BEND, Ore. — Nancy Huntsman uses her small plane the way some mothers use their Volvos.
She straps in her two children, yells at the dog to hop in the back, pops in a DVD for the kids to watch and then takes off to fly over soaring mountains and parched deserts. Three hours later, they land at an airstrip near grandmother’s house in northern California.
While owning a private plane remains a dream few can realize, creative financing options and advances in technology have helped manufacturers inch closer to their far-off dream of putting a plane in every garage.
“It used to be that you had to do a geometry exercise to navigate a plane,” said Lance Neibauer, the founder of Lancair Co. of Bend, one of a handful of airplane manufacturers helping to transform the way Americans use private planes.
Today’s small planes, however, have a “glass cockpit,” the system of computerized displays and controls that makes pilots’ lives much easier.
“You can literally read a book up there,” said Neibauer, who sold Huntsman her first four-seater plane for $326,000 three years ago.
And read is exactly what she does.
“Last year, we got through Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” Huntsman said.
Huntsman, 50, lives in Salt Lake City and uses the plane in the summer to take her children to her parents’ home in Crescent City, Calif. — a 3½-hour trip which would suck up an entire day if she were to fly commercially.
Because of the new technology, Lancair’s sales have been growing exponentially. This year, the company expects to ship upwards of 180 planes, more than twice as many as last year.
The company’s sales mirror the industry trend for piston-engine, propeller planes. In 1994, the industry’s worst year, just 455 piston-engine planes were shipped in the United States. Last year, the total was up to 1,758, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
Like many other plane owners, Huntsman keeps her costs down by sharing it with another pilot who flies it on different weekends. Two-seaters are being sold for as little as $160,000, and new financing laws allow buyers to get 20-year loans rather than paying the balance up front.
“I think flight is much more accessible than ever,” said Lee Brinley, 47, a financial analyst from Carol Stream, Ill., who recently fulfilled a lifelong dream by buying a $300,000 Lancair kit plane.
People who can afford small planes are able to avoid the lines, inconvenient schedules and increased security checks of flying on commercial airlines.
“That’s why people are buying their own planes — they found a way to take command of their lives,” said Bruce Holmes, who founded NASA’s Advanced General Aviation Transportation Experiment, which is trying to widen the use of private planes.
The growth is also partially a result of a 1994 change in legislation that created an 18-year statute of limitation on lawsuits against makers of small airplanes. Until then, investors scared off by the prospect of unlimited liability had stopped backing these small manufacturers.
James Fallows, whose book “Free Flight” explores the future of private aviation, thinks there will come a time when it “will no longer be the playground of the super rich.” As more people fly and more planes are built, the price will come down, said Dale Klapmeier, the co-founder of Cirrus Design in Duluth, Minn., a company that like Lancair and Wichita, Kan.-based Cessna Aircraft Co. has helped bring the glass cockpit to small, singe-engine aircrafts in the last decade.
“The next big challenge is to get the cost to the Ford Taurus or Honda Accord level. It’s years away, but it can happen,” Holmes said.
Still, the idea of a plane of every garage is one that some experts think is farfetched.
“It’s a charming fantasy,” said aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, a vice president of the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.
“It’s just like driving a car,” he said sarcastically, “except that you have to be a pilot.”
And then there’s the cost. Huntsman spends around $8,000 a year just to insure the plane for herself and a co-pilot. That doesn’t count the cost of gas, hangar rental and maintenance.
Still, manufacturers argue that the industry has turned a corner that could allow private aviation to expand sooner rather than later.
“It’s really easier to use than a car — plus there’s no other cars coming at you,” said Bing Lantis, CEO of Lancair Certified.
It’s certainly no big deal for Huntsman’s children.
“They’ve flown so much that they think it’s boring. Taking a road trip — that’s an adventure,” she said.
© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.