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Just in time for Christmas: A Holiday Flying Festival

When aviators think of Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, a "spring break for pilots" and the start of the summer flying season are what typically come to mind, not Santa Claus and Christmas. But 2020 hasn’t been a typical year.

Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival

  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    Aviators don't usually associate Santa Claus with the sunshine and festivities of Sun 'n Fun. But in these unprecedented times, even old Saint Nick is using general aviation to get around. Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived in a 1941 Stearman PT–17 to greet eager—and somewhat skeptical—children. Once they got over his non-standard arrival (where was the Rudolph-led sleigh?), scores of youngsters lined up to offer their Christmas wish lists as their parents listened closely. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    The U.S. Army Black Daggers special operations command parachute demonstration team opened the airshows on December 4 and 5 at the Sun 'n Fun Holiday Flying Festival and Car Show. The conversion tailwheel Piper Tri-Pacer in the foreground belongs to the Merritt Island Flying Club of Merritt Island, Florida. The AOPA Flying Clubs Initiative helped the group form, and today they have 17 members participating. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    Eighty exhibitors displayed at Sun 'n Fun's holiday event, to include several aircraft manufacturers such as Waco, which displayed three of its aircraft. The entirely outdoor exhibits ranged from aircraft parts and avionics to sunglasses and Christmas decorations. AOPA also had a small aircraft display. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    One of the major highlights of the Sun ‘n Fun Holiday Flying Festival was a two-day STOL competition. Hundreds of spectators flocked to see the exciting performance, including AOPA member and 43-hour student pilot Brian Mauldin, his wife Leslee, and son Kyle, who was sporting an AOPA Pilot Gear T-shirt. Mauldin was inspired at the event to finish up his private pilot certificate as his training has taken the back burner to their growing young family. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    In a rare sunset performance on Friday night, the U.S. Air Force performed its classic heritage flight, showcasing the modern firepower of the F–35 and F–16 fighters in formation with a pair of historic P–51s. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    The Friday evening airshow was capped off with a balloon glow. The balloons framed a 1974 Grumman Traveler belonging to AOPA member Robert Wiles of Gulfport, Mississippi. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    AOPA President Mark Baker joined Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo President and CEO John "Lites" Leenhouts and Experimental Aircraft Association Chairman Jack Pelton for an engaging Pilot Town Hall. Pilots in attendance asked questions on matters ranging from the impact of COVID-19 on general aviation to potential new fuels, user fees, and general aviation safety. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    A flight of North American T–6s arrives at Lakeland, Florida, for display. Approximately two dozen warbirds of various types were on display for attendees to see. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    It's a scratch! Officials from Lone Star STOL who managed the STOL competition judged the Carbon Cub's landing as just shy of the 12-inch-wide disqualifying line. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    Aviation enthusiasts looked to the skies as the U.S. Air Force showed off above the Lakeland Linder International Airport. In the background, an interesting juxtaposition of general aviation aircraft camping and Amazon Prime’s massive new shipping center shows the broad diversity on this very active airfield. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    Arkansas STOL pilot John Young, founder of Young Aviation, demonstrates a very short takeoff in his Aviat Husky at the STOL competition. Photo by Chris Eads.
  • Sun n Fun Holiday Flying Festival
    Doug Jackson, founder of Lonestar STOL in Gainesville, Texas, races to judge the landing roll of a Carbon Cub during Friday’s qualifying runs. Photo by Chris Eads.

Not to be deterred by the year’s sweeping cancellations of aviation events in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the leadership of the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo seized upon the holiday season and Florida’s mild early-winter weather to host what may turn out to be the largest aviation event of the year in the United States.

On December 4 and 5, an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 people converged for a socially distanced outdoor festival that drew together elements of fly-ins and local holiday events. While nearly 70 backcountry flying experts competed for the shortest landings on the Lakeland Aero Club’s grass airstrip, Santa and Mrs. Claus made their own arrival at show center in a Stearman PT–17 to collect Christmas wish lists from scores of eager children. More than 200 automobile enthusiasts displayed classic and muscle cars. A balloon glow accented a twilight airshow that featured the U.S. Air Force F–35 and F–16 Viper demo teams.

