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Eye of the Experimenter: Sun ‘n Fun Spirit Rebounds

By Patrick Panzera, Editor – Experimenter, EAA 555743

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Tony Spicer was scheduled to fly in the afternoon air show in his RV-3 with TeamRV before the storms and tornado hit the Sun ’n Fun grounds Thursday.

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Crowds filled the flightline as the air show began Friday afternoon.

View new photos from Friday at Sun 'n Fun

April 2, 2011Experimenter Editor Patrick Panzera spent all week at Sun ’n Fun and witnessed the indelible spirit of the aviation community in the wake of the damaging storm on Thursday. As he departed today the lines to enter the parking lots stretched for 2 miles. Pat passed along these observations about this most eventful week in Florida where, by the end, the sun and fun clearly had returned to Lakeland.

Those arriving in the early afternoon Friday would be hard-pressed to tell that anything negative took place the day before. Not to downplay the heartache and financial setbacks suffered by so many, the overall damage may not be all that the media made it out to be. With the hard work that took place overnight - relocating broken planes, re-erecting damaged tents, removing fallen trees, and repositioning various stray directional signage - the place looked a lot different the morning after.

In addition to the photos of the planes we’ve all seen on the Internet and TV, several of the non-aircraft vendors were devastated just as badly. Some were totally put out of business with their products and/or equipment completely ruined by the rain or scattered about to never be retrieved, while others who suffered minimal damage simply picked up the pieces and went about the day, business as usual.

But in general, Friday was perhaps the busiest day of the week thus far, with lines of people continuing to arrive well after 3 p.m. The promise of the Blue Angels and the night air show were definitely a draw, and I’m sure many of the locals came to see the wrecked airplanes in person. With the exception of just a few broken remains of aircraft, there was not all that much for the morbidly curious to gawk at.

But there was a great show with the F-22 Raptor defying all known laws of physics and the Blue Angels efficiently turning kerosene into noise and awe in their ballet of precision, as well as the stream of fireworks radiating from the wingtips of the night-time aerobatic exhibition. Of course the main vendor buildings were completely unharmed by the weather and were open for business sharply at 9 a.m., with crowded corridors throughout most of the day.

The educational forums (located in the newly dedicated Central Florida Aerospace Academy building) were under-attended by comparison to the days earlier in the week, but I would attribute that to the gloriously stunning weather, which by comparison to the day before defies reason for those of us who are not Florida natives. The hands-on workshops, located inside restored tent structures, seemed very well-attended with the participants happily working away on their assigned projects under the tutelage of their volunteer teachers. The woodworking shops (propeller carving, wing-rib construction, and fuselage construction) are located inside permanent buildings with metal roll-up doors, all of which went completely unscathed from peak winds of 95 mph and driving rain.

It was confirmed on Friday by the National Weather Service that an EF1 tornado crossed over the Lakeland Airport from west to east and touched down on the west end Runway 09-27 and stayed on the ground for 0.6 miles. Some display aircraft were picked up and tossed several yards away, to land on top of or next to other planes that otherwise would have been unaffected. Some vendor booths look looked like they were stepped on by Godzilla, while others within a few feet appeared as fresh and clean as the first day. But by Friday afternoon, anyone who had not been there the day before might not have even realized that a tornado had touched down only 24 hours earlier.

Although nearly a mile away from ground zero, Paradise City (the ultralight area at Sun ’n Fun) received its share of damage. But like show center, it was not easy to tell from the overall appearance of the grounds and the general attitude of the attendees that anything had happened the day before. In fact, it appeared that overnight the number of vendors and display aircraft nearly doubled. I was happy to see the demonstration aircraft flying in the ultralight pattern, something that the weather from the previous days didn’t allow.

As the sun began to set, the campgrounds were teeming with social life just as expected, though not as full as previous years, and very soggy for nearly a week’s worth of rain being dropped in just a few short hours. The only reminder of the negative aspects of the day before was seeing the occasional flatbed trailer leaving through the campground main road, loaded with the twisted remains of what was a show plane the previous day.

While this catastrophe is nearly unfathomable, the community in general is blessed and should be thankful that no one was killed and that so few people were actually injured. It could have easily been so much.

Stuff can be replaced; friends and family, not so much.

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