(Part Two of an Extensive Investigation into the Sun 'n Fun
The long flight to a major fly-in is
often the high point of an aviator's year. Careful planning, lots
of aircraft/navigation preparation and a careful flight should give
way to the delight of a pleasant arrival and the much-treasured
chance to ogle airplanes safely and shamelessly for days on
end… unless you're on the way to Sun 'n Fun.
In the case of flying to Lakeland, Florida's, Sun 'n Fun, pilots
have found the process daunting, confusing, tasking and just plain
dangerous… if the swarm of widely disparate traffic over
Lake Parker doesn't give you the screaming willies, the
bottle-necking of arrivals at one end of the Lakeland's East/West
runway (often with a step-over to a smaller parallel runway that
isn't really a runway) and the frenzied communications (whatever
one can make out through the intense babble, anyway)
will do the trick. Veterans of many a fly-in, even the grand-daddy
of them all (Oshkosh), readily admit that the amount of traffic is
getting out of control, and that SnF procedures that have changed
little (if at all) over the years, are an accident waiting to
happen… again and again.
Last year, the usual rash of fender-benders, close-calls,
ground-loops and other misfortunes got a lot worse. Before the
Fly-In even got off to an official start, five accidents had
occurred involving 7 aircraft -- and the eventual death of one
pilot. The worst of these took place on the Friday afternoon before
the official opening on Sunday. Two aircraft collided over
Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport at 1505 local time. Both aircraft
were carrying only a single pilot and no passengers, and were in
close proximity to the runway.
The preliminary NTSB report states that,
"On April 5, 2002, at 1505 Eastern Standard Time, a Piper PA-16,
N5293H and a Betts RV6A, N3333S, registered to a private owners,
operating as a 14 CFR Part 91 personal flight, experienced a
mid-air collision while landing to runway 27 right at
Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport, Lakeland, Florida. Visual
meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed
for either airplane. Both airplanes sustained substantial damage.
The private pilot in N5293H sustained serious injuries and the
private pilot in N3333S was fatally injured. N5293H flight
originated from Perry, Florida, at 1330. N3333S flight originated
from Cross City, Florida, at an undetermined time.
"The air traffic controller working as the local controller in
the Lakeland tower stated several airplanes were approaching from
the north. The maroon RV6A was in front of the gray PA-16 on the
downwind. He called the base leg for the RV6A and he was slow to
respond. He called the base leg for the PA-16 and the separation
looked good between the two airplanes. A landing clearance was not
going to be issued until he was assured that both airplanes could
land on runway 27 Right. He observed the PA-16 over taking the RV6A
and instructed the RV6A to side step to runway 27 left, but the
pilot did not respond to his instructions. He repeated the
instructions but the RV6A pilot did not respond to the
instructions. He then informed the PA-16 pilot to climb and he did
not respond to the instructions. The nose of the RV6A was observed
to pitch up violently and both airplanes collided with the
In little more than 24 additional hours, several more aircraft
were significantly damaged. Among the reported mishaps were a
gear-up by a Mooney (more on that later…) that had
previously executed a go-around, another in a nose-over, and yet
another landing collision in which a German Extra appears to have attempted to
mate with a Navion during yet another landing
Throughout the week, ANN received
hundreds of complaints about procedures,
documentation and the inability of embattled controllers to keep up
with the "swarm" that arrived and departed each day from
Lakeland… despite reports that the crowds were much subdued
from those seen in years past. A great number of pilots cited
inadequate ATC assistance during approaches, the
failure of the NOTAM to properly address approach
procedures (especially communications), poor
ground references/navaids, and a
"little-too-close" spacing on arrival. The pilot
of the RV-6A involved in the Friday mid-air, Jerry Morrison, 63, of
Austin (TX), subsequently died due to the injuries he suffered in
the crash, which was actually the second of the day. It
occurred just a few hours after an accident in which an
experimental aircraft reportedly suffered a "hard landing."
Local media reports assert that Sun 'n Fun had (up 'til that
weekend) been involved (directly or indirectly) in nearly thirty
accidents, with a total of 15 fatalities since 1975. ANN's perusal
of the records indicates that this estimate (at least the total
number) may actually be understated.
Pilots reported, over and over again, a number of instances in
which they felt that flying in, or out of, the event was a
lot less safe than it should have been...
Among the tales we were
told: "… I flew into Lakeland twice during the
convention. First time was Saturday about noon in a warbird
six-ship formation -- two three-ship formations of T-6s; and I was
'tail end Charlie,' number six.
