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Past, Present, and Future of Paradise City

Dave Piper

Dave Piper, chairman of the Ultralight and Light Plane area at Sun ’n Fun known as Paradise City, answered questions in this Light Plane World interview conducted after the end of the fly-in. The photo shows Dave exactly as you might encounter him during Sun ’n Fun: in his buggy with a radio close at hand. He is the person called whenever there is a problem. He says he doesn’t solve problems but simply points people in the right direction. LPW:  How did you come to be chairman of the Ultralight area at Sun ’n Fun?

It’s all because of Bill McClung. He was the person who conceived the idea of the ultralight strip at Sun ’n Fun and served as its chairman in the early years. Bill worked hard to support the ultralight community and Sun ’n Fun and served on the board of directors. He turned a cow pasture into an ultralight fly-in. I was one of Bill’s students and helped with the fly-in so when he got a job with the airlines, I was the natural successor. It was a crash course for me at first. This is my 22nd year as chairman and I’m still learning.

LPW: In what kind of plane did you learn to fly, and what have you flown?

I learned to fly in a Beaver ultralight. This was even before the training exemption really got going. I also owned and flew the first Buccaneer prototype, #001. Later I taught others to fly for about 10 years in a Maxair Drifter MU-582 under the ultralight training exemption.

LPW: When did you first hear of the storm about to strike the airport on Thursday?

We had plenty of warning right there on the field. Many people now have smartphones that can display weather images including the radar. We were watching it all morning. I don’t remember hearing or seeing an official tornado warning before it struck but we were making preparations. One of our former volunteers, now at Sun ’n Fun Flight Operations, phoned to say we could move some of our aircraft into a permanent hangar.
The volunteers really scrambled and we cleared a path and taxied 21 airplanes to shelter, saving them from the tornado. Only five planes were damaged on our field. Even John Moody’s antique ultralights withstood the storm. The massive cleanup effort, also mostly by volunteers, began immediately and continued throughout the night so we were able to re-open by 11 the next morning.

LPW:  How many volunteers do you have?

Sun ’n Fun has 3,700 volunteers and Paradise City has 135. About 60 of those are full-time weekly volunteers that work 10-12 hours per day. I’m a volunteer too. I don’t do this every day. The whole show would not be possible without key individuals such as Carla Larsh in the headquarters tent, Terri Kurtz in the office, and Dan Moyer, the site supervisor, who arrives months in advance to oversee preparation of the grounds. You can’t pay people enough to do these jobs. We like to say, “Volunteering is the toughest job you will ever get, and still you love it.”  The volunteers are like family to me and they are my first priority.

LPW: Describe your biggest problem.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is the fracturing of the light plane community at Sun ’n Fun due to the rise of the new LSA aircraft. Many of the light plane and LSA display aircraft have moved to other areas in the hope of attracting more passing pedestrian traffic. In some cases that might be all they get. Several areas have expressed interest in LSAs because they are the new and growing segment of aviation. I want to bring them back to Paradise City. We can provide something they can’t get elsewhere: easy access to a runway for daily flying.
 
LPW:  What are your ideas for the future?

I want to re-organize Paradise City and make it more friendly and usable for everyone including the new LSAs. If we move the big headquarters tent into the middle of the area, it would free up the west end of our field for the planes now located elsewhere. Some of the LSAs would move barely 200 feet from their current position but would have full access to our runway. I’ve been talking to Dan Johnson, the organizer of the LSA Mall, for advice on how we can move in that direction. For now we have to stop all traffic including trams, golf carts, autos, and pedestrians moving through one of the busiest intersections, to get them to the runway. We can’t do it on a regular basis. More signs and new signs would be needed to direct spectators to the newly arranged area. We will also consolidate ultralight camping on the east end and encourage pilots to avail themselves of the opportunity to camp under their wings. Let’s make Paradise City live up to its name.

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