Few people in Florida obsess over weather like Jana Filip does in January, and there was more to like this year than in the recent past.
“People are able to get here,” said Filip, who has run the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida, since 2012, and been involved throughout the show’s 12-year history. There were no obnoxious weather fronts separating Sebring from points north or south as visitors began to arrive on the heels of more than 140 exhibitors and vendors for the show’s Jan. 20 opening. “That’s the first time in four years.”
The attractions have grown in number (2016 marks a record number of outdoor exhibits, and a youth program is also being introduced on Jan. 23, the show’s final day), but Filip said the show known for showcasing light sport aircraft of various shapes and sizes remains at heart a place where business can get done. Unlike the larger affairs that follow, the Sport Aviation Expo is concentrated in a relatively small area on the Sebring Regional Airport grounds, and there are no airshow acts. That allows for a steady stream of demonstration flights, giving vendors a chance to take potential customers up in the air throughout the day, and have conversations on the ground uninterrupted by loud, radial engines and other noisy acts overhead. Filip said she has resisted adding nonaviation exhibits such as the culinary displays often seen at other shows, which, while being of interest to nonflying spouses, would dilute the power of Sebring to help get deals done and airplanes sold.
“We want variety, but we still want to keep it a business trade show,” Filip said. “Keeping it pure is what the exhibitors tell us makes us unique.”
Still, Filip is not averse to trying new things that make sense. Drones, for instance. This year’s show is the first to feature unmanned aircraft exhibits, sequestered in a hangar that includes a netted area where any number of quadcopters can be flown without risking collision with the powered parachutes, trikes, and light sport aircraft cycling through the pattern outside. Those hoping to find great deals on a new camera drone might be disappointed, however: There were only five exhibitors in the “Drone Home,” and another three had yet to arrive. Filip said that was partly due to the last-minute addition of the unmanned aircraft; it was unclear until about five weeks before the show that the hangar space used for the Drone Home would be available.
Filip said there was and remains opportunity for unmanned aircraft and their operators, particularly in a part of Florida that is known for agriculture, one of the many applications that unmanned aircraft are being developed to support by monitoring crops and livestock.
Tomorrow’s manned aircraft pilots may well arrive in larger numbers Saturday, when students get free admission if accompanied by an adult. Filip said they’ll have a chance to win some “pretty good prizes” completing an exercise that amounts to a scavenger hunt of sorts, circling the grounds to find answers to aviation questions such as “name a taildragger that’s on the field.” Adults will also have much to learn, with a full slate of forums and workshops scheduled, including two from AOPA focused on helping rusty pilots get back in the air. Learning how to balance a propeller, use survival gear including life rafts, and stretch fabric were also among the attractions lined up.
Filip said she hopes to top the weather-dampened crowd totals of 18,500 seen in recent years.