Jack Klein of Little Rock, Arkansas, marks the takeoff spot of a STOL aircraft that got airborne in less than 75 feet. The demonstration of extreme aircraft performance capabilities thrilled hundreds of spectators throughout the two-day event. Photo by Chris Eads.

Between exhibitor aircraft, warbirds, short takeoff and landing competitors, and attendees flying in from all over the region, approximately 350 aircraft arrived for the event, according to show officials. Aircraft camping sold out with 100 participants. For those coming just for the day, low IFR conditions on Saturday kept arrivals slow at first, but ceilings eventually lifted, presenting a beautiful cloudless sky for the STOL competition finals and the afternoon airshow.

On Saturday morning, Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo President and CEO John “Lites” Leenhouts hosted AOPA President Mark Baker and Experimental Aircraft Association Chairman Jack Pelton for an engaging conversation about the state of general aviation in the midst of the pandemic. Questions submitted from the hundreds of pilots in attendance ranged from how GA is responding to the economic difficulties of 2020 to user fees, hybrid fuels, and improving GA safety. Much of the conversation centered on the future of aviation events, with each executive sharing his organization’s plans for 2021. The holiday event was seen as a precursor to next year’s Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo that Leenhouts promised will take place in April 2021. Pelton also emphasized EAA’s commitment to hosting AirVenture 2021, and Baker explained AOPA’s plans to conduct a series of AOPA Pilot Gathering Air Tours to visit pilots at nearly two dozen events across the nation next year.

“General aviation is alive and well,” Baker emphasized during the town hall. “Aircraft sales are fantastic right now, people are doing flight training, flight schools around the country are busier than they’ve ever been…people are turning to general aviation more and more.”

“What’s really great about this event is that it’s the first time since March that I’ve been able to get out and be with people face to face,” said Jamie Beckett, AOPA You Can Fly Florida ambassador. “We’ve met members from all over, some great folks.”

AOPA You Can Fly Florida Ambassador Jamie Beckett (center) and AOPA Senior Manager of Aviation Event Operations Phillip Johnson (right) enjoy a conversation with local CFI Eric Eiermann (left) at the AOPA exhibit tent. Eiermann works with the Aspiring Aviators Aero Club in Winter Haven, Florida, a club that supports AOPA STEM curriculum students at Winter Haven High School. Photo by Chris Eads.

David Lyon of Zephyrhills, Florida, stopped by AOPA’s small aircraft display to share his progress in aviation since receiving an AOPA high school flight training scholarship several years ago. He has since logged 450 hours and is a serving as a certificated flight instructor at Posada Aviation in Zephyrhills. He has ambitions to take his flying experience to the mission field in the future.

Alan Salisbury of Lakeland, Florida, brought his family to look at the aircraft and to seek some advice. Salisbury, who recently joined AOPA, has yet to log any flight time in pursuit of his certificate, but is heavily involved in his ground school study and enjoys reading AOPA’s Flight Training magazine.

“Do you have any advice for me?” he asked. AOPA Senior Manager of Aviation Events Operations Phillip Johnson relayed his own story of flight training, encouraging the aspiring aviator to not become discouraged at the inevitable plateaus that come during the heaviest portions of training.

Classic cars were a part of the event as well, with nearly 200 automobiles on display, many winning awards for best in show among various categories. Photo by Chris Eads.

Fly-in organizers emphasized the outdoor nature of the event, which allowed attendees to spread out. Attendees were encouraged to practice appropriate health safety protocols.

“This event came about because obviously everything got shut down due to COVID-19,” said Greg Gibson, chief marketing officer for Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo. “We started wondering what we could do to keep ourselves relevant and make sure our community had something they could participate in, for both our aviation community and the community of Polk County. Around September, things started looking favorable, and with the full support of the city and Lakeland Linder International Airport it has culminated in a very successful effort.”

Gibson indicated interest in continuing to host this holiday event in future years.

Chris Eads, AOPA Senior Director, Outreach and Events. Photo by Mike Fizer.

Chris Eads

AOPA Senior Director, Outreach and Events
Chris began working for AOPA in 2013, but has been a private pilot and AOPA member since 2001. He flies VFR all over the country both for fun and as a part of his role leading AOPA events and regional fly-ins.
Topics: Sun n Fun

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