Roaming through the expansive winged carnival that is the annual Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In & Expo, I fairly marvel each year at how much changes from visit to visit—and how much doesn’t.
I’ve probably been at the Lakeland, Fla., event 20 times in the last 33 years. At a certain point in your life, you’re less wowed by sheer sound and spectacle, and more inclined to feel the historical sweep of time and your place in it, even as notions of the future continue to nibble at the edges of your cogitations (electric flight, anyone?)
To be at Sun ‘n Fun has always been about experiencing the community of dreamers who gather to hawk their wares and share their flying dreams with the world. And, even the most jaded doomsayer proclaiming the death of light-sport aviation can’t help but move through the newly revamped Paradise City—the airshow’s light-sport and ultralight display and demo area in the southeast quadrant of the airport—and feel a resurgence of sheer candy-store enthusiasm.
Sun ‘n Fun is a worthy and wonderful show. A few years back, this up-and-coming challenger to former EAA sibling rival Oshkosh AirVenture—still the Big Dog airplane event every summer—split off from the Experimental Aircraft Association to go it alone.
The show has continued to thrive independent of EAA. That’s obvious. Every year, enhancements to the sprawling “campus” at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport pop up to refresh the landscape. It might be a new building, another classic airplane static display or the remade Paradise City experience we enjoyed this year.
Sun ‘n Fun may always be Disneyland to Oshkosh’s Disney World, but it’s a less overwhelming, more relaxing way to enjoy the immense diversity of aviation, and remains a classic in its own right.
Still, both shows draw fewer people these days than in the past. That’s also obvious. News-release claims of record attendance may continue to issue forth at show’s end, but where once big crowds several people deep and a mile wide lined the fences to watch air show performances, now you’re rarely challenged to find good viewing spots, no matter where you are on the field.
Everyone I talked with at Sun ‘n Fun this year kicked this attendance topic around. Like those chattering, fearful hominids facing the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we like to fret about things like sequestration, chatter over what current events portend and agonize over how to drag young people away from virtual reality flight to real flight instead, and thus seed all our flying futures.
In my wandering footfall this year across grassy fields, asphalt taxiways, booth aisles and the lumbar-challenging cement exhibit building floors I, as always, had the chance to visit with old friends, industry insiders and fellow journalists.
We’re a richly diverse, colorful, intelligent, devoted, innovative, hardworking, affable potpourri of men and women, no matter what sector we haunt. We’re of one mind and one heart about just one thing: love for the sheer force of nature that is human flight.
Everyone wants the economic recovery to be faster and stronger. We blame this political party or that representative or leader. Through it all, we keep flying. Some of us in the LSA sector have had record sales in the last year. Others continue to whiff at the plate, though their products often are superb. Who knows exactly why?
Everybody agrees about what we’re seeing—sluggish GA sales and flight training—but we fail to find consensus around what’s causing it or what to do about it. We blame four years of besieged economies or faulty regs or insufficient training. We point our finger at the long decline in civilian aviation. Some doomsayer journalists and industry heads among us read the tea leaves and conclude that light sport, or all of GA, is dying. Maybe so; probably not. In flux? Certainly. But on life support? Nah.
One visit to Sun ‘n Fun or Oshkosh, no matter what unrealistic expectations we might set ourselves up to fall short of, should prove to us that flying, in whatever form it might take in the future, will only die when we lay down our dreams.
One hundred ten years ago, two bicycle builders who wanted to join the soaring birds changed the human experience forever. Soon after, a Frenchman sputtered across the English Channel, a bicycle racer foot-powered a gossamer ghost across the same Channel decades later, a hang-glider pilot hovered for 24 hours above a Hawaiian ridge and a paraplegic woman light-sport pilot set a coast-to-coast speed record flying a specially modified LSA.
If those few expressions of dauntless drive and spirit don’t tell us all we need to know about the enduring nature of our commitment to flight, nothing will.
I’ve had the great fortune to go Mach 1.6 in my Air Academy days, struggled against a 2G crunch to photograph Patty Wagstaff in her Extra 300 while she was upside down, inverted, holding fast to a 60-degree bank. I’ve taken my wife aloft in a 1946 Piper Cub J3 to circle lazily over our home in upstate New York.
I’ve been thrilled/terrified to thermal my insubstantial hang glider to 17,999 feet above the Rockies. I’ve joined sea- gulls and hawks for hours along the green- and-gold dune sheet ridges and rocky cliffs of the California coast and Utah’s Point of the Mountain.
Skimming the croplands of the Midwest in a Quicksilver ultralight at 20 feet, I’ve zoomed up over powerlines only to dive back down to the deck, imagining that I was one of Doolittle’s Raiders over Tokyo.
We love flying the way we love our children. It makes an indelible mark on our souls that changes us forever. We’ll never abandon the sheer thrill of it, whether we lift off at 35 mph or 200 knots, and even though the very idea of piloting a craft that weighs 70 or 154 or 1,320 or 400,000 pounds scares the very bejeebers out of most nonfliers we know.
We’re, as a species, always coming from someplace to go somewhere new and unpredictable. We fuss over how to change or control our futures. We read the tea leaves (less attendance, fewer airplane sales, fewer student starts), and see dark thunderheads and twisters bearing down on us.
But the essential human experience is to remember always, deep in our souls, that it’s the dream, that firmly grasped vision of our brightest possible future, that pulls us forward, not the past that can only hold us back, if we let it.
We will always fly. If the world tanks tomorrow, there will be someone who climbs a hill and foot-launches into a thermal the day after, seeking altitude and the glories of clouds.
Ask a financial or political pundit which way the stockmarket or the election is going tomorrow. Fail. It’s ditto with aviation. No way to know, for all our furrowed brows.
Flying is the million-year dream that came true, oh, such a short time ago. We’re still living the foreword to the book, folks. Let’s remember that. There’s no end, until we cease all our dreaming.
We’ll always find a way, you and I, to take ourselves to the sky. And, once we’ve climbed that last personal thermal, others will find new ways to silver their wings with stardust.
Flying is our destiny. It has always been so.