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Sun 'n Fun - The Aftermath

By Mary Jones, Director of Publications, EAA 224626

April 1, 2011 — They say the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, location,” and that proved to be true for many aircraft owners - both private and corporate - yesterday on the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo grounds. A fierce storm passed over the airport early Thursday afternoon, leaving more than 50 aircraft damaged or destroyed.

Phil Lockwood of Lockwood Aviation and Sebastien Heintz of Zenith Aircraft were neighbors in the outdoor exhibit area that appears to be one of the touchdown points of a tornado that skipped across the grounds. “I was in our exhibit tent when the storm hit,” Lockwood said, “and I ran to the back of the tent to turn off the TV because water was everywhere. Just as I reached the TV, the tent went into the air and a large parts display board fell over on me. When I crawled out from underneath the board, I was pounded by hail. It felt like I was being shot with a pellet gun. We all ran and took refuge in George Weber’s car.”

Afterward, all that remained of the tent was one corner of the frame. “It was a 20-by-30-foot tent with a large aluminum frame, and it is gone,” Lockwood said. “It was literally sucked up into the tornado, just like you see in the movies.”

Four Air Cams parked in the Lockwood display area were destroyed. Lockwood described the damage as amazing: “In some places, there’s extensive damage, and just a few feet away, it looks like nothing happened. The Tecnam booth across from us had little damage,” Lockwood stated, adding that two of the four Air Cams were insured.

Next door, Zenith Aircraft lost three demonstrators - a CH 750, a CH 650, and a CH 701. “We’re calling it ‘Ground Zenith,’” Heintz said. “Our little area seems to have been a focal point for the storm.”

Heintz and his staff had taken refuge in one of the metal exhibit hangars just down from their outdoor space. “When we saw the storm coming, I figured there was nothing we could do by staying in the tent, so we went to the hangar,” Heintz said. “The storm was a bum deal, for sure, but at least no one got hurt. I’ve often worried about stuff blowing into my planes when storms blow up at events like this. I never imagined my airplanes literally blowing over. We’ll build new demonstrators.”

Tony Spicer of Wilmington, North Carolina, crew chief for the TEAM RV formation team, lost his RV-3 in the storm when it was torn loose from its tiedowns and blown onto its back and into an RV-6 parked next to it. “I no longer own that airplane; it belongs to the insurance company,” Spicer said. “I was in a van in the homebuilt parking area not far from my plane when the storm hit, and it was thriller. I think had we been parked perpendicular to the wind, it would have blown the van over.” Spicer added, “Things could have been a lot worse had there been more airplanes here, but the homebuilt parking area was pretty empty. Storms the previous three days had kept a lot of airplanes from getting to Sun ’n Fun.”

In total, TEAM RV had two of its 12 airplanes destroyed, though five escaped with no damage. The remaining aircraft had various amounts of damage.

Perhaps one of the sadder sights on the field was that of a Pietenpol and two modified Pietenpols - aka “Big Piets” - rolled into a ball. In 2002, six members of EAA Chapter 976 of Carrolton, Georgia, started working on six airplanes together (their story is chronicled in the May 2009 issue of Sport Aviation, page 65). The airplanes were completed in late 2009 and two of those aircraft, along with Lion Mason Jr. and his Pietenpol, traveled together to Sun ’n Fun this year, only to be picked up and piled atop one another by Mother Nature.

The two Big Piets belong to Frank Metcalfe (N971BP) and Bruce Laird (N974BP). Barry Davis, another Big Piet builder and a member of EAA’s Board of Directors, said 18 members of Chapter 976 camped together at Sun ’n Fun this year. “I was planning to fly my Big Piet down, but at the last minute I had to drive the truck. Last night, we started calling it the ‘Pieten-pile.’ It helps to keep your sense of humor.”

Davis said the all-wood Pietenpol is probably a total loss, but said the chapter members had already disassembled the airplanes. “The fuselages are on one trailer and we’re putting the wings on another, and we’ll be heading back to the Atlanta area this afternoon and we’ll start rebuilding when we get back.”

Davis said he was just leaving a forum in the new Central Florida Aviation Academy building when the storm moved in. “We looked out and saw how green the sky was and knew it was going to be severe, so we stayed inside. They were telling everybody to stay away from the windows. I think it had to be a tornado,” he said. “One of the planes parked behind the Pietenpols had its engine torn from the plane and deposited about 150 feet away. To tear an engine from its mount takes some force.”

Late Thursday afternoon and evening, most of the damaged aircraft were removed to a separate area off the main show site. Heintz expressed some frustration with that process.  “We were told we had to leave the field and when we came back this morning, our planes had been moved. It would have been better if we could have stayed and helped with the relocation. Some parts that might have been salvageable were further damaged in that process. But, we’re trying to remain positive; it definitely could have been worse,” Heintz said.

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