On Friday last week the word came down that SUN ‘n FUN was being postponed until May. That shift in dates represents more than most of us know.
Literally hundreds of businesses are now scrambling to determine if or how they might change their long-established plans in order to participate. Hundreds of thousands of loyal, enthusiastic visitors are scratching their heads, reviewing vacation dates, and wondering how they can juggle their calendar to attend.
Yet in all this wringing of hands, shuffling of plans, shifting of staff, revisiting hotel and travel arrangements, the question that should be asked — but never really is — is this: What is SUN ‘n FUN anyway?
That might seem like a simple question with an obvious answer.
SUN ‘n FUN is clearly a long-standing annual event where homebuilders gather to compare notes and show off their work. Or it’s the first opportunity each year for owners and restorers of classic aircraft to get some air beneath their wings and compete for prizes. It could just as easily be said that SUN ‘n FUN is the premiere Spring destination for warbird pilots who want an excuse to fly south for a couple weeks to enjoy warm temperatures, bright sunshine, and the camaraderie of friends old and new.
Each of those explanations is true. There are others, as well. Plenty of others.
When you gather a quarter of a million visitors to attend an event each year, it’s reasonable to assume each will have a slightly different perspective on what the event is all about. And they’ll all be right, at least within the realm of their own limited perspective.
As heartfelt as those views of SUN ‘n FUN may be, they are almost all as incomplete as they are accurate.
SUN ‘n FUN is probably not what you think it is. For while it is a destination that attracts large numbers of people, pilots and non-pilots, and an aeronautical event that encourages the public to bathe in the beauty of aeronautical pursuits for almost an entire week out of each year, that’s not the central point of it. That’s just the benefit most of us are aware of, because that’s the part most of us see, hear, and experience during that annual adventure to Lakeland Linder International Airport in the heart of central Florida.
SUN ‘n FUN is, at its core, a fundraising vehicle that bankrolls educational initiatives that run all year, benefiting folks in ways we might never have imagined.
Greg Gibson is SUN ‘n FUN’s Chief Marketing Officer and Airshow Director. If this was Star Trek the Next Generation, Greg would be Will Ricker acting as Number One to CEO Lites Leenhouts’ Captain Picard.
Take care when chatting with Greg, however. Should you find the opportunity to ask him exactly how much SUN ‘n FUN puts into the coffers of educational pursuits each year, and what form those initiatives might take, you’ll want to have some free time, because Greg is about to hit you with a list of programs and entities that will go on for quite some time.
Bring a snack. That’s all I’m saying.
The number is in the area of $2 million annually. That’s a lot of cheddar, baby. All aimed at engaging, educating, and accelerating the next generation of aerospace professionals.
That’s what SUN ‘n FUN really is. A cash machine that pays out to educational programs for the benefit of aerospace as an industry and the participants in that industry as individuals. It’s noble work. Thank goodness the staff and volunteers at SUN ‘n FUN have taken on the task.
It’s hard work with plenty of built in frustration to balance out the satisfaction of the successes. Take this most recent postponement as an example. How would you like to be sitting in the executive offices this week, figuring out how to pull off the second largest aviation event in North America with only a few weeks to rearrange everything?
One of the funding projects is The Spirit of Lakeland: A Zenith 750 being built in partnership with Able Flight. The airplane will be outfitted to meet the physical needs of the pilots and student pilots who fly it, because we’re not all equally fitted out with working arms and legs. And it’s not enough to just raise the money to get people involved in aviation. You have to have the appropriate equipment to train them in, too.
Transition to the Sky is another program that’s little known, yet serves a great purpose. Using the Piedmont 727 on site at SUN ‘n FUN, individuals with special needs are introduced to the process of accessing commercial aviation in a real-world environment. Utilizing real TSA personnel, as well as volunteers, passengers learn how the screening process works. They board the airplane, stow their carry-ons, strap in, and actually experience the engines firing up. It’s as close to the real thing as possible, which can alleviate a lot of stress and anxiety in folks who need that relief.
Classroom to the Sky is another ongoing process that brings teachers into an aeronautical environment to learn how to use aerospace in the classroom to support and enhance the teaching of traditional math and science courses. At the conclusion of the program those teachers experience flight first-hand, too. Which is the real cherry-on-top moment that gives them a frame of reference when teaching or discussing aerospace topics.
And let me not forget the Central Florida Aerospace Academy Foundation, which provides scholarships for post-secondary education at institutions like Polk State College or Embry-Riddle.
SUN ‘n FUN is a good time. It’s an exciting opportunity to see aircraft we rarely encounter. We meet legends there, and gather with friends to enjoy the aeronautical life. But in the process, whether we know it or not, we are contributing to aerospace education in a meaningful way.
That being the case, you can bet I’ll be there on May 5, 2020, when the rescheduled SUN ‘n FUN throws open its gates and welcomes visitors back to the grounds. I’ll be there because it’s a great time, it presents me with amazing opportunities, and because everyone who passes through those gates helps fund aerospace education.
I want to be a part of that again. I hope you will too.