Watsonville Airport Brings More Business to Community

Watsonville company aims to bring flying to the masses

WATSONVILLE, CA. — A Watsonville light sport aircraft company is attempting to fuel excitement about the possibilities of local aviation. West Coast Sport Aircraft, which opened at the Watsonville Municipal Airport in February, specializes in a two-seater aircraft called Tecnam. The Watsonville business, which sells airplanes, conducts training courses and provides Santa Cruz County tours, held its official grand opening last week, which was attended by about 100 people.

Funded in Italy, Tecnam’s aircraft, which weigh about 1,320 pounds, can travel up to 500 nautical miles at 133 mph on a four-cylinder engine. West Coast Sport Aircraft owner Gryphon McArthur said that, while a 20-hour training course is required to fly solo, flying is easier than most people think.

“A lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to get started,” McArthur said. “Anybody who can reach the pedals on the floor can fly. There are barriers to completing a pilot training course, because it’s expensive. That’s where light sport comes in and alleviates a lot of the burden. You have aircraft that are significantly less expensive to operate and a lot more fun to fly.”

McArthur — who attended UC Santa Cruz for his undergraduate studies and San Jose State University for his master’s in engineering — said the difference between flying a bigger plane and the lighter Tecnam aircraft is apparent in its performance.

Although opening an aviation business can be a financial challenge in the midst of an economic slump, McArthur is optimistic about the growing interest in light sport aircraft. The two models for sale at West Coast Sport Aircraft — the low wing P2002 Sierra and the high wing P92 Eaglet, cost between $130,000 and $150,000.

West Coast Sport Aircraft director of sales Erin Hay, who is also a pilot, said that the company’s short-term goal is to sell 12 aircraft this year, and then become the West Coast assembly point for the Tecnam aircraft. Hay, who oversees the dealership for California, Oregon and Washington, said the planes have a good safety record.

“They’re just as safe as regular aircraft,” she said. “Also, they have a little quieter of an engine. They’re fuel efficient, so your ability to reduce your operating costs is pretty substantial.”

Watsonville Municipal Airport Manager Don French said that when the Federal Aviation Agency developed the light sport aircraft program, the organization was less stringent when it came to training and certification. Pilots do not necessarily need to be medically certified in order to fly, he said, unlike charter or commercial pilots.

“You’re essentially self-certified,” French said.

French said that there are restrictions placed on light sport pilots who have done the minimal training, including restrictions on flying at night, instrument flying in fog or clouds and a maximum weight of 1,300 pounds. French also pointed out that without the proper certification, pilots of light sport aircraft are not permitted to fly in busy airspace, such as the Bay Area.

Despite the lesser training, French said that the accident rate of light sport aircraft pilots without medical clearance is comparable to those who have it. “The FAA is an extremely cautious agency,” he said. “They wouldn’t allow this, unless it was safe.”

Dan Chauvet, a Watsonville resident and retired pilot who flew for about 50 years said that light sport aircraft are sleek looking and easy enough to operate.

“You get in them and start it up and away you go,” Chauvet said. “I would say that they’re going to fill an important role as starter airplanes’ for people moving up through careers as pilots. You’re going to see more pilots who learn to fly in light sport aircraft. I just think that they’re the wave of the future.”

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