Violent storm temporarily shuts down Sun 'n Fun

Show set to reopen April 1

March 31, 2011

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Violent weather, including a possible tornado, touched down on the grounds of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport during the Sun ’n Fun Fly-in March 31, damaging or destroying dozens of airplanes and causing minor injuries. It was a severe blow to one of the nation’s most popular aviation events, and many AOPA members were affected. (Members at the show have posted photos of the damage in the AOPA Forums.)

AOPA offers assistance to pilots at Sun ’n Fun

Sun ’n Fun attendees affected by the severe weather that tore through the show March 31 can visit the AOPA tent for help.

"We will open our tent early tomorrow, at 8 a.m., to help anyone whose aircraft has sustained damage," said AOPA President Craig Fuller. "Whether you're a member or not, whether you're insured with the AOPA Insurance Agency or not, representatives from the agency and from our Pilot Information Center will be there to answer questions."

AOPA Insurance Agency representatives can offer advice and guidance on issues such as filing a claim and what your responsibilities are as an owner. Pilot Information Center representatives can help with questions like what actually constitutes "damage," how to obtain a ferry permit, and flying with inoperative equipment.

Many display aircraft were destroyed. Aviat Aircraft of Afton, Wyo., was especially hard hit. A new Husky on amphibious floats was tossed by the storm into several other display aircraft, causing severe damage.

The grounds were flooded with torrential rain, tree limbs were scattered, and display tents were blown over. Many exhibitors had their displays damaged. A large tent in the light sport aircraft area collapsed. The storm was extremely localized. Sun ’n Fun officials said they were not aware of any serious injuries.

The violent weather was preceded by light rain, then darkening clouds, and a sudden increase in winds. Attendees at an AOPA Airport Support Network lunch at an outdoor pavilion left their seats and ran for cover at the Florida Air Museum.

The storm passed in less than 15 minutes. The show closed for the day, but will reopen at 8 a.m. April 1.

On the flight line, many homebuilt aircraft, which their owners had devoted thousands of hours building, were tossed like dry leaves. Tad “Stripes” Sargent of Charlotte, N.C., saw the RV-7A that he had spent two-and-a-half years building tossed aside. It tumbled about 50 yards before coming to rest upside down.

“I had a lot of love in that airplane, and my 14-year-old son helped me build it,” he said. “But it’s only an airplane and I’m so glad that no one was hurt.” Sargent is a member of TEAM RV, a formation flying group that brought a dozen airplanes to perform at Sun ’n Fun. In a display of the random nature of the destruction, other airplanes parked nearby were untouched.

Other damaged or destroyed aircraft include a Cessna Caravan that was flipped upside down on the ramp, a Helio Courier, two Thorpe T-18s, three Air Cams, and many others.

After the heavy rains that drenched Lakeland a day before Sun ’n Fun opened and the destructive weather that pushed through March 31, attendees can look forward to a break. The forecast is calling for dry weather and sunny skies April 1 through 3.

Editor’s note: Tune in to AOPA Live at 10 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time for a live update on conditions at Sun ’n Fun.

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor , AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.