"Our formation was told to set up for an initial approach to
runway 9R for an overhead right break to land, which we did. We
were advised that other 'civilian' traffic was landing on runway
9L. Our flight accomplished the break and spacing on downwind leg,
and as briefed, began landing on alternate sides of the runway 9R.
As the last airplane (me) is rolling out on final, a high-wing
Cessna which was supposed to be landing on 9L came over to 9R right
between our number 5 plane and number 6 airplane (me). I just do
not see how he could not have seen about three or four other T-6s
staggered on the runway and number 5 and 6 on final. He (the
Cessna) did not respond to my radio call or the tower and landed in
the middle of the runway, necessitating a go-around by me from low
altitude (already over the end of the runway). This was a very
unsafe and uncomfortable situation. I heard nothing said to the
Cessna by the tower after landing on the wrong runway.
"Now, if that one is not enough, get this: after flying in the
warbird show on Sunday and Monday, I took the T-6 back home and
exchanged it for my Christen Eagle which was to fly in the airshow
on Friday and Saturday.
"Arriving Thursday morning about 1030AM, we proceeded to Lake
Parker from the north for the prescribed arrival procedure. We
followed all the instructions given, and requested the wide runway
(9R), which was approved.
"We were told to follow a low-wing Piper and that he would be
landing on 9L. We closed up the spacing on him because there was no
one ahead of him landing on 9R, and since he was landing on 9L,
this would help expedite the traffic behind us. Low and behold, he
lines up on 9R for landing, right in front of me. I asked the tower
to verify that he was supposed to be landing on 9L and they
confirmed that he was. The Piper did not respond to the tower or my
radio calls and proceeded to land on 9R. Spacing was now too close
and I executed a go-around. Once again, I never heard the tower say
one word to the aircraft that landed on the wrong runway.
"So, I flew in twice, and I had two very unsafe
situations where there could have been accidents. Both of
the aircraft that I was flying have very limited visibility over
the nose once they roll out on final approach and begin slowing to
landing speed. The tower SHOULD HAVE BEEN VERY AWARE AND FIRM to
the two aircraft that were not following tower instructions, both
before the incidents and after. Maybe they were afterwards, but I
never heard anything on the radio."
Another pilot wrote:
"…keep chasing those SNF guys - I voiced those same
concerns a number of years ago - and credit them with several
fatals. I will no longer even consider flying
in - too many stupid SOBs out there -- and I flew in the
mix at Quang Tri when as many as 150-200 aircraft were pretty much
in sight of each other -- many with medical or combat damage
problems. It's out of control, as far as I'm
Yet Another: "I was on final to land my GlaStar
Friday when the two planes crashed. Didn't see it happen as I
was banking probably to base leg. The tower started calling me to
abort and I overflew the wreckage. I thought I was following
the high wing in. Don't understand why there was not someone
on the approach end watching if planes got to close.
"Went back to Lake Parker for the holding pattern from
Hell. About 30 planes, most could not hold correct
altitude, speed, or track. After 30 minutes of that I diverted
to Bartow (great people there). Got a rental car and
a motel at 27/4. Flew back to Ohio Saturday due to possible
changing weather later in the week (and safety concerns).
Made Oshkosh the last two years in my GlaStar but this was the
first try at Lakeland. Probably won't try
Here's another that came in just today: I was
there two years ago doing training at FlightSafety, on the field,
and departed Lakeland Airport on the day before the fly-in began. I
was flying a turboprop and the controllers cleared me for and
firmly insisted that I take off immediately behind a C172, since a
gaggle of aircraft were on final behind me. As a result, I ended up
flying a traffic pattern completely different from the one which
was required, and in a hurry to get away from the mess, I ended up
climbing into the Tampa Class B. I filed a NASA report and fully
expected to hear from the FAA as I was on flight following. I guess
they must have thought anyone who lived through such a fiasco
(Sun-N-Fun) has been punished enough. I am
returning to FlightSafety this year and will be landing a
safe 25-30 miles from the scene.
And one more for good measure:
"On Sunday morning (4/7/02), I flew up to Lakeland from the Florida
Keys with one (non-pilot) passenger. About 40 miles to the south we
started hearing the controllers at LAL YELLING at pilots that:
- they were too close to each other
- that one guy almost hit a Maule
- that there were too many planes at Lake Parker
- that all planes had to go "elsewhere" while they got sorted out
and a variety of other reprimands to all pilots entering the
"It sounded like chaos, but we hoped it would
improve as we got closer, so we continued on course. About 20 miles
south we found planes at every altitude, going in every direction.
