 minutes (down from 45 minutes at first).
The core demographic of the show was best summed up by the first evening’s “entertainment series” event: “Building Interest in the Future of Aviation”. I.e., why is it mostly old white guys who care about this? The panelists for the discussion? Four old white guys (pictured wearing dark suits and gray hair). Flying, especially when one is flying two-seat aircraft, need not be expensive. So why is it that young adults mostly don’t do it? “Time,” one woman said. “With a full-time job and kids there was just no way to carve out time for lessons. After I got divorced, though, I had every other weekend free and the child support was enough to pay for a factory-new airplane.”
The one company that has a proven ability to convert non-aviators into customers, Icon Aircraft, did not have a booth at the show for their Icon A5 Seaplane. It is already at least three years late. Maybe the people who bought them will in fact be old by the time they actually receive delivery of this amphibious two-seater. In the meantime they can enjoy ever-better and cheaper non-motion simulators from a variety of vendors. Should an Icon customer want a well-proven ready-to-fly-since-1948 aircraft instead, United Helicopters is rebuilding and selling the Hiller UH-12. For $110,000 you get a truly beautiful machine with all components overhauled. (If you’re in Sarasota you can take a lesson in one of these! The hourly rate is $330, about the same as what East Coast Aero Club charges for an almost-new four seat Robinson R44. This calls into question the claim that the Hiller is economical to operate.)
[If you're stuck on the amphibious composite seaplane idea, check out the Brazilian Super Petrel biplane, one of which actually had flown into Sun n Fun.]
My favorite vendor: Signature Flight Support. They were there for us with shade, comfortable sofas, and free bottles of water on ice. Your $9.58/gallon at Teterboro is going to a good cause!
We celebrated the end of our visit with a trip to Bern’s Steak House, which my friends proclaimed to be one of the best restaurants they’d ever enjoyed. Riding home on JetBlue I overheard two JetBlue employees chatting. The airline had decided to load up an Airbus full of New York-area high school kids interested in aviation and take them directly to Lakeland. What could be more fun than a private trip on JetBlue in an air-conditioned Airbus? Unfortunately the airplane is heavy enough that even a private flight requires TSA screening. So JetBlue had to get a TSA crew to come to Lakeland. It was apparently a small team because it took them 1.5 hours to screen the teenagers, during which time they were all baking in the direct Florida sun.
Photos: on Google+
Fun gift idea: take some pictures of a friend’s airplane and send them to factorydirectmodels.com to have a beautiful model, including realistic panel and interior, fabricated in the Philippines.