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Lakeland Linder International Airport

Home to Sun 'n Fun

Second only to the aviation extravaganza in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo is a springtime ritual for many pilots.
Photography by David Tulis.

If you haven’t attended before, you really should plan a trip to Lakeland, Florida, this April. The airshow and fly-in is held at Lakeland Linder International Airport (LAL), in the heart of the sunshine state, 54 miles southwest of Orlando and its numerous theme parks—Universal Studios, Legoland, Sea World, and Walt Disney World.

A weekend fly-in was first held at Lakeland in January 1975. The next year, the fly-in was extended to a weeklong event and it got bigger and better over the years. Sun ’n Fun offers days of airplane gawking, daily airshows, evening concerts, and nearly 500 exhibitors who showcase the latest aviation products and services.

Lakeland Linder International Airport (LAL)

In the 1930s, Lakeland’s airport, Lodwick Field, was located two miles northeast of the city. Built by the WPA during the Great Depression, it replaced an even earlier grass airfield. It had two paved runways, both less than 2,500 feet long, and two grass runways.

By 1940, Lakeland needed a larger airport and selected a site six miles southwest of the city. Named Drane Field, it was almost immediately leased to the War Department during World War II and renamed Lakeland Army Air Field. The airport was first assigned to the Third Air Force, III Bomber Command and the 60th Flying Training Detachment, which expanded the runways and facilities. Numerous bomber groups—usually flying B–26 Marauders—trained at Lakeland before deploying overseas. In 1944, the bomber groups were replaced by fighter squadrons flying P–51D Mustangs.

While bomber and fighter pilots trained at Drane Field, civilians continued to use Lodwick Field, alongside Army Air Corps and British RAF cadets receiving primary flight training in PT–17 Stearmans. After the war, Lakeland Army Air Field/Drane Field was considered surplus and returned to the city of Lakeland. Too large for the needs of the post-war city, it lay deserted and deteriorating until it finally became Lakeland’s primary airport in 1957.

Lodwick Field closed in the 1960s and today the site is occupied by the Lakeland Flying Tigers (the minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers Major League Baseball team) training facility and their stadium.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Drane Field was renamed Lakeland Regional Airport and then renamed once again as Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, honoring a local businessman. In 2017, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility opened which earned it “international airport” status. In 2020, Amazon Air began flight operations at Lakeland to support a large fulfillment center and the airport authority recently signed an agreement with Avelo Airlines to begin airline flights in mid-2024. These commercial operators and the general aviation traffic mean the airport averages several hundred aircraft movements a day.

Flying in and where to stay

Lakeland Linder is located six miles southwest of Lakeland, 54 miles southwest of Orlando, 27 miles east of Tampa, and 92 miles from the Kennedy Space Center. Lakeland is a good stopover for any flight along the length of Florida, situated in a corridor between the Class B airspaces of Orlando and Tampa, which cover most of the state at that latitude. It’s 180 miles south of the Florida-Georgia line and 240 miles north of Key West. Freeport in the Bahamas is only 225 miles away.

The airport has two asphalt runways—10/28 is 8,500 feet by 150 feet and 5/23 is 5,000 feet by 150 feet—and 8/26 which is a 2,200-foot by 60-foot grass runway. Prior permission is needed to use it.

Two FBOs, Sheltair and Aero Center, can provide almost any service needed. Additional airport tenants offer aircraft maintenance, air cargo and charter services, interior and exterior refurbishment and painting, hangar rentals, and flight training.

During Sun ’n Fun, held this year from April 9 to 14, no doubt the airport hotels will be fully booked, but there are more than 50 hotels within 8 miles. If every local hotel is booked, hotels in Tampa are just 30 miles and a 30-minute drive away.

However, your little co-pilots might prefer camping on the airport grounds. Bring the kids. Like at Oshkosh, many pilots fly in and camp beneath their airplane’s wings. Sun ’n Fun’s “Fly in Early Aircraft Camping” packages allow you to arrive as early as Saturday, April 6, and stay through Thursday, April 11. “Weekly Aircraft Camping” packages include admission and camping space for the full event from April 9 through 14. If you’re arriving by RV, “RV and Tent Camping Packages” are available from April 9 through 14.

Florida Air Museum

Take some time from the flightline to visit the Florida Air Museum, located on the airport grounds, south of the Expo site. Notable in the collection are many homebuilt aircraft, such as the Stits SA-3A Playboy, Heath Parasol, and Aerosport Woody Pusher. The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. It occasionally closes for special events, so check the website before planning a visit. Entrance is free to Sun ’n Fun ticket holders during the expo.

Say hi to AOPA

AOPA will be located at exhibitor spaces NE-053 to NE-062, AC-007, AC-008 on Laird Boulevard, across from the FAA Building. Meet the AOPA staff to talk about the You Can Fly program (bring a nonpilot to the expo), the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s courses and seminars, and meet your local Airport Support Network representative.

AOPA members are eligible for a discount of $30 on Sun ’n Fun weekly tickets or $5 on daily tickets. Enter AOPA481 in the discount code box when you’re buying tickets online.
Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and private pilot.

Dennis K. Johnson

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and pilot living in New York City.

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