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Events: Spring break came early…or lateEvents: Spring break came early…or late

Sun ’n Fun campus holds December event

Sun ’n Fun is usually called a “spring break for pilots” and heralds the start of the summer flying season. Santa Claus and Christmas are not what typically come to mind.

SNF in Winter

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 nonstandard arrival (where was the Rudolph-led sleigh?), scores of youngsters lined up to offer their Christmas wish lists as their parents listened closely. Jack Klein of Little Rock, Arkansas, marks Jon Humberd's takeoff spot; the Zenith STOL CH 701 was airborne in less than 75 feet. The demonstration of extreme aircraft performance capabilities thrilled hundreds of spectators throughout the two-day event. Classic cars were a part of the event as well, with nearly 200 automobiles on display. Many won awards for best-in-show among various categories. 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.

Click on image for slideshow.

But 2020 wasn’t a typical year. Not to be deterred by the year’s sweeping cancellations of aviation events nationwide 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 have been the largest aviation event of 2020…anywhere.

On Friday and Saturday, December 4 and 5, several thousand people converged on the campus of the fly-in and expo for a socially distanced outdoor festival that drew together elements familiar to both 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 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.

Between exhibitor aircraft, warbirds, STOL 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, John “Lites” Leenhouts hosted AOPA President Mark Baker and Experimental Aircraft Association Chairman Jack Pelton for an engaging conversation on the state of general aviation in a pandemic. Much of the conversation centered on the future of aviation events, with the three executives sharing their organization’s plans for 2021. Leenhouts promised Sun ’n Fun will take place in April 2021. Pelton also emphasized EAA’s commitment to hosting Air Venture 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 said. “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.”

Organizers of the holiday fly-in emphasized the entirely outdoor nature of the event, which allowed attendees to spread out as the pandemic continues. Attendees were encouraged to practice appropriate health safety protocols. Greg Gibson, chief marketing officer for Sun ’n Fun, estimated between 4,000 and 7,000 people were in attendance over two days, and he indicated interest in continuing to hold this holiday event in future years.

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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.

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