by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2017 issue
When most of us Midwest flyers think of Florida, we think of getting away from the cold and snow, walking white sand beaches, and flying to Sun ‘n Fun. Florida has the weather every pilot dreams of. There’s no snow to shovel in front of hangars, preheating engines is not necessary, and there are many airport restaurants and vacation destinations to fly to.
Depending on where you live in the Midwest and your final destination, Florida is between 1,000 and 1,500 nautical miles southeast, and the course is mountain free if you fly west of the Appalachian Mountains. One or two fuel stops for most small GA aircraft, and a day’s travel, and you can be soaking up the sun in the middle of winter, but you will likely not be alone, so it is best to book your accommodations well in advance.
One place we visited was “The Beachcomber” on Casey Key in Nokomis, Fla., just south of Sarasota. Owner Tekla Dragan and her husband, Robert, have aviation backgrounds. Tekla was featured in a 1977 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine as one of AOPA’s Aviation Explorers who obtained her Private Pilot Certificate at age 17. Robert is an accomplished skydiver. For additional information on The Beachcomber, call 941-488-0715 or visit www.beachcombercaseykey.com.
Not far from Nokomis is Venice, Florida, and “Sharky’s on the Pier” is located next to Venice Municipal Airport. When you land, park your plane at Suncoast Air Center, then call Sharky’s for a shuttle (www.sharkysonthepier.com). If you prefer, enjoy breakfast or lunch at the Suncoast Café at the airport (www.suncoastcafe.com).
In February, the Collings Foundation holds its annual “Wings of Freedom Tour” at Venice Municipal Airport (KVNC), showcasing its B-24 Liberator, B-17 Flying Fortress, and dual-control P-51C Mustang “Betty Jane.” The Collings Foundation is a non-profit, educational foundation (501(c)3), founded in 1979, and headquartered in Stow, Massachusetts (www.collingsfoundation.org).
Other airport restaurants in the area include C.J. Cannon’s Restaurant at Vero Beach Regional Airport (www.cjcannonsrestaurant.com), and Hallbacks Bar and Grill at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (www.hallbacksbarandgrill.com).
I had the opportunity to fly with a group of pilots from Venice to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport for lunch on one of their weekly fly-outs. Every Thursday, the group meets at the airport and the flight leader announces their destination for the day. I flew with former AOPA Great Lakes Regional Manager and Illinois Aeronautics Director, Bill Blake, in his late model Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Bill and his wife, Nancy, now reside in Florida.
The air traffic control tower at Lakeland was not prepared for the mass arrival of some 20 aircraft, and encouraged the group to give them a heads up next time. Fair enough! The restaurant knew we were coming, but the tower did not. Also, whenever flying in a group, it is a good idea to have aircraft take off based on speed with the fastest planes in the lead. As we flew along in Bill’s C172, we had two RVs pass us overhead. An awesome sight, but I wish they had taken off ahead of us, so they would not overtake us.
Lakeland Linder Regional Airport
Lakeland Linder Regional Airport is run by two former Midwesterners – Eugene Conrad, director, whose father, Blair, was the airport manager at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis. for many years, and Chris Hallstrand, assistant director, who managed Price County Airport in Phillips, Wis., and was operations manager at Wittman Regional Airport.
In April of each year, Lakeland Linder Regional Airport hosts Sun ‘n Fun – the second largest fly-in in the country. During that week, the airport has some 8,000 aircraft operations (www.sun-n-fun.org). Former Naval aviator, John “Lites” Leenhouts, is President and CEO, and to his credit, he has helped make the event and the Sun ‘n Fun organization, profitable!
So it may be true that Sun ‘n Fun put Lakeland Linder Regional Airport on the map, the same as EAA AirVenture Oshkosh put Wittman Regional Airport on the map, but there’s more to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport than Sun ‘n Fun.
Business & Government Agencies
General aviation businesses at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport include Gulf Coast Avionics, Mac Avionics, Aeromech, Double M Aviation, Dixie Jet & Rotor Services, Fixed Wing Aviation, Lakeland Aircraft Maintenance, Lance Aviation, Fosters Aircraft Refinishing, Duncan Interiors, RDI Interiors, My Jet Manager, and the Pilot Mall. The airport is served by Atlantic Airlines.
The defense contractor Draken International has a new facility on the airport, as does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which moved its “Hurricane Hunters” weather squadron of 100 employees and fleet of nine aircraft – including its modified P-3 Orions “Kermit” and “Miss Piggy” – from MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, where they have been for the past 24 years, to a new 106,000 square foot facility at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in June.
Lakeland Linder Regional Airport will also soon have its own U.S. Customs office, thanks to joint funding by the fixed base operator “Sheltair,” the Polk County Tourism Development Council, and the Florida Department of Transportation. The customs office will be especially helpful with personal, corporate and charter flights from the Caribbean and Latin America.
Another business coming to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport is the Norwegian drone company, Griff Aviation North America. Griff drones are capable of lifting 400 lbs. The company will lease 4,900 square feet on the south side of the airport for manufacturing.
There are 1,000 high-skill, high-wage jobs at businesses on the airport, and this number is growing!
Besides the businesses and government agencies, Lakeland Linder Regional Airport is an educational mecca and home to four flight schools, the Aerospace Center for Excellence, Travis Career Center’s A&P Program, Polk State College Aerospace, and Central Florida Aerospace Academy.