Who expected a tornado?

I’ve been going to Sun ’n Fun every year since 2002, which has caused me a lot of grief in the past. That’s because my son’s birthday is April 8, which fell right in the middle of the festivities many years. But this year, no grief from that quarter. That’s because, for the first time, Johnny was finally old enough to come to the show with me (and, even better, the dates of the fly-in were changed, meaning we’d be home for his birthday so he could celebrate with family and friends).

But who knew that my relief from that guilt would be replaced with a different kind of guilt. That’s because I sure didn’t think that the first time I brought my son to Sun ’n Fun we’d have a tornado.

When we arrived in Lakeland the Sunday before the show started, it was Johnny’s first glimpse of the fun to come. Reporter and veteran Sun ’n Funner Meg Godlewski took him around the grounds, showing him the sites while giving him a crash course in fly-in etiquette.

Of course, Johnny wasn’t just at Sun ’n Fun to have fun…he was tasked with helping deliver papers, running errands and even writing a column or two for the daily newspaper we produce at the show, Sun ’n Fun Today. (His columns are printed below). He actually wrote a third story mid-week, but I told him it wasn’t up to our standards and there wasn’t time for a rewrite. I think he was a bit taken aback by that. “But you’re my Mom!” he whined. “No, in this case, I’m your editor,” I replied. As many a GA businessman knows, nepotism can get you in the door, but talent is what keeps you employed, right?

Johnny also got a glimpse of another aspect of the publishing business: Distribution. After all, if the newspapers aren’t delivered to readers, what good are they? Leading his education in this effort was James McGhee, the 18-year-old son of our production manager Roy McGhee. James has worked for us for several years making sure the pink newspaper boxes around the Sun ’n Fun grounds are filled, as well as ensuring that all the exhibitors receive newspapers daily.

Within a day or two we settled into a rhythm. Meg was out on the grounds in a golf cart looking for stories for General Aviation News and the daily — what she calls “the hunt” — while I covered press conferences and got other news. Roy held down the fort at our office, which we shared with Sun ’n Fun Radio, laying out each issue and collecting photographs taken by volunteers and those attending the show, while James and Johnny were off on another golf cart delivering papers and running other errands.

So it was only by happenstance that the boys were at the office when the weather started turning bad on Thursday, March 31. Around 1 p.m. the three of us decided to head up to grab some lunch near the Florida Air Museum, telling Roy we’d be right back. As we walked out of the office, we ran into Larry Price, our advertising rep, who asked James for a ride to one of the exhibition hangars in the golf cart. Thinking nothing of it, we told James to meet us at lunch and Johnny and I set out on foot.

Within a few minutes, we realized we were in trouble. About halfway between our office and our destination, the storm hit, with the winds whipping around us and the rain falling with such force that it was almost impossible to see. Not sure whether to go back or surge ahead, we hesitated for a moment, then saw an open door in one of the workshops and ran for it. We both were soaked to the skin and worried that we weren’t going to make it. As we got to the door, we could feel the pressure from the wind try to suck us back out of the door, but we made it to safety.

As we sat in the workshop, the roof was leaking, the power was out, and we were shivering from the cold and our wet clothes. But I know now that we were among the lucky ones. I heard many stories after the storm of people who were outside when the tornado hit, wondering if this was it.

We were also lucky because we were together. Both of us realized right away that this would have been so much more traumatic if we were separated on the grounds.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what was happening with Roy. He thought James was with me, but when he texted me I had to tell him that no, James was in the golf cart heading to a hangar. I can only imagine the fear that must have gripped him as he wondered if his son was safe.

Thankfully we were still able to text each other during the time we all waited in safety, probably about an hour, as Sun ’n Fun volunteers warned everyone not to leave the buildings as another storm cell was expected to roar through the grounds.

Once the storm died down a bit, Johnny and I decided to make the short run from the workshops in the Buehler Restoration Center to the Florida Air Museum, thinking it might be warmer there. That was where James found us about an hour later. Looking back now, I can smile as I remember how James stormed into the museum, found us, and told us in no uncertain terms to get in the golf cart because he was taking us back to the office so our entire staff could be together. I’m sure I got a glimpse into the future of James as a dad telling his kids to “get here NOW!”

Once we got back to the office, we found that the only casualty of the storm for our team was Larry’s car, which was hit by a tree. As I said before, we were lucky. In the next hours and days, we saw the devastation wrought by the storm, from destroyed planes to uprooted trees.

We also saw an amazing thing: People immediately went to work cleaning up, helping others and making sure everyone was OK. The Sun ’n Fun staff, volunteers, and work crews went above and beyond the call of duty to get the grounds ready to reopen at 8 a.m. Friday. It was truly an awe-inspiring thing to witness — and that’s the memory I choose to take from the storm.

