I’m down in Lakeland, Florida this week at the second-largest fly-in in the United States. Sun ‘n Fun is kind of the kickoff to the flying season and like golf and the “southern swing” the weather is reliably good in this region for an outdoor event, and so the geographical location makes sense. As usual, when I travel to Florida for relaxation during the cold months, a heat wave hits the upper Midwest, mostly negating the benefit. Here we go again…
After working so many years behind the scenes at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, which is the largest fly-in in the world, it’s hard for any other event to really measure up. However, I have never been to Sun ‘n Fun, and this week-long event is much like Oshkosh in fit, form, and function.
The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) solidified and shaped the look and feel of the fly-in since the organization began in 1953. They didn’t invent the fly-in, but through its network of chapters and large membership (170,000), it’s hard to attend a fly-in that isn’t hosted by an EAA chapter. The EAA started as an organization that meant to connect people who liked to build and fly their own airplanes. Over nearly 60 years it has grown to represent most all of general aviation including: warbirds, vintage, water-borne craft and ultralight craft.
Sun ‘n Fun and the other regional fly-ins were either started by EAA, or affiliated with early on; although they are all independent events now. The events represent the best place for all these disparate aviation interests to meet and exchange ideas, find aircraft parts, learn new skills, see new products, and see all the best air show pilots in one place.
Most fly-ins are small one-day affairs; usually serving pancakes, eggs, etc. Larger fly-ins last several days to a week and there are about five regional events around the United States.
The key part of these events are the fly-in attendees who pack their planes full of camping gear and often trek great distances to attend. I have airplane camped once before, an overnight to Wisconsin’s Washington Island for a fish boil. But I have never camped at a fly-in for multiple days. You have to bring all the stuff you need for camping, but you have to pack light because an airplane can only carry so much.
Sun ‘n Fun, like Oshkosh, is a permanent fly-in site with shower facilities and other campground-like accoutrements. There is also a bevy of food vendors and options to drive into town. But you still need to bring only what you need: an air mattress, sleeping bag, clothes, tent, air pump, maybe a chair, but now we are getting into the optional stuff.
We flew down in a Cessna 180, which is called “Skywagon” and it can carry quite a lot. The three of us on this trip are friends, but not that cozy so we all had our own tents, etc., which meant that in the 4-seat airplane, the 4th seat was occupied by “stuff”.
The owner of the airplane left Oshkosh at 7 a.m. Monday (March 26); picked me up in Madison at eight, and one other passenger in Milwaukee at 9. Aside from some cloud decks in Wisconsin and Illinois it was clear skies the rest of the 1200 miles to Lakeland, which is rare to have uniform weather like that for such a long distance. We stopped in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Moultrie County, Georgia for fuel and bladder maintenance, landing in Lakeland near sunset after 7.5 hours of flying.
As one writer once said, “There are a million stories on the naked airport” and I’ll have a few more of them in the coming days.