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Tue, Mar 25, 2003

Sun 'n Fun Insiders' Warning: 'Deadly' Conditions At 'Messed-Up' Fly-In (Part 1)

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

For many years, a culture of benevolent brotherhood (or sisterhood) had existed at the multitude of fly-ins that took place each year at popular airfields all over North America. Associated with one organization or another, these were strictly voluntary affairs that stressed a spirit of cooperation, the common bond that exists among aviators, and a simple desire to enjoy the aviation world (and each other's company) during a few days in which all these interests came together. For many years, these pleasant interludes were non-political, inexpensive, and designed solely for the benefit of all those who came together under the shared banner of a common love of aviation. They were amazing days...

Then, while we barely noticed, something truly unfortunate occurred. While a few of these fly-ins grew to be more popular than others -- many deservedly so and for all the right reasons (Arlington, WA, comes to mind) -- a few grew despite more "negative" motivations. The few who managed to maintain a sense of caring, made great efforts to keep the events pleasant, affordable and safe.

But; a few others went afoul of their original purpose and seemed to lose their focus. Political kingsmanship became an over-riding and controlling factor in their management; a concern for attendees was replaced by other more-selfish motives (money and ego, among others); the sense of brotherhood started disappearing; the cost of attending spiraled out of control; and the safety of such events was negatively affected while, ultimately, people were killed, hurt or otherwise harmed.

Under the veil of their parent organizations, criticism of such problems was downplayed as being the product of people who, at first, 'weren't team players;' while later warnings were simply ignored or countered with bluster; or even countered even with outright falsehoods.

The pro-aviation orientation of some fly-ins suffered, as more profit-oriented concerns took their place (even to the point where aviation-oriented attractions, vendors and exhibitors were turned away while non-aviation entities gained access), and aviators grew more and more alienated from the original mission originally -- and recently -- espoused by these events.

The worst example, based on our experience, is the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, an event that seems to have abandoned any real primary interest in serving the interests of aviation, the truth, or (most importantly) the well-being of those who attend or exhibit at the event.

The saga of the many problems that occur each year, at what appears to be the most consistently-risky aviation event in North America, have long been detailed here on ANN.

Sun 'n Fun, Specifically

However, even we have to express surprise at recent disclosures that further confirm our suspicions that the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In is more than just "poorly run" by a group that seems more interested in ego than accomplishment; and it now appears that SnF may be the most (potentially) deadly aviation event in the country. The foundation of these allegations is growing.

Sources that first sought out ANN, and others that have come forward later, allege a litany of abuse of power, political maneuvering, conflict of interest, ignorance -- and an atrocious lack of concern over safety. The hazards allegedly arise from the action/inaction of senior Sun 'n Fun officials and FAA personnel; and are made worse by dated, inefficient procedures and protocols that appear to be causative, in part, of the deaths of several pilots; and in the accidents that have befallen many more. Worse, these sources paint a worrisome picture of little change from years past, leaving the same hazards in place, causing one highly-placed Sun 'n Fun insider to remark, "I wonder who they'll kill this year."

Over the next several days, ANN will present the results of investigations and discussions with a number of parties. Like many of those who have found fault with Sun 'n Fun, many of our sources fear retribution, personally and professionally, citing their concern that Sun 'n Fun and/or the FAA will try to counter their criticism through negative pressures that would adversely affect their reputations, jobs or ability to enjoy the world of aviation. When requested, we have protected their identities, but we will be sharing all our recordings and appropriate notes with corporate counsel, who will have to keep our confidences, but can say (as officers of the court), that our sources do exist, to counter the usual nay-saying we expect from Sun 'n Fun, FAA, et al.

We've tried like hell to get the point and counter-point in these issues. Please note that our usual attempts to contact Sun 'n Fun have been rebuffed, that the City of Lakeland has not returned our calls; the FAA has not only refused to let us speak to key personnel in this story, but has decided that we must file FOIA requests for even the most basic requests for information, while also making obviously incorrect statements about other issues involving Sun 'n Fun.

Sigh.

For the moment, though, let us summarize the many concerns (some serious, even potentially deadly, some not -- but all seemingly intertwined) that have been expressed to us (with documentation and corroboration), from pilots, SnF-associated staffers, aviation experts, controllers, and others.

Here's what we're hearing and seeing:

1. Sun 'n Fun's air traffic environment relies on poorly-planned and dated protocols that have seen little improvement over the years, as well as (some) controllers not prepared/qualified to staff such a high-workload event. Political issues; FAA mis-management; NATCA's inability to overcome many obstacles; rampant conflicts of interest; the use/appointment of under-qualified/trained controllers; poor working conditions among the controller staff; lack of proper tools, equipment, fixtures and protocols; interference from Sun 'n Fun staffers/management; outdated procedures; an unwillingness to adapt to other (more successful) solutions; and "institutional arrogance" have been cited by several authorities (pilots, controllers, staffers, etc.) as reasons that they believe that the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In contains numerous unnecessary hazards and opportunities for disaster.

2. Sun 'n Fun's ground operations may be the most dangerous, especially to spectators, of any Fly-In. Dozens of  pilots/observers, as well as several experts and insiders have decried the manner in which Sun 'n Fun runs moving aircraft in such close proximity to spectators. Of special concern are operations through well-traveled taxiways, the warbird area, and the proximity of parking and highly-trafficked areas to low-flying arrival and departure paths where troubled aircraft might have to come down.

