Sun 'N Fun
April 11-12, 2008

There are two really big fly-in in the US each year. Sun 'N Fun is second only to Oshkosh. Since Sun 'N Fun is held in Lakeland, Florida, and that is a lot closer to me than Oshkosh, Wisconsin is. Lakeland is a three hour drive by car, but is only about an hour and a half by plane, so of course I wanted to fly there. My original plan was to just fly up and back in one day, since that was possible with the airplane. I also decided to take a day off work, with the theory that it would be less crowded during the week than on the weekend.

I finally decided to go up on Friday, but when I looked at the schedule of activities, I saw that in addition to the daily afternoon airshow, there was also an night airshow. During the airshow, the runway is closed for arrivals and departures. The runway opened up at 6 pm after the day show, but closed again at 7:30 pm for the night show. I decided I did not want to get in the middle of the traffic jam that would happen when everyone tried to leave in 90 minutes, so I decided to bring a tent and camp out next to the plane for one night, and then leave sometime Saturday morning.

I had several people I know from the airport mention they wanted to ride up with me, but none of them panned out. I think it was because I was spending the night there. No matter, that made travel plans very easy, since I only had to convince myself something was a good idea. And that was usually pretty easy!

Whenever you schedule a plane before they open in the morning, someone calls you to let you know what the combination is to the safe they keep in the hallway so that you can get the keys out. I usually try and call myself, just to remind them I have the plane first thing in the morning. At 8:10 pm Thursday night, I realized that I had forgotten to call them, and they had not called me. I tried calling the office, but they are only open until 8 pm, and had already left. Shoot! That is why I call them myself! I looked at the online schedule, and saw that one of the instructors had a lesson a 7 am, so I would just show up then and he could get me the keys. My plan was basically intact.

I awoke on Friday at 5 am to get ready to go. I wanted to be at the airport before 7am so that I could get the keys as soon as possible. My original goal was to be in the air around 7 am and arrive at Lakeland around 8:30 am. The exhibits opened at 9 am, so I would have a little time to tie down the plane, etc.

I arrived at the airport, and as I was climbing the stairs to see if I could get the keys to my plane, another student was coming down with the keys to another plane. I asked him if the safe had keys to any other planes, and he said there was a bunch in there. I asked him what the combo was, and when I opened the safe, the keys to my plane were there. Whew! This is one of the inconveniences of renting out your plane, I guess. I grabbed the keys and started moving stuff from my car to the plane. It only took two trips.

Walking through the lobby, I saw another student who was flying up to Sun 'N Fun, also. He was going as a passenger with someone I didn't know. I guess it was a popular day to fly up.

Although I had gotten a weather briefing on the internet the night before, and in the morning before I left the house. I thought it would be a good idea to call in for one, also. Sometimes when I call in, the briefer will emphasize something I missed reading the text on a screen. Well, that turned out to be a mistake. Because of Sun 'N Fun, there were a lot of NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) at Lakeland (LAL). She had to read them all to me, and the entire call, which usually only take five minutes, ended up taking 20 minutes, and I didn't learn anything new. Now I was behind schedule.

I finally got in the air around 7:30. The flight up was uneventful until I arrived in Lakeland. Here is a picture I took flying over the Sebring airport. It is located next to the famous racetrack. I should have waited until I was a little closer before I took the picture, but you get the idea. The racetrack is on the left, and the runway is on the right.

When I got close to the first checkpoint for the arrival procedure, I was initially pretty confused. Even though the NOTAM had pictures of the landmark, I was unprepared for how difficult it was going to be to spot. The landmark was a power plant on the north side of a lake (Lake Parker). What the picture in the NOTAM didn't show was the surrounding area. There were lakes all over the place, and a city surrounding the whole thing. Plus, there were airplanes everywhere. I was starting to get worried, when I finally saw what I believed to be the power plant. Plus, I was watching the other planes and they were all converging at the same location. I found another plane to get behind, and started following the conga-line into the airport.

I had a little trouble finding the two landmarks used for the turn into the airport, but I eventually saw them by watching where the rest of the traffic was. The arrival procedure wants you to fly at 100 knots airspeed, but my little plane tops out at 90 knots. That made me a little worried, but after the turn, everyone was basically in a single file line, and the ones behind me just adjusted their speed. Finally, when on final, the controllers told me to land on the orange dot, which was the furthest down the runway. My practice last weekend paid off, as I put the wheels right in the middle of the dot. It wasn't a soft landing, but it was good enough.

After landing, you show them a sign where you want to go, and the numerous volunteers show you where to go. I was going to One Night Camping, so I had a sign that said "ONC". As the golf cart directed me to my parking spot, my plane got stuck in the mud. It had rained quite a bit on Monday that week, and the fields were just starting to dry out. I had to stop the engine, get out of the plane and push it out of the mud (with help from the guy in the golf cart). Then I started the plane up again, and started going forward, just to get stuck again. This time wasn't as bad, so I didn't stop the engine and someone just pushed on the plane until I was free. I finally made it to my parking spot around 9:15.

My parking place was right next to the VORTAC antenna. The best thing about it was how close it was to the runway. The Air Force Thunderbirds were performing every day this year, and they were parked near me. Here is some shots of my parking spot.

