When we elected to focus on a positive Rally GA message this year, we could never have imagined the effort that would be put forth in Lakeland, Florida, following a tornado that touched down near the Sun ‘n Fun fly-in. With wind and rain the likes of which not many of us had ever seen, the week-long airshow extravaganza was, for many, turned upside down—literally. Thankfully, there were only a few injuries, none serious. But, once the storm passed, we saw the sad reality of dozens of damaged aircraft, some flipped over by the strong winds. We at AOPA were exceptionally fortunate—our tent withstood the storm and none of our aircraft was damaged. I was among several AOPA staff members who had flown our own personal aircraft to Sun ‘n Fun, and all of us were lucky enough to be spared the damage and accompanying heartbreak that afflicted so many others.
Much has been said of the destructive nature of the storm, but the wonderful element of this episode is found in the spirit of the people of Sun ‘n Fun—those who work there and those who attended the show.
Shortly after the storm, with the extent of the damage still unknown and more storms threatening, the Sun ‘n Fun grounds were closed. As visitors and exhibitors left for the day, the Sun ‘n Fun staff and thousands of volunteers, led by John Burton, made miracles happen. They simply did not sleep until the campus was cleaned up, made safe, and ready to reopen. Within 24 hours of the storm, displays had been rebuilt and a sense of normalcy returned.
Throughout the remainder of the week, the spirit of the aviation community was at its finest. Everywhere you looked, people were helping people. Campers who lost everything found housing with fellow pilots, who invited strangers into their homes and accommodations.
Best of all, the hard work and dedication of the Sun ‘n Fun team was rewarded with thousands of attendees descending into Lakeland, which saw nothing but sunny weather for the final three days of the event. And, we heard encouraging stories about aircraft and equipment purchases.
The general aviation community is resilient. That resilience was certainly tested, but the attitude and total commitment demonstrated by so many staff, volunteers, and attendees was something to behold.
For me, the chance to be with so many members over the course of the weeklong program was wonderful. I find these gatherings rejuvenating. So many people express their enthusiasm and appreciation for the work we do at AOPA. And, many share their thoughts on the challenges we face in general aviation.
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) organized a Town Hall-style meeting where I joined with EAA’s Rod Hightower, GAMA’s Pete Bunce, HAI’s Matt Zucarro, and Steve Brown from the Commemorative Air Force. We touched on developments in Washington from avgas to NextGen. And, we spoke about the commitment we all share to build the pilot population.
The week also included several contacts wit
"The attitude and total commitment demonstrated by so many Sun 'n Fun staff, volunteers, and attendees was something to behold."
h FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who led his own forum to discuss issues including the FAA’s safety initiatives designed to reduce aircraft accidents.
Of course, we were also able to see a wide range of aircraft, avionics, and other aircraft equipment. While Sun ‘n Fun offers so much on the ground, the show in the air featuring Sean D. Tucker, Patty Wagstaff, Mike Goulian, the Blue Angels, and so many others provided a unique level of excitement.
I share the remarkable experiences of Sun ‘n Fun as a way to thank the dedicated people who worked so hard to make sure thousands enjoyed an exceptional event. I also encourage all of you during the coming months to take every opportunity to celebrate general aviation and attend the air shows and aviation gatherings held across the country.
Don’t miss our dozens of AOPA Live segments filmed on location at Sun ‘n Fun. We had a chance to interview several exciting airshow legends, along with leaders in the general aviation community. You will find this and more at AOPA Online.
AOPA President Craig Fuller piloted his Bonanza A36 to Sun ‘n Fun this year. Email AOPA President Craig Fuller at [email protected].