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Wed, Apr 20, 2005

Someplace It Ain't Yet -- The Evolving Sun-n-Fun Fly-in

Part Two

By John Ballantyne and Kevin O'Brien

Read Part One

At the end of every show, we try to do a little bit of a wrap-up to evaluate the way things generally went. This year, at Sun-n-Fun, 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 Part Two of what they told us, and what we saw with our own eyes.

Antique Aviation

"Each year, there are fewer real antiques, and more Bonanzas and things," the owner of a 1920s Stearman said. Of course, when he bought the Stearman over twenty years ago, it was about the same age then as the earliest Bonanzas are today, but his point was well taken. There were fewer of the civil airplanes from the era before 1950 than we're used to seeing.

There were enough antiques to be interesting, but few enough of them to make one concerned for the future of vintage aircraft. What's more troubling for a lover of these old machines, is that antiques up for sale, including former champion machines offered ad very attractive prices, were not finding buyers.

The same sort of thing is happening in the larger civil aircraft preservation area. In a wide-ranging interview, Eclipse Aviation CEO Vern Raburn told us that while certainly money is a concern in this age of escalating fuel prices, one of the biggest threats to survival of vintage aviation is the inevitable decay of what he called "tribal knowledge" of aircraft systems and maintenances. We were talking specifically about Lockheed Constellations, a type he knows intimately, but they apply quite generally.

General Aviation

You could say that experimental's loss is general aviation's gain. The GA end of the show, which seems to be where Sun-n-Fun's emphasis is going, was quite successful, with highlights including the first public showing of the Eclipse very light jet, the introduction of the first three-panel Avidyne system (in the New Piper Malibu Meridian), and the reintroduction of the Liberty XL2 after Liberty secured new financing.

Most every plane manufacturer was represented, including such well-known names as Lancair Certified, Cirrus Design, Mooney, Maule, and even WACO.

In addition, smaller niche makers were present, like IndUS Aviation (look for an interview real soon) which builds the Thorp T-211 as a Special Light Sport aircraft, and even two Cub makers, Legend Cub with a light-sport Cub, and Cub Crafters with its own fully type-certified version (Cub Crafters will be adding a light-sport version shortly).

Flight training vendors were prominent, and they indicated that business was thriving, despite the perception of mixed prospects for today's commercial pilot market. The Age 60 Rule, if not overturned, will lead to a tsunami of retirements.

Finally, vendors of every type of part, accessory, avionics, ancillary equipment, and service that one might conceivably apply to an aircraft were there in strong numbers.

Rotorcraft

This is where you need to go if you're looking for grumbling, but it's a good-natured sort of thing. "Choppertown" is so far removed from the main show area that ninety-something percent of attendees have absolutely no idea it's there. Sun-N-Fun does very, very little to inform attendees about it, and transport to and from is dodgey. It takes almost 40 minutes to walk from show center, and almost 20 to ride on a rented ($55/day) cart.

The response of some vendors has been to abandon the show; others have simply abandoned Choppertown and show their wares in booths in the main show area, while conducting demo flights on other fields. These vendors included American Autogyro Incorporated (AAI), Rotary Air Force Marketing, and Rotorway. Of course, the more vendors leave Choppertown the more it becomes Ghost Town. That's a pity, as this year saw two new developments on display there: The Butterfly, LLC's Super Sky Cycle, which wasn't yet flying (and which Aero-News has covered), and the Wasp turbine helicopter (report soon).

Safety

Although there was Sun-n-Fun 2005 was one of the safest Sun-n-Fun events ever, with no fatalities or serious injuries on or near the show site. This is welcome news and a great many deserve a piece of the credit. There was a mishap at the end of Runway 9 on Thursday, in which T-6 apparently ran off the runway, suffering severe wing damage. A woman -- one of two people on board -- was slightly injured.

