Sun 'n Fun Insiders' Warning: 'Deadly' Conditions At 'Messed-Up' Fly-In (Part 2) | Aero-News Network
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Wed, Mar 26, 2003

Sun 'n Fun Insiders' Warning: 'Deadly' Conditions At 'Messed-Up' Fly-In (Part 2)

(Part Two of an Extensive Investigation into the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In)

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 ground."

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 attempt.

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 fatalsI 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 concerned."

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 again."

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:

  1. they were too close to each other
  2. that one guy almost hit a Maule
  3. that there were too many planes at Lake Parker
  4. that all planes had to go "elsewhere" while they got sorted out and a variety of other reprimands to all pilots entering the area

"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 shapes."

"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 be there."

"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 wrong place."

"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 flown."

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 in mind?

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?

CORRECTION: The 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...



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