Surviving Sun 'n Fun

May 1, 2011

Tom HainesThe B–17’s four cranky Wright engines coughed and barked to life one by one, each leaving a trail of gray exhaust until all nine of the cylinders

could agree that, yes, we’re going flying today. The staccato of the big radials broke the early morning’s quiet, commanding attention from everyone in the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In’s warbird area. As the big bomber waddled down the taxiway, the ramp’s quiet hum of busyness returned. Crews shoveled loads of gravel and mulch into endlessly deep mud pits. Campers propped up tents and stretched clothes lines. Others picked up bags of debris and trash.

Pilots who less than a day earlier huddled in steel buildings and flimsy tents as sheets of rain and tornado winds wreaked havoc across Florida’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, this morning under incredibly blue, clear skies worked to restore a level of normalcy. There was no doubt the fly-in would open, the airshow would go on. The B–17’s start-up presented just the morning’s first evidence of that. As the sun fully climbed over the horizon, the level of activity across the airport only intensified, and soon the place was abuzz as shock and disbelief at the destruction turned to determination and commitment.

Exhibitors and campers reported complete strangers showing up at their tents asking, “What can we do to help?” The volunteers dug trenches, shoveled mulch, picked up trash, propped up tents, and sometimes provided a caring ear as owners recounted the terror of surviving the tornado that raced across the airport on March 31, the show’s third day. Sometimes those stories led to teary descriptions of seeing family airplanes uprooted and tossed about like lawn furniture. Before the storms passed, some 50 airplanes would be heavily damaged or destroyed—everything from the lightest homebuilt to turboprops and jets. It was painful to look at the intertwined heaps of metal and fiberglass. In some cases, the destruction was so thorough you couldn’t tell how many airplanes were in the pile. By the next morning, a pair of cranes worked in concert to gently pull apart the masses, only then revealing the true level of destruction (see “ Pilot Briefing: Storm Damage,”).

Been there

Having grown up in northwestern Pennsylvania, I had seen the destructive force of tornadoes before. As a young newspaper reporter, I covered the Memorial Day tornadoes of 1985 that killed dozens and left a path of destruction across several states and into Canada. As the storms passed near my hometown, I dashed to the local hospital to interview survivors who came to the hospital hoping to find missing loved ones. As with the ones in Lakeland, these survivors many times were a bundle of nerves, anxious to tell their stories to anyone who would listen. The Associated Press later awarded me a citation for providing the first quotes from the survivors. It was definitely a case of being in the right place at the right time—not because I had any particular skill in extracting stories from those shaken souls.

The difference in Lakeland was that instead of just being an observer of the destruction, I was a witness to the storm. We were webcasting AOPA Live as the forecast storm began. I had my iPad on the anchor desk next to me continuously updating radar images. The bands of radar returns began to morph from green and yellow to red and magenta as the skies grew ever darker, the winds stronger, and the rain heavier. The sides of our tent began to heave in and out almost as if it were breathing, the stretched fabric in the set behind me slowly wavering in sympathy. Thunder and heavy rain threatened to drown out the webcast’s audio and then with a particularly bright bolt of lightning, the power went out—shutting off the bright studio lights. It was only then that I could see that it was as dark as night outside. Noting the river of water flowing across the tent’s dirt floor and submerging power cords for cameras and lights, I was then glad the power was out.

The term “sheets of rain” is an accurate one as extreme winds propelled the water across the ramp. Outside the AOPA Live tent, food vendor tents collapsed, taking down signs, awnings, and flags; the groans of bending metal clearly audible above the sounds of the wind, rain, and thunder.

Yet within minutes, the rains slackened and the wind calmed. People began to wander outside, their yellow AOPA rain ponchos aglow against the still-dark skies. Just 150 yards away in front of one of the main steel-frame exhibit buildings, airplanes were piled on top of one another and giant exhibitor tents were collapsed or gone, exposing the wares to the rain.

Everywhere people were on cell phones, checking with loved ones or taking photos of the damage. Sirens began to wail as reports of injuries poured in. Fortunately, none was serious and only a few even required visits to the hospital.

With other storm cells threatening the area and heavy rains continuing, the show closed early for the day. But by the next morning, the aviation community pulled together, helped one another, and watched as the day’s airshow spectacle launched as planned under clear skies. A few months ago on this page I bemoaned the meanness of pilots to each other; on this day, at least, the pettiness was replaced with compassion and commitment—a sign as welcome as the morning’s sun.

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines has covered the general aviation industry for the past 25 years. Email the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.