3. The lightplane operations area is simply too confined, bordered too closely by parking and spectators, as well as other obstacles, to allow safe operations. Further, operational supervision of the area reportedly leaves much to be desired: errors have been made that appear to have resulted in hazardous situations. For example, One death and one injury occurred at SnF 2001, when an aircraft was dispatched with a 12 kt downwind component, running off the runway, into a known obstacle (a ditch). No attempt was reportedly made to change the pattern despite the obviously adverse conditions. Worse, had the accident occurred in the opposite direction, the aircraft could have crashed in a populated parking lot and could have harmed spectators.

4. Sun 'n Fun (by and large) refuses to deal with the issue of unscrupulous vendors and other parties. While no one expects (or wants) SnF to play 'sky-cop,' one certainly does not expect the organization to ignore overt and oft-repeated complaints from customers defrauded by vendors who travel, year to year, to this event. Worse: there are a number of cases in which Sun 'n Fun seems to have taken a stance of defending vendors who have, without doubt, conned or defrauded attendees.

5. Sun 'n Fun seems intolerant of suggestions of change or improvement. There is no question that Sun 'n Fun does not take well to criticism and that their displeasure over such has reportedly resulted in insults, threats, at least two known incidents that might be characterized as "assault," legal action (or threats of same), libel, slander and outright banishment, even from properties controlled by the federal government (and in reported violation of federal law).

6. There seems to be "Something Rotten in Denmark" inside the Sun 'n Fun organization. The organization seems to be coming apart at the seams. A number of once-pivotal persons with this organization have either been fired or have resigned (or been forced out), and many of them are NOT happy about it. Staffed heavily by volunteers (who have usually proven to be amazing people), a number of SnF Insiders (including former paid staff) indicate that volunteer morale is suffering and that treatment of volunteers has become unacceptable.

7. The association between Sun 'n Fun and EAA/Oshkosh grows ever more troubled (even combative) as Sun 'n Fun suffers greatly from "Oshkosh Envy." It is no secret that the once close relationship between former parent organization (EAA) and the Sun 'n Fun organization (whose corporate structure, once incorporated as the Sun 'n Fun EAA Fly-In, is now re-incorporated as the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, Inc.) has fallen on harder times.

8. Government organizations seem unwilling or conflicted in taking any overt action involving Sun 'n Fun. We're amazed that a number of local and federal government agencies haven't been more proactive, (or reactive, for that matter) in dealing with Sun 'n Fun issues. That is, until you see FAA and Lakeland City officials gifted with positions on the Sun 'n Fun board, offered "courtesies," or otherwise rewarded. This may be one of the most-entrenched "good ol' boy" networks in aviation.

9. Sun 'n Fun often attacks its critics in surprisingly aggressive and questionable ways. This organization not only doesn't take well to criticism, but has an alarming tendency to attack its critics (often with personal attacks or blatantly false and/or unproveable allegations) and has been fairly successful in stifling dissent from critics, ex-employees, etc.

10. The aviation public seems to be getting sick of Sun n Fun, exhibitors are increasingly pessimistic (if not bailing out), and attendance is definitely on the decline. ANN received letters and e-mails from people indicating that nearly 11,000 pilots and associates would be bypassing last year's event; and we expect a greater number, this year. While they were obviously upset over the bizarre ban that Sun 'n Fun has imposed on a certain journalist (yr. obdt. svt.), a great many had a litany of other complaints, horror stories and reasons that they were citing as additional reasons to elect to NOT attend this event. In light of the growing disenchantment and building negative momentum, we fear this event may be unsalvageable.

There's more, but you get the idea. This is a summary of the issues we'll be dealing with over the next several days. We intend to offer this series on a daily basis, but we must note that with all this AND war coverage, some interruptions may occur. We will update ALL stories to use associated links so that you can keep all these pieces organized and accessible.

Significant hazards exist at SnF, especially for those flying in (or those walking in the many areas that offer less than optimal separation between spectators and moving aircraft). In other words, "Watch your six, your twelve -- and the rest of the clock."

We add this: we're well past the point where we can even think of recommending attendance at this event. If you want to attend a major fly-in, we recommend you look to the annual EAA Fly-In in Oshkosh (WI), this July and bypass this Fly-In. Oshkosh has problems, too, but not nearly as pervasive or as dangerous as those we've encountered (and been briefed on) at Sun 'n Fun. Attend a major Fly-In (or best of all, the AOPA Expo) this year at Oshkosh, Arlington or Copperstate -- forget Lakeland. In our opinion, it's simply too risky, too expensive, too restrictive, too uncaring -- and not nearly that much fun any more -- to deserve your attendance or your support.

Why You Don't Have To Go: We Go

One caveat: Despite our problems and misgivings about this event, ANN will send its usual team of journalists (including Jim Campbell, though he may be turned away again in apparent violation of the Constitution of the United States of America) to this event so that proper news events and issues will continue to be covered professionally and accurately. A lot of the fun we used to have doing this is long gone, but professionalism dictates that we be there and to do the best job we can of reporting legitimate news. [However, if this event keeps declining, we may decide not to cover it in future years, in favor of more legitimately newsworthy events. This thing is tanking fast. We'll keep you apprised --EIC.]

We will note one thing with some amusement... if Sun 'n Fun hadn't been so aggressive in their harassment and attempts to intimidate/silence ANN's Jim Campbell, we strongly doubt that a lot of what we're discovering would have come to light -- but when somone is fighting a journalist this viciously, it's an easy bet that some digging will turn up why... and that's just what we've done. 

Next: ANN looks at last year's deadly Sun 'n Fun mid-air, some of the sad factors involved, speaks to quite a few people with strong first-hand knowledge of the issues, and why previous tragedies might still happen--again.

FMI:  www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.overview.html, www.sun-n-fun.org

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