Put me in coach

While it’s common knowledge in the aviation community that SUN ’n FUN’s International Fly-In and Expo is massive, you may not know the whole story. Sure, you’ve read about the economic impact of this weeklong event creeping up on $70 million. You may have heard rumors of the staggering air traffic, too. The fly-in will see somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 aircraft operations during this one week period, making it the busiest airport on the planet – bar none.

Yep, a mid-sized cities worth of people will crowd the ticket booths, entrance gates, and grassy infield all over the south side of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (LAL) this week. As many as 200,000 attendees will walk these paths and peer into cockpits over the course of the week. That’s big business by any standard.

This all leaves the very reasonable question: How does this organization manage such an astoundingly large undertaking year after year after year. Thirty nine years and counting, now. Yet they keep on going like it’s nothing more involved than a back-yard barbecue. At least that’s what it looks like from the outside.

On the inside is another story entirely. Like the story of a swimming duck, everything on top of the water looks smooth and peaceful, but look under the surface and you’ll see a flurry of activity that will amaze and entertain you.

In any other industry you might have to live with that bleak nagging question mark hanging over your head. How do they do it? Fortunately, you have me — a big mouth who is willing to spill the beans for a purpose.

The key to SUN ’n FUN’s success is volunteers. Actually, that’s not entirely true. The key to SUN ’n FUN’s success is lots of volunteers. Thousands of them in fact. And while I never really considered it to be the case, I’ve realized just today that I am one of those volunteers. I’m darned proud to wear the title, too.

To anyone who walks through the gate of this enormous event for the first time, this little factoid might be shocking, but the truth is that SUN ’n FUN only employs 17 people. That’s it. 17. Not even half the number you’d need to field a professional football team. Even if you’re only counting players, not coaches and support staff — that’s incredible news. Imagine it, 17 hard-working, dutifully dedicated individuals leverage their time, their efforts and their budgets to draw on the people-power of roughly 4,000 individuals who flock to this sandbar in the south from all over the continent year after year after year.

Somebody in that organization should be writing a management book to put up on Amazon.com and shake the world. Just imagine it. SUN ’n FUN is in its 39th year and is somehow able to pull at the heartstrings and professional pride of thousands to hold this incredible event for decades, without ever missing a beat. The volunteers park cars, sell tickets, provide security, pick up garbage, marshall aircraft around the field, and somehow find the inner resolve to keep smiling and making new friends and coming back.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m a newbie. I’ve only been coming to SUN ’n FUN since 1990, and if I’m completely honest, I missed 1991 entirely. I have a good excuse though. I was flying for a company in New England then, and just couldn’t get away for long enough to get to central Florida and back again. Realizing the error of my ways, I moved here permanently later that year and haven’t missed a SUN ’n FUN since.

Two days ago, as I was leaving a book signing event my good friend Beverly Lerner was holding, my phone rang. It was Sandy Bridges, the queen of marketing and communications at SUN ’n FUN. She asked if I would be free to sit with her during a television interview at the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg. I agreed, and so I found myself bright and early Monday morning in the production studio at WTSP, preparing to appear on Studio 10 with Jerome and Holley.

Prior to being cleared to pass through an ominous looking security door that suggested the TSA had been involved in the design of the studios, the receptionist asked me, “What is your connection to the SUN ’n FUN organization?”

That was a tough one. I don’t work for the organization, although I’ve had a long and I’d like to think mutually satisfying relationship with them. But my brain was buzzing on a combination of caffeine and adrenaline, so in a nanosecond and a half these words sprang from my brain to my lips. “I’m a volunteer.” Rarely have I been so proud.


Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He founded and serves as a member of the Polk Aviation Alliance in central Florida, and is an unabashed aviation advocate. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com


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