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Flight Instructor Charles Thomson stands next to his Sport Cruiser at the Santa Monica Airport on Friday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMO — With the economy as it is, many warned Charles Thomson about beginning a flight training company.

His perspective, despite the odds, is that this is the most appropriate time to start his company which is focused on making flying more accessible to the public.

“I was learning at one of the other schools on the field and I just realized that it was too expensive. Every time I was wanting to be enjoying the lessons, I was just worried that the engine is on and therefore it was costing me hundreds and hundreds of dollars an hour,” Thomson said.

He then heard of light-sport aircraft [LSA] which is safer and much less expensive due to its fuel efficiency, and he saw the opportunity to start a flight training company with one. His plane, the Sportcruiser, takes about three and a half gallons of fuel an hour, which means that on a trip to Las Vegas, it is more fuel efficient than a SUV.

Thomson started the company four months ago with the hope that he can help Santa Monica residents view the airport as a community resource, as opposed to the more negative portrayal of the airport that he feels some residents hold. He wants others to know that these people flying aren’t only comprised of a rich, elite crowd, but rather that almost anyone who would like to do it can afford it.

Thomson’s love of flying has made him eager to share it with others, and he said that he sees many other companies making a bigger profit on keeping an old plane and charging more for classes.

“My philosophy was different. I’d like to make a little bit of money off a lot of people,” he said.

Although, Thomson more strongly emphasized the safety benefits of the Sportcruiser, which became even more important to him after he experienced a plane crash which he narrowly survived. The crash occurred because of that plane’s old age and condition, he said. Thomson was in the older aircraft about two years ago when the engine literally fell out.

Standing on the side of the runway at Santa Monica Airport [SMO] he pointed to one plane parked next to his which, with a glance inside, was noticeably older than the Sportcruiser. He seemed disappointed at this prospect and asked what could it be worth to use this older plane when the chances of it malfunctioning are so much greater.

With this, the lesser cost of the LSA and the sport pilot license which became available in 2004, there is a better opportunity to become a pilot. The sport pilot license in itself has made piloting a plane much more accessible to the average person, requiring only half the amount of hours logged than a private pilot license.

Although, the quicker access to flying which a sport license comes with more restrictions, such as not being able to fly at night and being limited to one passenger. Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association [AOPA] described the sport pilot license as more of an entry level one. On average, earning a sport pilot license costs $3,500 to $4,000, and a private pilot license, which Santa Monica Flyers also offers, costs roughly $8,000.

SMO Director Bob Trimborn said that there are many other training programs at the airport, but he believes it is unique that Santa Monica Flyers is actually using the LSA to train.

“If you’re learning to fly for purely recreational purposes, light sport aircraft might be perfect for you,” AOPA’s Dancy said.

Dancy added that the LSA certainly has the potential to make flying more accessible to the public, and its popularity is still picking up since it has only been around for about five years. He said that for the first three years, LSA sales more than doubled each year, but slowed with the fall of the economy.

Rich Festa, who received his license two weeks ago after training with Santa Monica Flyers, said that although he began taking classes with them because of their location, Thomson is a great instructor and his plane is like the Cadillac of the light sport planes.

“Charles articulates very well. I got more out of him than any previous instructor I’ve had. He really is good, he’s got patience,” Festa said.

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