After the Storm

Sun ‘n Fun storm damage Stephen Pope

Like a lot of people with a love for aviation, I’d definitely say I’m an adventure seeker. Mind you, that doesn’t mean I fit the daredevil mold. For instance, while I’d be the first person to join a group traveling to see the Inca ruins in Machu Picchu, I’d probably be one of the last to add bungee jumping or skydiving to the itinerary. Sure, I’m hopelessly drawn to fast airplanes, fast boats and fast cars, but of the three, a boat is the only one I’d jump out of — and only then if it was safely moored in shark-free waters. Preferably a lake. Or a swimming pool.

But despite my natural predilection to tend toward the more cautious approach, I’ve always been intrigued by that special breed of thrill seeker known as storm chasers. I guess there’s just something about witnessing first hand the most vicious and malevolent of storm forces Mother Nature can dish out — a monster tornado — that for me holds a special, although admittedly morbid, attraction. Sure, I’ve seen the footage on television, but an F5 tornado will never seem truly real until I’ve glimpsed one with my own eyes.

It’s a little different when the storm is chasing you instead of the other way around, of course. The thousands of attendees who were at Sun ‘n Fun last Thursday know what I’m talking about. Though according to the National Weather Service’s estimate it was a relatively weak F1 tornado, the fact that it was accompanied by 95-mph winds and touched down right in the middle of the exhibitor area during the country’s second biggest airshow raised that mean little twister to legendary status in the aviation world.

Hardest hit were the display areas of AirCam and Aviat, whose exhibits were almost completely wiped out. Bent wings and crushed fuselages littered Lakeland Linder Regional Airport along a half-mile stretch of grass and tarmac nearly as wide as a football field.

Surveying the damage, some of the amazing sights included a Cessna Caravan on floats that was flipped on its back; a DC-3 that had been driven backward into a ravine, where its tail crushed the canopy of a much smaller airplane; and a pileup of three homebuilt Pietenpols, which were so badly intertwined that it was hard to tell where one airplane ended and the next started. I even heard of an airplane being flipped up and clear over EAA president Rod Hightower’s T-6, without putting so much as a scratch on his airplane.

It’s a wonder nobody was killed.

The most heartening thing that emerged from the aftermath of the storm was the way the aviation community came together to support each other. Rival airplane manufacturers helped one another with the cleanup in time to reopen the show at 8 a.m. the next morning. Aircraft homebuilders whose kitplanes had tumbled into each other's discussed the best sources to find replacement parts. Similar to what has happened after other natural disasters, people’s first thoughts were about helping each other get back on their feet — or simply consoling fellow pilots in cases when the damage was too severe.

If you’ve been around long enough, you know aviation is full of really good people. Seeing it first hand at Sun 'n Fun last week was truly special. And, no surprise, suddenly I don’t have such a desire to see any more tornadoes up close and personal.


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