Elburn Herald reporter Lynn Meredith hops in the pilot’s seat of the small test plane owned by SimplyFLY, a sport aviation company owned by David Spano (left). Based out of the Aurora Municipal
Airport, it has been an alternative to general aviation the last seven years. Courtesy Photo
Sport aviation for a new generation
by Lynn Meredith
SUGAR GROVE—Like many people, I had thought about taking flying lessons. I loved flying in private planes and in gliders. Now, thanks to SimplyFLY, a sport aviation company at the Aurora Municipal Airport, I had the opportunity to experience the fun of taking my first lesson.
Sport aviation, I soon learned, is an alternative to general aviation that was created as a new licensing option seven years ago. Sport pilots can learn to fly in less time and for less money than private pilots, according to my flight instructor and owner of SimplyFLY, David Spano.
“In 2004, the FAA, the Experimental Aircraft Association, among others, came up with a light sport aircraft (LSA) and a new pilot certification, the sport pilot license,” Spano said. “With those two things, you can become licensed in half the time and at half the cost.”
The LSA is a lightweight craft that holds two people and flies much the same as a private plane. The sport pilot can fly only during the day, up to 10,000 feet in non-restricted areas and only in LSA aircraft. The purpose of this type of flying is to allow those whose main goal is pleasure flying to have better access.
“Sixty percent of all pilots learn to fly for pleasure, for the sport of it,” Spano said. “A lot start to take lessons, but drop out because the cost is way too high, and it can take over a year to complete. Sport flying is a goal where you can actually see the finish line. You can fly and take friends up for rides and continue to study for a private license if you want.”
So when the plane taxied up to the fence at the airport and Spano jumped out to greet me, I was more than a little eager to begin. Spano explained that we needed to take some time to go over a few things before hopping in the plane.
Spano, a commercial pilot and flight instructor, has been a pilot for 32 years and an instructor for 16 years. He watched as general aviation declined due to excess cost and the lack of new pilots coming into the ranks. He also watched as sport aviation, billed by the industry as the savior of general aviation, come into existence. But seven years later, he noticed that the non-flying public hadn’t jumped on board, and he wanted to know why.
He asked the LSA manufacturers at Oshkosh who they were marketing to. Their answer was that they market to existing pilots who might be downsizing, don’t use their licenses enough or can’t keep up the requirements for yearly physicals. The private pilots were selling their crafts and paying cash for the light sport aircraft.
“The industry was not actively going after the non-flying population,” Spano said. “There are 600,000 pilots, and thousands and thousands of people who have thought about (taking flying lessons). Flight providers put out signs that say ‘Learn to Fly Here,’ but no one comes in. I thought, I’ve got to get the airplane to the people. The ingredients are here. Let’s get the recipe right.”
He proceeded to trailer his craft (with wings that fold back for easier transport) to festivals where people wouldn’t expect to see an airplane. The response has been overwhelming.
“I’ve had an incredible response, just incredible. I take them on a flight, and nine times out of 10, they are hooked,” he said.
A discovery flight is a half-hour flight for potential students to discover whether or not it is something they want to do. If they do, Spano schedules lessons and offers a home study kit for the ground school lessons.
“The minimum flight time is 20 hours, but the average is 30 hours. If you fly two times a week, you can do it in four months,” he said.
My lesson proceeded as Spano explained the four fundamentals I needed to know before we took off: straight and level flying, turns, climbs and descents. He explained that flying was about altitude and speed relative to the horizon. I was relieved when he compared it to riding a bicycle. If you keep a constant speed as you climb a hill, you slow down, and as you go down a hill, you speed up. Okay, I got it now.
Take-off was as quick as I’d ever experienced. We’d barely started, and we were airborne. I was well strapped in, something I appreciated, because that day the doors were off the plane to take advantage of the cool air.
We rose to 3,000 feet, traveling at 80 miles per hour. The view was gorgeous. We could just make out the skyline of Chicago in the distance. But I had work to do. Before I knew it, I was controlling the plane, doing my best to keep us flying level. I learned that all I needed to do was keep the distance between the dashboard and the horizon the same. If it got bigger, we were descending. If it got smaller, we were going up. That took concentration on my part, but before I knew it again, I was making a long, slow, shallow turn.
Spano made everything seem easy and effortless by assuring me I was doing everything I needed to be doing. I felt a surge of pride in knowing that I had successfully completed my first lesson.
On return, I asked about taking lessons and the shared ownership program SimplyFLY is offering.
“Because it’s so expensive—an LSA costs $160,000 compared to a Cessna that costs $400,000—it’s very common to own a plane in partnership. It’s the norm,” Spano said. “The worst thing is to have an aircraft sit in the hangar. It’s easier to maintain, and you get more life out of a plane if it’s being flown.”
The Shared Ownership Program allows pilots to pay a monthly fee that covers hangar rental, insurance, and frequent mandatory maintainence. They then pay an hourly operating fee when they fly the craft. Spano currently owns one plane, but has plans to purchase two more.
It’s easy to see the passion that Spano has for flying.
“Flying is a passion of mine. I love teaching. I love being an instructor,” he said. “ In this day and age, we have the ability to fly, whereas in other times of history we couldn’t. Why wouldn’t we?”