Nestled into the front corner of the Vintage/Antiques parking area at Sun ’n Fun, you’ll find a line of Stearman biplanes and a series of tents that like a party in progress most anytime after 1 p.m. daily. The group known as Coconut Flyers has become a prominent fixture in the social events of Sun ’n Fun, and everyone is welcome to join the party.
First of all, you’ve gotta go about pinning down exactly what the Coconut Flyers actually are. Are they a private club? No. A tiki bar blasting Jimmy Buffett and slinging drinks after flying hours? Yeah, sort of. But first and foremost, Coconut Flyers is an aircraft restoration facility. “We actually restore antique and classic aircraft—like Cubs and Stearmans, then when we come to visit Sun ’n Fun, we became ambassadors for the antique and classic aircraft community,” said Tim Kirby, one of the original Coconut Flyers. “I was doing this with ‘Lites’ way back, just on a smaller scale,” and in a different location, Kirby said.
The “Lites” Kirby is referring to is none other than John “Lites” Leenhouts, who is today the president of Sun ’n Fun. When Leenhouts took the reins of the organization that runs Lakeland’s spring fling, he offered Kirby a better location, and the Coconut flyers “ambassadorship” took on a whole new role: They were tasked with giving showgoers a reason to stick around after the airshow in the evening. But hosting a bunch of people to socialize and spread the gospel of old airplanes comes with costs. They started by selling shirts, and then came the beer: Dunedin Brewing offered to donate beer to give away, and those partaking made donations to the flyers.
“Thanks to the kindness of Bernie Little and the Anheuser-Busch distributors as well as local breweries like Dunedin, we’re able to provide this oasis for everyone in the heart of vintage aircraft parking,” said Leenhouts.
After covering their expenses, the Coconut Flyers started passing the excess donations to the Aerospace Center for Excellence, the non-profit that runs Sun ’n Fun and so much more. The first year, they donated $2,000, the second year they donated $7,000 to the center, and this year they stand to donate $5,000.
On Wednesday, the group donated $15,000 to Sun ’n Fun, a figure that was matched by an anonymous donor. Turns out there’s good money in free beer after all.
Kirby says the Coconut Flyers wouldn’t have grown into their present state were it not for the work of his wife, and the Flyers’ den mother, Paige. Some of the volunteers going back to day one, he emphasized, include Grady Liske, Tim Averett and John Rising.
The Coconut Flyers will be hosting a number of evening events throughout the week, with live music several nights featuring Brian Miller on Guitar and John Patti on steel pans. It’s a lot of coconut-themed fun, and the donations do a lot to help the Aerospace Center do its Sun ’n Fun thing, and so much more.