We saw evidence of several safety improvement attempts. The safety zone under the UL approach area, which was a relatively recent improvement (last year?) was still strictly maintained. New this year was an attempt to separate people and planes on the long taxiway towards antique camping, ultralights and rotorcraft. This effort seemed to wane as the show wore on, perhaps because the safety crew ran out of volunteers, which is unfortunate. The volunteers also went off duty just as the airshow ended at 1700 -- in other words, just as everybody hell-bent for leather on departing fired up and started taxiing.

There was still too much mixing of people and props, and especially mixing of people who are not familiar with airplanes -- moving airplanes. This is especially Perhaps in the off-season they can work out a better way to do this.

On one day, a military performer repeatedly directed his high-energy aircraft towards the crowd. This should have been covered in pre- and post-flight briefings; the next day, it didn't happen again.

Exhibitor Surprises

There are always a couple of exhibitors that you'd expect to see. In this case... we didn't (or maybe we just missed 'em). We didn't see Jim Bede's new operation anywhere, although longtime Bede BD-5 completion assistance shop Alturair had brochures on the current BD-17 and BD-18 sport planes. We also didn't see DeltaHawk engines anywhere, which we didn't expect after all the interest their diesel V-4 drew at the last Oshkosh.

The company's website indicates a planned presence at Aero 2005 in Friedrichshafen, Germany later this week, and company executives say they're still on track, preparing for certification testing. Finally, we were disappointed that Rotor Flight Dynamics wasn't present, although customers did demonstrate the company's Dominator gyroplanes. We ran into RFD honcho Ernie Boyette in Choppertown and got an earful of his past dissatisfaction with Sun-n-Fun, which was the cause of his company's absence.

The flip side of that is the exhibitors we expected to be absent, that showed up. One of them was Luscombe, which had a very nice price on the Luscombe 11 Sedan -- no tent, unlike previous years, but just the airplanes themselves, confusing show attendees who wondered, sometimes aloud, what happened to the tail of that 172. Another company professing "I'm not dead yet," in this case complete with Pythonesque accents, was Europa, represented by a number of British builders, spreading the word that the airplane has been saved, although the previous company (and its American reps) couldn't be rescued from the financial mismanagement of the previous owner. More than "not dead yet," the company is reborn, and delivering parts and kits. Customers stiffed by the old company may have the opportunity to get their missing parts at cost from the new company, and customer and builder support continues as before.

Some Overall Impressions Which Don't Fit Anywhere Else

The weather was great. It was neither too hot nor too windy, and there were no cold, blustery or rainy days. The winds were a bit strong for the ultralights on occasion and some early morning balloon and powered-parachute activities had to be cancelled, but it was, all in all, perfect weather.

The Lakeland Police Department's Jack Gillen told us that, "nothing happened," with a broad smile. "It was kind of slow. And when Jack isn't busy, that's a good thing."

It was very hard to get a handle on attendance this year. Some indicators were of a reduced attendance: for instance, there was seldom a wait at the gate, or for concessions. We never saw SRO at the food court tables. Ray the cart guy, for another example, didn't "sell out" of rental carts, even on Saturday. On the other hand, most of the exhibitors were relatively happy.

The number of volunteers this year seemed to be vastly lower. Was this because EAA sponsorship was withdrawn? (Prior to 2005, this was the "EAA Sun-n-Fun Fly-In;" now it's just the "Sun-n-Fun fly-In" and even the corporate name has been changed). Or did fewer volunteers, well... volunteer? Only the organizers know for sure, but there were fewer volunteers on the ground.

One entirely unscientific indicator pointed to a reduced press presence as well. In most cases, the limited number of lockers in the Media Center are scarfed up on the very first day. There was no day this year that a reporter didn't have a couple of open lockers to choose from.

There was some carping about increased admissions prices, but there always is. On the other hand, camping rates apparently held the line from 2004 -- one way to create happy campers.

Overall, this seems to us to be becoming a GA trade show with less grassroots aviation content, accompanied by an airshow which can please both the aviation and general public. This may be inevitable, given the relative financial strength of the various sectors of the aviation market, but then, maybe it's not.

FMI: www.sun-n-fun.org

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