Sun ’n Fun air show still dazzles after four decades

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Winged beauty queens of aluminum, wood and carbon fiber graced the runway at the 40th annual Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland Florida. From April 1-6 the grounds near the Lakeland Linder Airport received a flux of more than 200,000 visitors and a purported economic boost of around $2 million.

Here, the air traffic matched the car traffic as many attendees flew in on their own small planes and camped out at the site, nestled in the shadow of historical aircrafts such as the World War II bomber, the B-17 – “The Silver Queen” – only 12 of which are said to still be operable.

Part museum, part fundraiser and part educational outreach opportunity, the expo beckons all who have ever dreamed of flying. Pilots and dilettantes alike were able to find a niche at the event with a program packed with seminars, workshops, auctions and even a Catholic mass. Some came closer to stars of the human variety at the Dinner with Legends fundraising event; for $525-$785 you could share a meal with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, WWII Tuskegee Airman Colonel Charles McGee and members of the WWII Women Air Service Pilots among other aviation legends.

Temperatures reached the high 70s at the peak of the expo but the World War II-era soldiers, pin ups and nurses milling around the grounds were no mirage. Asked what it felt like to play the bad guy, a World War II Nazi nurse reenactor laughed, “Well, I’m German and I like the uniform.”

“We like to do it because we’re history geeks. We like to keep history alive,” she added, waving at an American World War II soldier, out of character, no doubt.

The reenactors, along with set up and production crew and many owners of the antique planes on display were volunteers, a testament to the intense passion that fuels the expo. People from more than 82 different countries came to see things such as vintage wooden propellers and now-extinct engines, airborne museums and relics of olden times. Make the charming mistake of starting a conversation with a starry-eyed visitor and you are in for a long and detailed response.

“Come into my office,” Pilot Timothy A. Chopp, founder and president of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation joked as he motioned toward the cockpit.

Chopp cannot say with absolute certainty what drove him to create a museum inside a more than 6-decade-old C-54 plane he purchased for nearly $200,000 in 1993. “I have an answer for that: God. Because I don’t know why, I don’t have the answer,” Chopp mused. “I can remember as a 6-year-old boy I fell in love with a C-54.”

Parked next to a bomber plane, Phillip Karnes, a missionary pilot, was at the expo with Missionary Flights International (MFI). He makes multiple weekly trips to Haiti, delivering medical equipment, supplies and sometimes goats and chickens. For $5 visitors could climb aboard the plane and walk inside its steep incline. Karnes was more than happy to tell stories of “sheer beauty but also sheer terror.” Watching sharks swim in the Caribbean from the window classified as a bit of both.

Proceeds from tickets sales go toward the enrichment of aviation through scholarships for young pilots. Among the groups raising such funds is The Ninety-Nines, an international organization for women pilots.

“We’ve had this building here since 2000. Before that we had a trailer. And way back when, when Sun ‘n Fun first started in the 70s or 80s, we had a tent, out back somewhere,” Elinor Kline, a member of the 99’s, said, reflecting on the growing visibility of female pilots.

If all the other planes are beauty queens, the Blue Angels are the prima donnas of the aviation world. The Angels are the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron; they perform aerobatic feats in more than 70 shows nationwide every year. Last year’s government sequester grounded all performances, making their appearance at the expo this year extra special.

The roughly 500 vendors at the expo peddled more than just emblazoned t-shirts and overpriced beverages; visitors circled around tents selling headsets, specialized aviation equipment and yes, even airplanes. Each day culminated with a bombastic fireworks display, promising even better things to come when the expo returns on April 21 next year.

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