by Matthew Olafsen
Every year pilots from around the country begin to shake off those cobwebs, shovel their planes out of their hangars, and make that annual migration south to Lakeland, Florida. The 39th annual Sun ‘n Fun Fly-in was finally here and for one week, April 9 – 14, 2013, Lakeland Regional Airport was transformed into the world’s busiest airport.
This year would mark my seventh time attending the show and I was eager to set off on what would become a six-day aviation marathon looking for interesting stories.
I started my first day by exploring the show grounds and at first glance couldn’t help but notice the lack of aircraft on the field. Large gaps could be found in every section from warbirds and vintage aircraft areas, to the homebuilt and seaplane areas, but hey, this was day one; what could I expect? Everything else was in place though – vendors filled every nook and cranny of the grounds, aircraft manufacturers were on hand ready to push their latest aircraft, and the marshalers were buzzing around on their red scooters starting to orchestrate the arrival of planes expected for the event.
Day two and three passed and I found that the grounds had not changed much – still a lot of barren areas on the grass, taxiways and the ramp. I continued my search for articles to write, but couldn’t find anything or anyone from the Midwest to write about. It seemed that most of the pilots were snowbirds from Canada living down here in Florida for the winter, local Floridians themselves, or a few pilots from neighboring states. I knew that the economy was still hurting and that there was a cold front moving across the country, but this was turning out to be a bust for me in regards to finding something to write about. I decided that maybe if I stopped looking so hard and enjoyed the show, then something might jump out at me.
I hit the ground running and this time, with no expectations, I set off to just enjoy the show. I began to talk to some DC-3 pilots about their adventure flying their South African-registered DC-3 from Africa to the United States. I have flown extensively throughout Africa over the years and enjoyed comparing notes about places we had both visited on that side of the world.
I met Rick Robinson from Ontario, Canada, who, with photo album in hand as if a proud parent showing off a newborn, went over the story of his Seabees restoration, including how he mounted a Corvette engine on the top of his wing. I hesitantly took my first-ever ride on an ultralight flown by Lavern Dence of Sebring, Florida, not knowing if my fear of heights would allow me to enjoy the flight or have me screaming for solid ground. Luckily, I had the time of my life and learned about how Lavern spends most of his week there giving volunteers free rides as a personal thank you for their hard work.
I woke up early on Saturday morning and watched the Boy Scouts from Troop 356 become the lucky few who eagerly assisted pilots launch their hot air balloons into the morning sky. I was able to take a ride with the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation’s UH-1 and AH-1 helicopters and tried to imagine that the swamps of central Florida we were flying over were actually rice patties in Vietnam, and how our troops must have felt flying out to combat. I relaxed on a dock at Fantasy of Flight’s Lake Agnes watching as seaplanes got their feet wet during their annual splash-in event. Finally on Saturday night I watched my first-ever night air show and saw some great performers, such as Gene Soucy, Matt Younkin, Team Aero Dynamix and others who lit up the night sky with their fireworks, landing lights, and aerial displays.
Then on Sunday, while sitting at the Sunset grill bar, I met a gentleman from Kentucky who hadn’t flown a plane in 20 some years. He was drawn to Florida after years of hearing about the show and now, recently retired, had decided to just pick up and drive down to check it out. Living in his tent on the campsite, he told me that this visit had reignited a spark in him to start flying again, a spark that he said had gone out years ago. It hit me, as I sat there next to him with a beer in my hand looking out over the spectators moving like army ants around the grounds, that although the show ramps were sparse, this had ended up being a pretty good week.
You see Sun ‘n Fun is more than just an air show…it is an experience. It is surrounding yourself with a few thousand of your closest friends, people like you who talk your language, look to the sky when they hear a plane fly over, and enjoy the smell of jet fuel in the air. It is about making friends with someone you may never see again or renewing old friendships while at a local TGIF Fridays in town (Hi Paul). It is reigniting that aviation spark that you might have lost years ago or which has just been hibernating after a long winter. It is exploring different realms of aviation that might be new to you from learning to build your own plane, to taking your first ride in an ultralight. Sun ‘n Fun has done a great job at making all of these avenues available to you and although outside factors like sequestration, weather, and the economy are beyond their control, the event has built an environment that welcomes those who are able to participate.
In the end, it was by wiping the slate clean and going into the show with no expectations, that I was able to see and experience more this year than I have done in any of the previous six years.
So whether you attend air shows like this, local fly-in events or just the occasional pancake breakfast, I hope that you take the time to just enjoy yourself and understand that we need events like Sun ‘n Fun to keep that spark alive.