Clear skies, smiles as Sun 'n Fun prepares for opening day

March 26, 2012

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    Van Thaxton of Brooks, Ga., puts some shine on a 1944 Stinson V-77 he co-owns with Richard Epton, right, as the pair prepare for Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Fla.

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    Students from the Central Florida Aerospace Academy line up to greet incoming aircraft at Sun 'n Fun March 26. One of their own earned a ride in a vintage T-6 Texan warbird for having the school's highest GPA.

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    Mike Porter of Pittsburgh, Pa., has restored a dozen Stearman biplanes, including this prize-winner that has twice taken top honors at Oshkosh.

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    William Tippin wipes down the belly of a vintage SNJ, the Navy version of the T-6 Texan, flown to Lakeland, Fla., for Sun 'n Fun by country music star Aaron Tippin, who will perform March 29.

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    Kevin McCarten works one of many grills set up at Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Fla. With more than 200,000 visitors expected through April 1, organizers made an effort this year to broaden the menu options.

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    Hawker Beechcraft was present in force as Sun 'n Fun prepared to open the gates for 2012 in Lakeland Fla.

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    While Sun 'n Fun organizers promise a more diverse menu, there is plenty of ice cream, too. Carl Keller is setting up this booth.

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    John R. "Lites" Leenhouts, the new president and CEO of Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Fla., said this year's edition includes many changes designed to make the show more family-friendly.

Mike Porter paused in mid-sentence and cocked his head, listening to the distinctive sound of a radial engine overhead. A veteran restorer of Stearman biplanes, Porter explained apologetically that radials always make his ears perk up.

There was a lot of that going around, as many of the 4,000 aircraft expected to converge on Lakeland, Fla., for the annual Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In & Expo were arriving under clear skies, with temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. With a forecast for the week of severe clear, “I decided the weather was so nice I had to come here,” Porter said.

Exhibitors, staff, and volunteers were hard at work March 26, preparing for opening day March 27 of a show expected to draw 4,000 aircraft and 200,000 visitors, according to President and CEO John R. “Lites” Leenhouts, who credited the effort of a staff chaplain who prayed for good weather. For many of the pilots and aircraft owners who had already arrived, memories of the 2011 tornado were still vivid.

“We got a little damage,” said Van Thaxton, co-owner of a 1944 Stinson V-77 parked among the vintage aircraft. “We had a rudder pushed through the elevator.”

But with no storms in sight, there was a chance to relax and get ready for some fun. Thaxton and co-owner Richard Epton have been making the trip from Brooks, Ga., for years, an annual rite of spring billed as “spring break for pilots.”

“The best part is, we get to see all of our friends,” Epton said. “It’s always a good time.”

A one-day visit cannot possibly cover all that the show has to offer, Leenhouts boasted, rattling off a long list of rare and vintage aircraft expected to be lined up, along with experimentals, light sport aircraft, certified aircraft, warbirds—just about everything under the aviation sun.

“We call it family thrills, aviation style,” Leehouts said.

Bernie Jager of Flowery Branch, Ga., craned his neck to get a better look inside a replica 9/10 scale Spitfire being sold as a kit, and said Sun ‘n Fun has become a spring ritual over the years. It offers a chance to see and touch a vast array of aviation products, and meet the producers face to face, he said.

“By George, if you’ve got a question, you can just about get the answer,” Jager said, noting the weeklong show also gives pilots a chance to see what’s new, and what’s hot.

AOPA is present in force, with a large tent set up that includes a Redbird flight simulator and instant access to experts in all aviation subject areas. Members and nonmembers alike are warmly welcome to stop by, spend a little time on the couch, and take some free gifts for the road.

The 2012 sweepstakes Tornado Husky is parked in front of the AOPA tent, ready for inspection.