We had all been told NOT to go to Lake Parker, but to go instead to
Lake Hancock and hold 'for at least 45 minutes.' No one seemed
to be able to find Lake Hancock."
"Lake Parker had been described as being 6 miles to the
northeast of the airport, but there was no distance given for Lake
Hancock. The map included with the FAA NOTAM showed Lake Hancock to
be about 10 miles to the east of the airport. This, keep in mind,
is in an area of at least 50 lakes of varying sizes and
"So my passenger and I (he VERY RATTLED at this point between
the chaos on the radio and the mass of aircraft flying in every
direction around us) both twisted our necks in every direction,
looking not only for Lake Hancock but other planes."
"When we finally arrived at what we thought was Lake Hancock, we
found planes at every altitude between around 300
ft and 1200 ft (the recommended altitude) and traveling at various
airspeeds (we were supposed to maintain 100 IAS). We jumped into
the hold and started getting ourselves stabilized for a few
go-rounds when we flew over a power plant which was not supposed to
"After referring back to the chart, we realized that we were not
over Lake Hancock, but over Lake Parker, the exact place we had
been told NOT to go. No one had, apparently, seen us entering the
hold over Lake Parker and so no one told us that we were in the
"After 7 or 8 times around, speeding
up and slowing down to avoid hitting other planes, changing
altitudes constantly for the same reason, we were released from the
hold and directed into the airport, all the while hearing pilots'
circling various lakes, asking if they were in the right place and
how long they'd be there."
"My passenger commented that he thought the FAA should be
involved in controlling air traffic next year. When I told him that
they already were, he was incredulous that pilots actually
flew this way and that the FAA would sanction it."
"I could only agree with him."
"I will not be returning to Sun-N-Fun."
"Anyone who attempts to fly there without at least ONE OTHER
PAIR OF EYES is truly taking his life in his
hands. Even with someone helping to watch for other
planes, it is one of the most dangerous places I've ever
It Gets Worse...
OK… we've set the stage and heard
from just the smallest fraction of the pilots who had to deal with
this maelstrom of flying aluminum and glass. But, what about the
controllers? What do they think? Did they do a good job? Do they
have the tools and staffing they need to ride herd on all those
airplanes? Are the controllers assigned to Sun 'n Fun, the best the
FAA can find? Are all decisions made solely with safety interests
You won't like what we've been told.
We've heard from a number of experts who have worked the
Lakeland Tower and the tales they tell are worrisome… of a
bunch of ultra-dedicated aviation fans who put in long hours
serving a dated series of arrival and landing procedures; of
less-than-optimal equipment and working hours, and political
issues at every turn; of experienced controllers with many years of
experience getting passed over for Lakeland duty in favor of more
politically-favorable personnel (especially union members); of
"under-qualified" controllers being reassigned to Sun 'n Fun-even
after receiving less than stellar "grades" on their previous
performances; all kinds of Sun 'n Fun and FAA conflicts of
interest; some interesting personality clashes, and a whole host of
other issues which simply suggest that Sun 'n Fun is not nearly as
safe as it could be… and it seems that Sun 'n Fun, the FAA
and a number of other parties are doing little to change that.
Next: The controllers
speak… forcefully, passionately and scathingly
about working the Lakeland tower during the annual "Sun 'n Fun
Die-In," and their frustration with the roadblocks they encounter
in dealing with a senior Sun 'n Fun honcho, who ALSO works for
the FAA... can you say "conflict of interest," anyone?
controllers are going to have to wait one more day to speak out...
While the first part of this series was making shockwaves
throughout the aviation world, the guy with the "worst seat in
the house" in last year's midair collision, the guy who LIVED
THROUGH it, wrote ANN and volunteered to tell us what he knew about
what happened last year, and how the FAA is making his life
miserable in an apparent attempt to avoid legal liability.
So... the NEXT part of this series is devoted to Steve Pierce's
comments about last year's Fly-In, the safety of the event in
general, and some interesting developments that have taken place
since--and then we'll get to the amazing discussions we had with
some VERY dedicated and safety minded controllers.
And by the way... remember all the flack
we took for being so vocal about doubting Sun 'n Fun's
incredible attendance numbers? Well... according to the records
assembled by one local newspaper, Sun 'n Fun has been fudging their
attendance numbers... a LOT.
A whole lot.
Like... by as much as much as 400,000
people. More info to follow.
You're gonna love this...