Sun ‘n Fun

Sun ‘n Fun

Gaining Altitude for 40 Years

BY MARIA IANNUCCI

In 1974, the Lakeland chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) decided to hold a fly-in for sport aviation enthusiasts at what is now the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The first weekend fly-in, called Mid-Winter Sun ‘n Fun, was held in 1975 and was limited to pilots and members of several aviation organizations. It was attended by 1,980 guests and 365 aircraft were present. None could have imagined what the event would become.
This year, tens of thousands of local residents, national and international visitors, aviation buffs, families, students, and media from around the world converged on Florida’s largest annual convention, the 40th Annual Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In & Expo for the opportunity to walk, drive or fly among countless aircraft from the last several decades.

The show was expanded to a full week in 1976, the same year that the public was first invited on a limited basis. The Fly-In quickly became the second-largest air show in the nation in 1978, a position it holds to the present day, topped only by the EAA convention in Oshkosh, WI. Hot air balloons became a part of the festivities in 1981, when 24 lifted off on opening day.

ip_sunnfun2014_0039The decades have brought more and more aviation legends to this prestigious event. Among the guests are names like Brigadier General Chuck Yeager in 1995; airshow legend Bob Hoover, who in 2000 flew the last flight of his Shrike Commander; and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who attended this year. Several military flight demonstrations have been held, including teams from the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, and this year’s presentations by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force F-22 Raptor.

With this year’s Sun ‘n Fun at a close, people are still talking about it; something that doesn’t surprise John Leenhouts, the President and CEO of the not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the future of flight through world-class events, inspiring and educating people of all ages. He believes there are many factors that contributed to the success of this year’s event.

“I believe the American population embraces our military with all their heart,” said Leenhouts. “There is no greater honor than to see the military demonstrate their capabilities. They are among the greatest our country has to offer and we take great pride in seeing what they can do in the sky. “We had excellent weather all week, which certainly helped. Aviation people come for the camaraderie; they enjoy the exhibits, forums, and workshops, and understand that every dollar goes back into the aviation community through education and scholarships. People come to see the finest aviation has to offer, and they weren’t disappointed.”

sunnfun2014_0022Leenhouts estimates that 225,000 people walked the grounds at Sun ‘n Fun that week, not including the thousands of young students that received free admission.

“Attendance was up 15-20% on average over the last 15 years,” said Leenhouts. “We had countless volunteers here to help manage. Over 9,000 aircraft made about 11,000 takeoffs and landings that week.” He estimated the economic impact to be $60 million.

Volunteers worked in every capacity, from shuttling guests and media around the grounds, to selling tickets, to parking management. They were busy, and so were the attendees.

sunnfun2014_0009For those wanting to catch a ride on a Warbird or vintage aircraft, the B-17, Ford Tri-Motor, and Helldiver were among the aircraft available for hire. If a helicopter ride was more your style, there were options available.

Hundreds of exhibitors were on hand with everything from flight gear and equipment to insurance, custom jewelry and education. With countless pilots either flying in for, or attending, the show, this was a once-a-year opportunity to shop at the “aviation mall” for anything one might need. And for families without an aviation background but an interest in flying, there was plenty to look at, learn from, and shop for.

The Splash-In, held on April 3 at Lake Agnes located at Fantasy of Flight, was the scene for watching water take-offs and landings as well as competition flying by seaplanes of all shapes and sizes.

Every day brought a new airshow to the skies above Lakeland. The Misty Blues All Woman Skydiving Team and Southern Command Jump Teams graced the sky at the beginning of each show in a parade of colorful nylon and precision jumping. Following were several hours of aerial demonstrations enjoyed from the stands, and by attendees strolling the grounds. There was no bad seat in the house for a good view of the entertainment.

The Heritage Flight, consisting of the P-38 “Glacier Girl,” the P-51 “Crazy Horse ll,” and the F-22 Raptor, flew together during the show, demonstrating the progress of aviation over the last several decades. A crowd favorite was the night airshow, held on April 5, featuring pyrotechnics and fireworks.

The week would not have been complete without an eagerly-anticipated appearance by the U. S. Navy Blue Angels in their F/A-18 Hornets, along with a Marine Corps C-130, affectionately known as “Fat Albert.” Their precision demonstrations were welcomed by fans who missed them during last year’s sequester. The Blue Angels represent the concept of the Fly-In well, by bringing it louder, bigger, and faster for the entertainment of the audience.

sunnfun2014_0006As we look forward to next year, Leenhouts hints that we will likely see some of the same crowd favorites, with plans to bring in some additions to the airshow that will be sure to please. The 2015 show will be held April 21-26, so mark your calendars now and get it on your radar. As Leenhouts recently shared, “It’s all for aviation education. We can touch the world. Without aviation, the world would stop. You can’t stifle it.”

Full throttle it is. See you next spring.

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