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Flying club trying to takeoff again

The Smoky Mountain Flying Club is trying to get some wind under its wings again with a campaign to attract new members and buy a sporty plane, or two, for its pilots to use collectively.

Instead of the small planes traditionally flown by recreational pilots, the club is moving in the direction of the burgeoning class of light sport aircraft. These lightweight, maneuverable planes require less training and are cheaper to keep up than their larger counterparts.

And for a recreational pilot can be just as fun, according to president of the club Tom Stovall, who is manager of the Macon County airport.

“The light sport industry is an interesting industry and just beginning to get recognized,” said Stovall. “It’s a great airplane to fly, and easy.”

The only drawback is they typically go about half the speed of other small aircraft — about 140 miles per hour instead of 300 — and have less horsepower. But for Stovall’s vision, that is just perfect.

Furthermore, the club currently has no plane for members to use. Out of about 15 members, only a few own their own airplanes.

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The club hopes to buy a plane in partnership with Jackson County Aviation, a company Stovall setup for the sole purpose of buying and holding the plane on behalf of the club. The plane costs about $60,000. To cover the cost, club members would pay to rent out the plane. It could also be rented out to members of the public.

The plane will be kept on-hand at the Jackson County Airport to attract students from Western Carolina University who are looking to earn their wings and join the club, as well as retired folks in the area who were once pilots or have an interest in taking up the pastime.

One of the benefits of the light sport pilot’s certification is that it can be obtained in about 20 hours of flight training and does not require a full medical exam by the Federal Aviation Administration, which other, more advanced, certifications do.

Stovall said the less stringent certification requirements will be attractive to aero-enthusiasts, like himself, who have a medical history. A minor cardiac episode more than 20 years ago has made it difficult for Stovall, now 68, to acquire the certification necessary to fly a plane solo.

He claims he is not alone and hopes the club’s new light sport approach will resonate with others who may be intimidated by the more stringent medical exam required for higher levels of certification.

That requirement shouldn’t be asked of pilots out on the equivalent of a weekend joy ride, Stovall said.

“You don’t have to have medical license to drive a car,” Stovall said. “Why would you need a medical license to drive an airplane?”

To become a certified light sport pilot will cost about $3,000 through the club. To join the club and gain the benefit of taking out the club plane at a reduced rental rate, would be another $200 per year. But, that’s pennies in comparison to the tens of thousands of dollars it can cost to receive a more rigorous private pilot license and hangar a larger plane.

Members are considering several models of light sport planes, one from a dealer in Wisconsin and another from Czechoslovakia. Stovall was already prepared to hand over the down payment on one model but had second thoughts over the design and pulled out.

Stovall hopes to follow through with a purchase soon. If the venture is successful, he’d like to buy a second plane as well for the club to use.

Jim Scottile, vice president of the club, said the addition of the plane will be a longtime coming. Furthermore, after forming at the Macon County airport about 10 years ago, the club has been on a hiatus for the past 18 months but is now actively recruiting new members to take a stake in the new plane. The club is also shifting its home base from Macon County to Jackson County’s airport.

But some are growing restless about being pilots in a flying club without a plane. That fact has also made it difficult to attract new members.

“You can sit around and talk about stuff as a club,” Scottile said. “But until you have an aircraft, you won’t get any pilots. If it’s a flying club, you gotta fly.”

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