Having navigated obstacles such as the potential loss of air traffic controllers and the grounding of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds—both a product of federal budget cuts—a forecast calling for “perfect chamber of commerce weather” over Lakeland, Fla., brought a smile to the face of John “Lites” Leenhouts, president and CEO of Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In & Expo.
On April 8, as volunteers and about 500 exhibitors and vendors rushed to make final preparations for a crowd that could top 200,000 people by April 14, Leenhouts predicted there would be plenty of fun to go with all the sun. There would also be plenty of staff in the control tower, and, for the first time in the event’s 39-year history, a price cut for those who fly in: $25 admission. To facilitate those arrivals, the daily airshow will be shorter. It will also be missing the once-anticipated appearance by the Thunderbirds, grounded—like all military demonstration teams—by budget cuts. With visitors expected from across the country, along with Europe, South America, and beyond, Leenhouts said staff and volunteers have focused on being helpful, making it easy to get around, and building new entertainment and education opportunities.
“Our goal is to put together an experience that excites people about aviation,” said Leenhouts, now in his second year as the leader of what has become a year-round operation, with the focus shifted from airshows, beer, and bratwurst (there’s still a plentiful supply of all of these) to kindling (or rekindling) a love of flying.
The nonprofit organization sponsors flight training and aviation education for many central Florida teens—there are 238 enrolled in the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a high school located on the 180-acre campus that hosts the annual event. Leenhouts plans to help expand that enrollment to 499, and has also recruited four flight schools to the field (there were none when he started). He is working on FAA certification for a repair station that will teach a new generation of mechanics. He plans to sell many of the aircraft housed in the Florida Air Museum and transform it into a hands-on experience, packed with flight simulators and a host of other interactive features.
With 11,000 aircraft movements expected at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, one thing Sun ’n Fun could not do without was air traffic control. Leenhouts said the federal government estimated it would cost $284,500, subject to change based on final calculation of payroll and travel expenses.
The event generates $60 million for the region’s economy, and the state, county, and local governments have agreed to chip in amounts yet to be determined, along with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which has pledged $125,000, Leenhouts said.
“The federal government created the problem,” Leenhouts said. “The local Americans fixed it.”
Leenhouts said he will still need to come up with money he doesn’t have to cover the balance, dollars that will come at the expense of youth education, the only expense that he has left to cut, having already reduced the paid staff from 30 to 17.
With the airshow hours reduced, allowing more access to the field during the show, Leenhouts hopes a few more fly-in visitors will help balance the books.
“It’s not about the money,” Leenhouts said. “It’s about making people love flying.”