There were other lessons learned, of course, as well as the purchase of two “I Survived Sun ’n Fun 2011” T-shirts at the PilotMall.com store just two days after the storm.

Unfortunately, Johnny wasn’t as pleased with his T-shirt as I was. It seems he had decided that if THIS was Sun ’n Fun, he wasn’t going to have any more of it, declaring that he was never coming back to the show. But as Saturday dawned bright and clear and the Sun ’n Fun crowds grew bigger and bigger in anticipation of the Blue Angels performance, Johnny’s “never” started to waver. He began to see the real Sun ’n Fun — and how much fun it can really be.

In the days after we returned home, as he recounted the story of the tornado, I could see that he was gradually replacing the trauma of the storm with the real lesson of that week: That family sticks together, looks out for each other, and lifts each other up. And that’s exactly what the entire GA family did at this year’s Sun ’n Fun.

And now that he’s learned that lesson, he’s begun planning for next year’s trip to Sun ’n Fun. See you there!

My first Sun ’n Fun

(Published in the first issue of Sun ’n Fun Today): Ever since I can remember, my mom has gone to Sun ’n Fun and not only did she not take me, she missed my birthday too. But this year, now that I’m almost 13, she finally let me come with her. Even though I have to work helping out with Sun ’n Fun Today, I can tell it will be an awesomely awesome week.

We got here on Sunday and it was pretty quiet. Everybody kept telling me that before I know it there will be tons of planes and people here — and I can’t wait. I’ve already taken photographs of a bunch and, while I’m no expert, those were pretty awesome pictures.

Thanks to the golf carts, I was able to get to know my way around the place, and it was a lot different than I expected. First off, there are a bunch of different types of planes and they’re all either famous or have interesting histories. I mean, can you name a plane that doesn’t come with an awesome story?

Also, I learned something very important from Meg Godlewski, who is the staff reporter for Sun ’n Fun Today, as well as a Master CFI. Do not touch the prop of the plane. I was told that if it starts turning, bad, bad things can happen. And since I plan to leave with all four limbs still attached, we’re planning on not causing these accidents.

So, let’s see what the week will bring!

(Published after the tornado): I finally decided that from Sun ’n Fun I’ve been getting all the fun, but until Friday I was definitely missing the sun.

And then, of course, there was the tornado Thursday afternoon. The weather had been bad all day, so when my mom and I decided to head towards the museum we knew we might get rained on, but before we could even get to the workshops area, the rain came down in sheets, harder than I’ve ever seen it before. We were soaking wet, running towards cover and fighting the wind, and I was scared we weren’t going to make it to safety.

We finally reached the woodworking shop and, even though the main door was open, it was hard to get inside because of the wind. I remember that last step inside, and how much pressure the wind had on me. I almost did not make it in.

Inside we found others who had escaped the storm and we were all soaking wet and freezing cold. The roof was leaking and there was water all over the floor, then the lights went out. Luckily, there were emergency lights that came on so we weren’t in the dark.

The Sun ’n Fun volunteers were great, watching out for everybody and making sure that no one tried to go back outside in the storm.

During a break in the rain, we were able to run to the museum, where it was a bit warmer. Once the all clear was sounded, James McGhee, who delivers Sun ’n Fun Today all over the grounds, came to the museum and picked us up in the golf cart. When we got back to the newspaper office, we found that trees all around it had fallen, landing on one of our golf carts and on top of a car owned by Larry Price, who sells advertising for General Aviation News. Our car was blocked in, but a guy with a chain saw was able to cut down some of the trees and James and Meg Godlewski, who writes stories for the newspaper, pulled the car out.

We had to go back to the hotel to finish up Friday’s paper because there was no electricity and all I can say is that I sure was glad to get into some warm, dry clothes.

All in all, my first Sun ’n Fun is one I’ll never forget! I went to see an air show and what I got was a tornado.


  1. Edward L. Bohde says

    I also attended Sun and Fun with my two Sons and one daughter in law. Three of us drove up from W.P.B., Fl, while my other Son
    flew in from Roseville, Mi. After the weather cleared the following day, we were glad to see the recovery.

    However,I know the grounds were saturated, but I thought the persons in charge could have done a better job in the parking area.

    We had to park and walk a tremendous distance from the parking area in mud up over the ankles. They did some filling in in some areas, however, what should have been done is to fill in one driveway thru the center of the parking lot, so that there would have been one dry area to use to reach the activities once one reached this path. I guess the planners were in too much shock to think reasonably.
    Good experience if there is a next time.

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