Notice the Thunderbirds behind me. That was about 100 yards away.

Here is the VORTAC antenna on the other side of me.

While I was tying down my plane, the Thunderbird pilots arrived.

I then tied down my plane and then I had to track down the mobile registration (who was supposed to be tracking me down), to pay my entrance and camping fee. By then, it was about 9:55. There was a seminar on Van's Aircraft I wanted to attend that started at 10:00. I would have to hustle if I was going to make it. Little did I realize it was about a mile to the seminars, vendors, etc.

While walking to the seminar, I saw this overhead.
This type of thing went on all day.

I finally made it to the seminar about 10:10. A little late, but not too bad. Here is a picture of Van's chief engineer describing some of the engineering that went into their newest kit plane, the RV-12.

I spent the next part of the day looking at the vendors in the big hangars, walking around, and eating. I spent some time in the Vans Aircraft booth, talking to them about building one of their planes. I finally got to sit in one like I am thinking of building (the RV-7). The cabin is narrow, although not as narrow as my plane is. The leg room, though, is wonderful, and it is much more comfortable than my plane is. The plane is a little difficult to get in and out of, but all small planes are, including mine. In looking at the other planes there, I realized that you really have to get into an expensive plane to have a really big cockpit. I bought an "info pack" from Vans. I think I am really getting close to making a decision on this. I just need to get a couple other things done around the house before I can start.

As it started to get closer to the time the Thunderbirds were going to perform, I decided to head back to the plane and watch it in the shade of the wing of my plane. Walking back, I realized they really put me way far away from all the action. I took a lot of pictures of the Thunderbirds, but my camera is not really suited for this type of photography, so you will just have to do with a few pictures.

Here they are taxiing out to the runway.

Here, they are preparing to take off. Four first, and then the other two.

My best picture as they leave the runway in formation.

Here is a formation fly by.

After the Thunderbirds were finished, I went back to the vendors to walk around some more. One thing I noticed was the really high price of new planes. This is one of the reasons I am planning on building my own plane. Here is an example of a sign I saw at the Cessna booth.

Only $3,503 per month. What a deal! That is more than the mortgage on my house!

The booths started closing down at 5 pm, so I wandered back to my plane through the warbird area. I wasn't sure how long the food vendors would stay open, so I stopped and got something to eat. While eating, I watched the end of the airshow. There was a really amazing biplane that did some really spectacular acro only a few feet off the ground. I don't know who it was, but his show was not your normal loops an rolls. My favorite trick was him flying his biplane down the runway sideways (audience looking at the top of the plane), and then he slips it down to about five feet off the runway, and then flys the rest of the way down the runway with the plane still sideways only five feet off the pavement.

When I got back to my plane, there were a few more planes, and several people were hanging out around their planes. There were two guys sitting under the wing of the plane next to me, but it turns out that they were just sitting there for the view, and they didn't really own the plane. I took the remaining hour or so of daylight to set up my tent.

Home Sweet Home

About this time, the airshow had ended, and the runway was open for departures again. I set up my chair and sat with the two other guys and we watched the planes trying to leave. Here is what the line looked like:

Some of the planes in line to leave. Keep in mind this is the departure end of the runway!

After a while, we decided to time how long it took for planes to leave. The one plane we timed took forty minutes to go from in front of us to actually getting in the air. And we were not looking at the very end of the line. This is why I decided to stay the night.

While we were watching the planes, the real owners of the plane next to me showed up. It turns out they were from North County airport as well. Also, a group of planes arrived and parked next to us. That group was from Lantana airport, also in Palm Beach County. The guy on the other side of me was from Stuart. So I flew into one of the largest airshows in the country to be surrounded by people from home! The Lantana group was funny, though. They brought a gas powered blender so they could make margaritas. As the sun set, I took this picture of the Thunderbirds.

Finally, the night airshow started. It was really interesting, with several of the planes attaching fireworks to the wings and lighting them off before doing the acrobatics. I took some pictures, but none of them came out. After the airshow, I went back to the main Sun 'N Fun area (again!) with the two guys from North County. We had a few beers at a bar there, looked through a telescope someone had set up, and then headed back to the planes. At that point, it was about 11 pm and I was beat. I climbed into the tent and went to sleep.

The next morning, we awoke to this:

A balloon race was the first thing Saturday morning.

I got dressed, and headed for the showers. After that, I walked back to the main site (again!) to check the weather with Flight Service, and then I got something to eat. I headed back to the plane and started to get ready to leave. There is a special procedure for leaving, and other than initially having the volume on my radio too low, it went pretty smoothly. The winds had shifted by the time I left, so my plane was now parked on the departure end of the runway, so my taxi was pretty short. It was 11 am by the time I left the ground.

After take-off, you have to fly three miles out before turning. I turned south and kept my eye out for other planes, but most everyone was heading north to go home. Then I flew to Okechobee airport to refuel before heading to North County. I was back at North County a few minutes after 1 pm.

All in all, I had a great time. The only really stressful part was the arrival at Lake Parker. Once I got through that, everything else was fine. It was not as difficult to fly in there as I had thought.