An Airline Pilot’s Sun ‘n Fun Trek

With Lakeland only a short distance from our home in Florida by car or air, attending Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo is a no-brainer.

The Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo launches spring break for pilots every year in Lakeland, Florida. [Credit: Stephen Yeates]

With Lakeland only a short distance from our home in Florida by car or air, attending Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo is a no-brainer. Although reduced in number to a trio, the airport crowd from my Connecticut days always plans the annual journey south. None are airline pilots, but they are passionate about aviation and the camaraderie. On this trip, we inducted my JetBlue check airman friend, Mike Strauss, into the fold, a dubious honor considering the nonstop harassment involved.

After waiting out the low visibility and low ceilings of early morning fog, a 35-minute flight in Mike’s V-tail Bonanza from Ormond Beach (KOMN) got us to the Lake Parker entry point for the arrival into Lakeland Linder International (KLAL). Let the fun begin. Though I had performed this arrival in my airplane, the lack of direct control from the copilot seat seemed to make the proce- dure more stressful. Or perhaps it was the uncomfortable proximity to other airplanes. Or perhaps it was the NTSB report I was envisioning: “Two ATP-rated pilots were...” On a side note, compliments to the controllers who volunteer for the event. They’ve developed a “show” vernacular that is explicit in the instructions, humorous in its tone, complimentary in its encouragement of correct performance without condescension, and welcoming in its message.

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Mike performed a touchdown in close proximity to the green dot, despite some last-minute instructions. We survived without a scratch. The taxi and parking process can sometimes prove exciting, and in this circumstance, it met expectations. An “Exhibit” sign had been placed in the corner of the Bonanza windscreen based on this magazine being a sponsor.

We were allowed entry through the gate, but no parking space was available. I had innocently thought that a section of pavement or grass would be available for media, but a quick golf cart ride confirmed otherwise. We were unceremoniously towed out and offered parking elsewhere. At least we have the pictures to prove our 10-minute exhibitor status.

After losing the battle of dry earth vs. corkscrew tie-down stakes, we covered the airplane and set off on a mission to retrieve my media pass and wristband. Open- ing the door to the building that had previously housed the volunteers involved with media revealed an empty room. Uh oh. After an inquiry or two, we were directed across the street to a trailer in a parking lot.

Unfortunately, I was 10 minutes too late. Passes were now only being issued inside the exhibit area, where we had been almost an hour ago.

An attempt to re-enter was thwarted by the same security volunteers that had pointed us to the parking lot trailer. Despite displaying various forms of identification and pleading our case—well, maybe some airline pilot whining—we were denied entry. A text message and phone conversation later, we were rescued via a golf cart driven by editor-in-chief Julie Boatman, narrowly avoiding Sun ‘n Fun prison.

After spending a little time in the air-conditioned comfort of our magazine’s greeting tent, Mike and I thought it best to begin our trek through the hangar displays. The outside temperature of 91 degrees was our primary motivation. I conduct my hangar walk methodically, without missing an aisle of vendors. The process can lead to sensory overload, so it’s best to scan ahead before proceeding.

Having successfully accomplished that—inclusive of a very tasty chicken pita sandwich that I confess to having low expectations for—we sought refuge back in the FLYING Media Group tent, while we awaited the arrival of my Connecticut crowd and associates.

It was great to reunite with old friends—airline colleagues and GA pilots alike. Introductions were made, and within seconds the verbal abuse began. Like a fighter pilot, it’s best to begin as the aggressor, but inevitably you are shot with a missile or a fusillade of high-caliber rounds. I apologized to my fellow magazine staff members, who were caught in the crossfire. Day one ended with hotel check-in, a rushed shower, and dining at our standard tradition of Bonefish Grill.

Without a clue as to his job description, Mike had volunteered for some type of ops duty, beginning with a briefing at 07:30 the next morning. Having been extended an invitation by his fellow JetBlue check airman friend and air operations chairman, Sam Huffstetler, I attended. I had no doubts as to the organizational strength of Sun ‘n Fun, but it was a great experience to witness how some of the sausage was made. The professionalism of the volunteers was impressive. Sam was three weeks from leaving the airline and, as is typical for my colleagues, wanted assurances that he would sur- vive retirement. I confirmed that was almost certain. His immediate plans were to embark on a 3-month bicycle tour across the country and to grow his air boss business: Mike found his volunteer niche at the top of the announcer’s tower, talking on the advisory frequency. He shared duties with another JetBlue colleague, assisting airplanes on the taxiway that may have lost their way. It was a great vantage point. Unfortunately, he witnessed an Aeroshell T-6 ground loop after a rudder steering cable allegedly broke.

I managed a quick visit with my Jetmobile friend and his wife. As usual, he was engaged with an activity; on this occasion, it was an impromptu parade with his motorized 747 engine. Now both retired, Paul and Susie were not leaving much runway underneath their feet, traveling to various destinations almost biweekly.

After a Mexican lunch outside of the compound, my airline friends led the way into the comfort station tent of the Allied Pilots Association (APA), my former pilot union. As expected, I had close encounters with long- lost colleagues. In addition, I engaged in a refreshing conversation with the enthusiastic daughter of one our Boeing 737 pilots. At 25, she was a C-17 pilot in the Air Force reserves, soon to be on the fast track to my former employer.

Day two ended with our traditional dinner at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa. It’s always an experience, especially with a crowd of eight. The dessert room is required attendance by our group’s bylaws, with the price almost exceeding that of the steak just consumed.

Departure day was spent partly with my editor-in-chief, an unusual treat since her hair is usually on fire. As part of that, Julie coordinated for me the opportunity to meet Daher staff and sit in the TBM 960, an incredibly sophisticated machine.

We inhaled an early lunch of BBQ chicken and had the Bonanza’s engine started by 12:15. Our departure was without issue except for the delay caused by two Amazon 737 arrivals. After a successful navigation through Orlando’s Class-B airspace, we arrived in KOMN no worse for the wear.

Sun ‘n Fun is certainly about the airplanes, but it’s the people that define the experience.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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