During this year’s Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo, most of the discussion taking place on the event grounds centered around the tornado that inflicted heavy damage to more than 60 aircraft and to the Sun ’n Fun site. But with each passing day since the event concluded its six-day run April 3, most of the post-event talk has been of Sun ’n Fun’s remarkable recovery from the severe weather and the strong finish it displayed over the event’s final three days.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of – or damage to – a significant number of exhibitor and individually owned aircraft, but we are also eternally grateful that it was not accompanied by the loss of life,” said Sun ’n Fun Board Chairman Bill Eickhoff. “And we are so very proud of the way our entire organization – volunteers and staff – as well as our exhibitors, emergency response personnel, on-site services, partners and friends responded to this huge challenge. In a short period of time, they came together to rebuild our Fly-In site so that it could be re-opened to participants and guests. We extend our sincere thanks to everyone involved who helped make this remarkable turnaround possible.”
Eickhoff said preliminary numbers will approach last year’s (2010) totals, which were up nearly 10% from 2009.
“Right now it looks like we’ll be within 1% or 2% of our 2010 numbers,” he explained. “While our numbers were down the first half of the week due to weather systems around Lakeland and throughout the southeastern United States, each of our final three days was very strong and Saturday’s crowd was likely the largest single day in our event’s history.”
Eickhoff attributed the strong finish to a stellar line up of programs and performers as well as a strong show of support from the aviation community and Lakeland-area residents.
“(Sun ’n Fun President and Convention Chairman) John (Burton) and his team coordinated a terrific schedule of events and activities that culminated with the weekend performances of the Navy’s Blue Angels jet demonstration team and the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor,” he continued. “Our aviation friends poured in once the weather settled down and area residents turned out in large numbers for a great weekend of terrific activities and air shows.”
Burton concurred, citing an impressive list of highlights that were scheduled throughout the six-day event. They included:
- A ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony for the new Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA) facility, a $7.5 million high school/career academy on the Sun ’n Fun site that will house up to 500 students and which was made possible through the generosity of James Ray and the Aviation Education Foundation.
- Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation, including the appearance of the U.S. Navy “Blue Angels” military jet demonstration team; an Evening Program hosted by NASA Space Shuttle Commander and Naval Aviator Robert “Hoot” Gibson and a distinguished panel of other naval aviators; and two Navy-related exhibits on display within the Florida Air Museum.
- A 20-Year “Operation Desert Storm” retrospective hosted by USAF Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Kory Cornum and US Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Rhonda Cornum (who was incarcerated as a POW after her helicopter was shot down by Iraqis during a search and rescue mission).
- A series of forms on “Test Piloting” hosted by former NASA Chief Test Pilot (and SR-71 pilot) Ed Schneider.
- A 10-Year Commemoration of the events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001.
- F-22 “Raptor” demonstration team.
- Participation by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt and members of his Senior Management Team.
- Aviation Town Hall Meeting coordinated by Congressman Sam Graves which included AOPA President Craig Fuller, GAMA President Pete Bunce, EAA President Rod Hightower, CAF President Steve Brown and HAI President Matt Zuccaro. The meeting was held in the FAA National Resource Center and Production Studios located on the Sun ’n Fun campus and streamed live to a global audience.
- The traditional Night Air Show which again included fireworks.
- AOPA Day and week-long “AOPA LIVE” broadcasts from the Sun ’n Fun site.
- Pancake Breakfast hosted by AOPA President Craig Fuller and GAMA President Pete Bunce (talk about “serving aviation!”).
- Lindbergh Foundation Award Banquet hosted by Sun ’n Fun.
- Lindbergh Foundation Day featuring multiple forums on balancing technology and the environment.
- The annual (and increasingly popular) Hot Air Balloon Launch.
- Third year for the “Green Space” exhibit featuring aviation-related, environmentally friendly products and services.
- A successful AvBid Aircraft Auction.
- The inaugural International Visitors Party.
- New VIP Hosting Opportunities at show center (“9/27 Circle” and “Flightline Club”)
- Evening Programs that included Pre-Flight Night, a fundraiser for Youth Aviation Education Programs and Endowment (Monday); 100 Years of Naval Aviation (Tuesday); 20-Year Retrospective on “Desert Storm” (Wednesday); the Night Air Show and fireworks plus the U.S. Navy Band “Pride” in concert (Friday); and “A Look Into Aviation’s Future” hosted by John L. Peterson (Saturday). In addition, Sun ’n Fun planned to recognize EAA Founder Paul Poberezny during Thursday’s evening program but that had to be re-scheduled for the following afternoon due to that afternoon’s tornado and severe weather.
Burton said he has heard of several favorable reports from exhibitors and vendors regarding sales activities during the event, including one from Cessna indicating they had taken 30 orders for propeller-driven aircraft, including 16 new Corvalis TTX high-performance singles (which were introduced at Sun ’n Fun) plus 13 high-wing piston singles and one Caravan.
“The opening days of Sun ’n Fun were very positive,” said Mark Paolucci, Cessna’s Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “And while the storm on Thursday interrupted that mood somewhat, the exhibitors and the crowds bounced back to finish the show strong.”
In response to frequent questions about the tornado and Sun ’n Fun’s remarkable recovery, Burton says that the experience has taught him and the organization as much about people as it has about operations and logistics.
“We have learned a great deal from our experience during this past year’s Fly-In, not only as it relates to the tornado and severe weather that accompanied it but also as it relates to the power of what can be accomplished when people share a purpose and a passion,” he said. “Certainly, we will be reviewing and revising our emergency preparedness protocols based on our combined experiences in a variety of operational areas. But we will also be acknowledging the tremendous support we received from a multitude of sources within – and outside of – the aviation community.”
Burton extended special thanks to Emergency Medical, Police and Fire “first responders” who were onsite during and immediately after the tornado for the assistance they provided as well as to the City of Lakeland, Polk County and the Polk County School Board for the leadership and support they provided throughout our recovery process.
He also recognized the assistance and support that poured into Sun ’n Fun from “aviation partners and friends” who included FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, FAA Southern Region Administrator Doug Murphy and FAA staff members who were participating at Sun ’n Fun as well as those in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.; Craig Fuller and his team at AOPA who, among other things, announced AOPA’s sponsorship renewal for Sun ’n Fun’s 2012 event less than 24 hours after the tornado hit; the leaders at GAMA, EAA, CAF, HAI, WAI and a host of other associations and individuals who literally and figuratively contributed to the recovery efforts; and the immediate assistance rendered by Sun ’n Fun’s on-site service providers in virtually every area, from food service and tent rentals to portable toilet and shower facilities.
“Most importantly,” Burton emphasized, “it was the tremendous effort expended by Sun ’n Fun’s indomitable volunteers who truly were the deciding factor in our ability to open the gates less than 16 hours after the recovery process began. It was truly a team effort that is as remarkable for its magnitude as it is for its successful conclusion.”
Planning has already begun for next year’s show, which will be held at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland, Florida, March 27–April 1, 2012.
“The future looks bright,” Eickhoff concluded. “We’ve got lots of exciting things on the horizon and we invite the aviation community to join us as we continue to evolve as an event and as an organization.”
For more information: Sun-n-Fun.org