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Spectators ride along with Sun ‘n Fun airshow pilots

Familiar teams transition to new aircraft

Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In and Expo attendees will have new technology to tap into the excitement and adrenaline rush of an aerobatic pilot's perspective without ever leaving the ground when performers take to the skies April 10 through 15 at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland, Florida.

The Phillips 66 Aerostars perform during the Wednesday afternoon airshow at the 2018 Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo. This is the team's first season flying their new Extra 300 aircraft. Photo by Mike Collins.

The crowd-pleasing Phillips 66 Aerostars also are sporting new technology for their precision aerobatic ballet. The April 10 afternoon airshow was set to be the debut of the team’s sleek and colorful Extra 330L aircraft, which replace the round-ruddered, gray-and-red Romanian-made Yak 52TWs. Paul “Rocket” Hornick previously told AOPA that the Aerostars’ aircraft and pilots take a pounding because maneuvers are practiced, critiqued, and then practiced again and again until they are executed perfectly. The team announced on its social media site that the well-loved taildraggers have already found new homes.

Other airshow performers took advantage of clear skies, sunny temperatures, and an inviting atmosphere either to perfect a complicated routine or to shake off winter cobwebs. After a 30-minute practice session, Bill Stein taxied his iridescent purple-and-green Edge 540 to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hangar, which serves as the performers’ base. He recalled that he previously trained at Lakeland “for years as a Red Baron [Stearman Squadron] pilot so this is like home for me.” Sun ‘n Fun will be the third airshow performance of 2018 for Stein, but it will be the season opener for flying partner Matt Chapman, who is piloting a blue-and-yellow Extra 330LX. The pair plan to fly a two-ship formation April 12 and 14. “It was great being there with Matt, and we’re ready for Sun ‘n Fun, so here we go,” said Stein.

Other favorites include Red Bull Air Race winner Michael Goulian in an Extra 330, Matt Younkin in a twin-tailed Beech 18, Greg Koontz in a red Xtreme Decathlon, the AeroShell Aerobatic Team in North American AT–6s, aerobatic gliders, warbirds, jets, and more.

Pilot and country music recording artist Aaron Tippin and his sons Tom and Ted watched several of the performers practice during breaks from cleaning their immaculate 1941 Boeing Stearman and North American T–6 SNJ warbirds on static display near show center.

Tippin said when he was “just a kid” he enjoyed coming to see all the different types of aircraft. Now that he is a pilot and a warbird owner, “showing up with your birds and being proud” to be part of the general aviation community continues to draw him and sons Ted and Tom—who also are pilots—away from their Tennessee base to visit with other aviators.

Airshow director Greg Gibson said the 44-year-old Lakeland, Florida, event would be “dramatically” enhanced—whether attendees were on site in central Florida or catching the action via the internet or through social media channels.

Gibson explained that the Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In and Expo would test, during the daily afternoon airshows, a first-person virtual reality experience “of live onboards” that showcased multiple camera angles. Two night airshows also are planned for Wednesday and Saturday. Gibson added that the objective was to engage attendees to “experience their content, not just see it or hear it.” The technology includes social media stations and special headsets that can enable participants to “join performers in the cockpit for the most immersive airshow experience ever!”

A highly anticipated Sun ‘n Fun performance by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds was scrubbed after an April 4 air crash claimed the life of F–16 pilot Maj. Stephen Del Bagno.

David Tulis

David Tulis

Senior Photographer
Senior Photographer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: Sun 'n Fun, Technology

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