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Tue, Apr 19, 2005

Someplace It Ain't Yet - The Lakeland Fly-In

By ANN Correspondents John Ballantyne and Kevin O'Brien

At the end of every show, we try to do a little bit of a wrap-up and see how things went overall. This year at Lakeland, we sent our most experienced guys to their respective ends of the field to assess the show. We talked to exhibitors, attendees, happy campers, and a couple of just plain campers. Here's what they told us, and what we saw with our own eyes.

The "Ultralight" (Or Light Plane?) Area

During the last days of the week-long event, ANN taped a series of interviews with Sun 'n Fun’s major exhibitors and long-time volunteers in the ultralight (sport pilot?) area which is often called Paradise City. By this time of the week staffers are tired, hot and want to go home. So they are most likely to say exactly how they felt.

They all liked it, with only a few minor reservations. All interviewees commented that the Sun 'n Fun show was very well organized, that the ultralight flying patterns were appropriately supervised, the general level of the pilots was at least as good as any past year—and probably better. Except for one well-known company, interviewees agreed that traffic was less. Surprisingly Friday’s attendance was significantly more than Saturday. No one knew why the weekend would be down although a few guessed about Saturday’s cooler temperatures (high 60’s). Yet all agreed that the weather had been spectacular, if not a little windy, for enjoyable ultralight flying. Sunday was definitely low key, which is not unusual. Monday, the last show day, was a ghost town.

The manufacturers reported somewhat fewer sales or the same as past years. Their thoughts for a reluctant buying public included the hit to aviation from September 11, 2001; state of the US economy; unfavorable foreign exchange rates; and confusion about sport pilot regulations. One aircraft manufacturer commented that attendance (therefore sales) have been a little less each year for the past four years. Others agreed for the most part. Yet vendors of parts and after-market suppliers reported good sales, even better that last year. A theme throughout those surveyed was that Wing-Thumpers were more educated and more likely to buy things than before. (The terms "Tire Kickers, Wing-Thumpers & Ice cream Lickers" affectionately apply to those who dream, take a salesperson’s time, ask a bazillion questions, but do not take action.) Aircraft manufacturers always expect some follow up sales as a result of capturing customers’ interest during the show. Therefore, the actual value of exhibiting is not truly known for several months.

The overwhelming, all-encompassing question is, "What’s next?" Referring to the new Sport Pilot Rule, it was agreed that this year's fly-in marks the end of an era in ultralight aviation. To quote one aviation pioneer, "Ultralighting at Sun 'n Fun (and elsewhere) is going someplace that it ain't yet."

Experimental Aviation

Sun-n-Fun may have its roots in experimental, homebuilt, aviation, but those roots seem to be getting more and more subterranean. This show is less an XA show and more a GA trade show with an airshow attached. Booths that in the go-go nineties were occupied by experimental companies now sell kites, T-Shirts, or GA items like hangar doors. Despite that, the kit companies that remain, especially the industry leaders like RANS, Van's and Lancair, were having a great show.

Van's has given up trying to track the exact number of Van's RVs flying worldwide -- they can't keep up with the drumbeat of completions. Their famous sign now reads "4200+."

We still saw new vendors taking a shot at it -- look for a story on Advanced Aero soon -- and old vendors emerging from periods of instability, such as Europa. But the world of kit aviation seems to be increasingly squeezed, with only the biggest fishes, or highly specialized shops such as Jim Kimball Enterprises which offers the Pitts Model 12, thriving.

Another clearly observable trend is towards more and more complete kits and away from less-inclusive kits, and even more so, away from plans-built aircraft.

Airshow

The airshow this year was as varied as ever, including many of our favorite performers, like high-style glider acro pilot Manfred Radius. Two highlights were Lee Lauderback's aerobatic Mustang performance, and the Air Force Heritage Flight, which we've previously covered.

Because there are a week's worth of shows to fill, long fly-ins like this are important to new airshow acts trying to break into the business.

There was also an incredible act which paired a John Mohr in a stock 220 HP PT-17 Stearman biplane with Roger Buis in "Otto," a Schweizer 300C helicopter. The highlight of this act came when Buis landed *inflight* on the Stearman's upper wing, and stunt man Todd Green left the cockpit of the plane and climbed onto the helicopter skid. They call this act "the Untied Team," because Green is untied to either aircraft. For an audience, most of whom think getting in a helicopter at all is a bit of derring-do, then getting into a helicopter at a couple hundred feet in the air is definitely a riveting experience.


Warbirds

In general terms, the numbers appeared to be down. The presence of a strong showing from Stallion 51 in nearby Kissimmee, with the twin Crazy Horses, and the gorgeous, atmospheric Glacier Girl, helped. One very unusual type flying was a two-seat conversion of a Russian Yak fighter -- not the common trainer, but the wartime, piston-engined fighter plane. Somehow I doubt that the Red Air Force actually painted it in blue and white camouflage in that period, but it was a pretty plane. A P-40 was also flying.

Fans of specific types could see static displays of a 2-seat Spitfire, a TBM Avenger, a J2F Duck, an FM-1 Wildcat, a B-25 and the usual array of liaison and observation planes. Interesting jets included the Red Knight T-33 and Ed Shipley's F-86 Sabrejet. Unlike many shows, show-goers had excellent "up close and personal" access to the aircraft -- enough that some of them had to be chased off by irate crew chiefs after carelessly thumbprinting polished metal or waxed paint.

One rarity was the USAF Air Combat Command F-4 used in connection with the training of allied airmen. The machine participated in the above-mentioned Heritage Flights.

If you were interested in modern aircraft, the Air Force displayed several potent airplanes, including the renowned A-10.

FMI: www.sun-n-fun.org

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