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And the winner is...And the winner is...

Judges rank Sun 'n Fun showplanesJudges rank Sun 'n Fun showplanes

Visitors to the 2019 Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In and Expo, held in early April at Lakeland Linder International Airport in Lakeland, Florida, undoubtedly noticed bright green “Judge me please!” stickers on placards hanging from the propellers of many aircraft. But few know what happens during the week, as judges fan out each day to evaluate all of the aircraft whose owners have asked that they be judged.

Sun 'n Fun aircraft judging

  • Sun 'n Fun aircraft judging
    Aircraft judge Pat Sowell peers into the engine cowling of a Cessna 195 during the 2019 Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland, Florida. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Sun 'n Fun aircraft judging
    Dale Still, standing at right, chairman of aircraft judging at the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo, takes questions from his judges after the morning briefing. Next task: judging. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Sun 'n Fun aircraft judging
    Judges swarm a customized Swift as they evaluate the airplane during the 2019 Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland, Florida. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Sun 'n Fun aircraft judging
    Claude Allen makes notes as he judges a customized Swift during the 2019 Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Sun 'n Fun aircraft judging
    Classic aircraft judges at the 2019 Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo chat as each scores a Cessna 195. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Sun 'n Fun aircraft judging
    This classic aircraft judging panel--from left, Bobby Capozzi, Claude Allen, Bill Morgan, Pat Sowell, Densel Williams, and Donis Hamilton--pause before moving on to their next airplane during the 2019 Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo. Photo by Mike Collins.

A choreographed daily effort ensures that all showplanes have been judged in advance of the aircraft awards banquet at the Buehler Restoration Center on Saturday evening—this year, the 2019 Sun 'n Fun Aircraft Award Winners were announced April 6.

Dale Still of Thomasville, North Carolina, may know that process better than anyone. Still volunteers as the aircraft judging chairman. “All of the aircraft judged here are judged according to the EAA Judging Standards,” he said. But the process doesn’t allow aircraft owners to receive specific feedback. “They can leave here overjoyed that they’ve done well, but we don’t tell them what they’ve done wrong.”

Score sheets are not shared, Still explained. “When we announce the winners and they’re published on Saturday, there isn’t really any time to discuss the results with them.” Many aircraft are judged at Sun 'n Fun, then the owners might make additional refinements or changes before EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, he added.

Parts of the judging process are automated through the use of cellphones and tablet computers. “We use an app that one of our own people wrote,” Still said, with photos and data uploaded to the cloud—simplifying creation of the PowerPoint presentation shown at the awards banquet. “We probably take a third the amount of time to get our banquet presentation done than it used to.”

This sticker on a propeller card at the 2019 Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo shows that enough judges have evaluated the aircraft. At least four judge classic aircraft. Photo by Mike Collins.

Still said that the key to making it work is his great crew of judges. “They know what they’re doing,” he said.

Categories follow EAA, as well. Antiques are up to September 1945; Classics, September 1945 to December 1955; and Contemporary, 1956 to 1972. For the team judging classics, a classic should appear as though it just left the factory; any aircraft that has been modified is a custom classic. “There, our standard is how would this airplane look if the modifications were done by the best workmen in the world,” said Donis Hamilton of Paragould, Arkansas, who has judged at Sun 'n Fun since 2003. (He and a few others also judge at Oshkosh.) Judging a classic, deductions are made for flaws, he explained; customizations are accommodated in the score, but it will be lowered if, for example, the airplane is dirty.

The number of aircraft to be judged will vary. “In the 1990s we used to look at 40 airplanes—at least 40,” said Juan Blanco of Green Cove Springs, Florida, a judge since 1992 who serves on the classic airplane team. “In 2016 we looked at 14 airplanes. We encourage everybody to bring their airplanes over here to be judged. It just tears my heart that more people don’t participate.”

Four judges evaluate each aircraft, and the scores are averaged. “The low score and the high score basically disappear,” said judge Claude Allen of Green Cove Springs, Florida. “We look at everything. We look at the engine, we look at the paint. Is this the best that you could have done in making this a custom?”

Allen pored over a shiny, customized Swift. “These Swifts, almost none of them are alike. It’s more like judging a homebuilt,” he said. “The guys who fly these, love them.”

Restoring aircraft got Densel Williams, of Jackson, Michigan, interested in judging—something he’s done for 25 years. On average, he said, it takes 30 or 40 minutes to evaluate an aircraft. “A wrinkle in the skin of a taildragger reveals it’s been ground looped.”

Bill Morgan looks for the owner’s presentation book, which helps judges determine if an owner did the restoration, a shop, or someone else. And he sees the book for the airplane he’s judging—locked inside the cabin. “I’ve seen the difference between a winner and a loser be the presentation book,” he said.

“When you get a lot of really nice ones, you have to get pickier,” Allen said. “But you don’t have to have a million-dollar airplane out here to win a good prize.”

Aircraft owners will get that opportunity again in 2020, when the Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo will take place March 31 through April 5.

Mike Collins

Mike Collins

Technical Editor
Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.
Topics: Sun n Fun

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