Aviation enthusiasts from all over the country are gathering in Lakeland, Florida, April 13 through 18 at the Lakeland Linder International Airport to celebrate their shared passion for flight in true Florida fashion. Beautiful blue skies, calm winds, and warm temperatures are a welcome sight after 2020’s COVID-19 restrictions canceled general aviation events, including Sun ‘n Fun and EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
The excitement is on everyone’s faces, even behind the masks. After standing in the ticket line to secure my weekly pass, I venture down to the aircraft camping area to see if I can connect with a few friends.
“If someone is in a bad mood when they get to Sun ‘n Fun, they won’t be in a bad mood for long,” said Jeanne Allen, co-owner of a beautiful vintage Waco. “The people are so much fun. It’s so great to see all the airplanes and all the people smiling.” Her husband, Dave, added, “Half of Sun ‘n Fun is fun, right?” While we are chatting, a group of four individuals walk up to the Waco. The group greets one another with hugs and handshakes, something that would have been unthinkable at this same time last year.
A short walk from the Waco, several small children play around a Boeing Stearman. The Ferrin and Hatch families flew their Stearman, American Champion Super Decathlon, and Cessna 310 in from Rome, Georgia. As longtime Sun ‘n Fun attendees, they are well prepared for the week’s festivities. Three tents, 10 chairs, and a portable canopy complete with a grilling station underneath, surround the Stearman. This is their “home away from home for the week.” The children’s grandfather Rick Ferrin flew the Stearman down and is looking forward to tent camping with his close family throughout the week. His son-in-law Andrew Hatch keeps coming back to Sun ‘n Fun for the “excitement of aviation that Sun ‘n Fun instills in the children. It cannot be found anywhere else.” Dan Ferrin, the Decathlon pilot and father to four of the children, said that his kids are most excited for the airplane scavenger hunt that he has arranged. “They have to walk around and take pictures of airplanes like Mustangs or Corsairs, and if they do, they will get a prize.”
As lunchtime nears, I walk across the show site to the food court and get distracted by a departing Boeing C–17 Globemaster until the smell of grease, doughnuts, and corn dogs overwhelms my senses. I am in heaven. A foot-long corn dog calls my name. After enjoying the calorific “meal” with a friend, we venture into the exhibit hangars, where we play with new Garmin avionics and Best Tugs.
The airshow starts while we are walking through the exhibit hangars, so we step outside for the national anthem. Gene McNeely, in his North American T–6 Texan, circles a parachute jumper carrying the American flag. The jumper lands, and the show begins with McNeely’s solo T–6 aerobatic routine.
As the show progresses, several attendees seek refuge from the hot Florida sun. I step into the CubCrafters booth and meet fellow shade seeker Brett Speth, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot and current United Airlines pilot. As a first-time Sun ‘n Fun attendee, he is in awe. “The depth and breadth of equipment and aircraft are phenomenal.” He is most looking forward to the possibility of meeting aviation YouTube star Mike Patey, hanging out with friends, and checking out the “latest avionics and gizmos that you only ever get to see on the internet.”
From first timers to Sun ‘n Fun veterans, everyone is enjoying being with one another after a year apart. Hands are being shaken, hugs are being given, and airplanes are back to making noise for a crowd. Sun ‘n Fun 2021 is getting the airshow season off to an impeccable start.—By Cayla McLeod