A lot of my friends think I’ve got it made. After all, I not only get to go to Sun ‘n Fun and AirVenture every year, I get paid to go.
They don’t know the half of it.
Attending those shows, the premiere events of the air show season, are a great perk of this job, but it’s not the airplanes or the latest technology that make these trips fun. It’s all the great people I get to meet.
At last month’s Sun ‘n Fun, I got a chance to talk with some of the movers and shakers of GA, from Cirrus Design’s Alan Klapmeier to AOPA’s Phil Boyer to Adam Aircraft’s Rick Adam. I got a chance to sit and talk with country music star Aaron Tippin, a long-time pilot who performed the first-ever concert at Sun ‘n Fun, and who was as excited to be at the event as any other pilot and aircraft owner in the crowd. “I’m just like every other pilot,” he told me. “I like to walk around and see what was invented since last year.”
And just like every other pilot, he couldn’t resist picking up a few items, including a Garmin 496 he got from Gulf Coast Avionics, which he believes will make him “a lot safer aviator.” Look for more on Tippin next month in our sister publication, The Southern Aviator.
I also got the chance to meet two Olympic athletes, Steve Mormando and Ahki Spencer, who competed for our country on the Olympic fencing team. They now travel to air shows and military shows selling war movies, T-shirts and other historical memorabilia, taking time from their sales to look to the skies and enjoy the airplanes flying overhead. If you run into these guys at Oshkosh, ask to see Spencer’s tattoo. It’s a one-of-a-kind design with the Olympic rings and the postscript “A fencer from Harlem.” Now that’s a story you want to hear for yourself.
And while I enjoy talking with all these people, the best times at this year’s Sun ‘n Fun were those few moments I got to talk with some of the many volunteers who make the air show what it is. Take Mary Lou Waugh, for example. An early bird — which means she arrives at the Sun ‘n Fun campus on Lakeland Linder Regional Airport months before Sun ‘n Fun’s opening day — she spent most of the air show indoors, running the front desk at the media center. Besides handing out credentials and answering thousands of questions from the more than 450 media representatives who attended the show, she also kept her eyes open for stories for us. Besides writing for General Aviation News and The Southern Aviator, our editorial staff also puts out the air show daily, called Sun ‘n Fun Today.
Many of the stories we report in Sun ‘n Fun Today are from press conferences and “official” sources. But just as many are stories we stumble across accidentally — and, we must admit, these are some of our favorites.
One day, Sun ‘n Fun President John Burton stopped at our exhibit, where we produce the daily, to let us know of a record. Now, it’s not one that the NAA will be interested in, but it is one that shows the dedication of Sun ‘n Fun’s volunteers.
Across from the media center is a building where many unsung volunteers spent many long hours, making lunches for all the other volunteers. This cadre of workers broke a record this year, making 3,000 sandwiches in 1 hour and 48 minutes — that’s one sandwich every 2.1 seconds. They also added a cookie with every sandwich, a first this year. These volunteers, most members of EAA Chapter 175 out of Tampa, definitely provide the fuel that kept all the other volunteers happy and well-fed.
It was at an official event, the ribbon cutting for the new Buehler Restoration Center annex and the unveiling of Scott Crossfield Way, that I stumbled across another story. While I took a few moments to get organized, one of the volunteers at the aircraft woodwork workshop introduced me to Alfred Elsner who, at 88, is the oldest volunteer at that workshop. After introducing myself to Alfred, I learned a few important things about him: He’s a dedicated volunteer and a shameless flirt. Later, I tracked him down and found that he’s still flying at 88 and his favorite times of the year are Sun ‘n Fun and AirVenture. While we talked about his efforts at the workshops, we also talked about his love of airplanes, how much he enjoys all the people he meets at Sun ‘n Fun and even his plans for the future. “I plan to live to 100 and then be shot by a jealous husband,” he told me with a twinkle in his eye. Another highlight was meeting Ray Fiset, co-chairman of the workshops and the man in charge of the always-busy engine workshop.
We talked engines, of course, but also about the first Sun ‘n Fun, which he attended as a volunteer. “The first year there was a little bush that was frozen over,” he recalled. “I think that was photographed more than the airplanes.”
The long-time volunteer has been involved in aviation all his life. “You name it, I’ve done it,” he told me, listing pilot, aircraft owner, mechanic, inspector and aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks. “I was a very small link in the whole chain,” he said modestly.
Ray told me he’d been in a wheelchair longer than I’d been alive. I noted that it hadn’t slowed him down a bit.
He patted my hand and leaned toward me. I knew what I was about to hear next was going to be good.
“Aviation is the one totally incurable disease there is,” he said with a smile.
Amen to that, I say.