By Jack Elliott
This year’s edition of Sun’n Fun opened in a burst of clear blue skies and a relaxed, “let’s have fun”atmosphere. Hundreds of vendors exhibit in four big buildings and in outdoor booths. There was no shortage of aircraft on display, including Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) and ultra-lights.
The big question: with the economy grounded, how badly would it affect attendance? On opening day, it seemed obvious that the crowd wasn’t as big as it had been in years past. But who expected it to be? The question then shifted to the caliber of attendees. They certainly seemed like the cream of the crop. At many of the booths, there seemed to be high level of activity. There was a great deal of interest in the aircraft accessories offered.
Another indication of the overall mood was evident in the LSA area. There were new names out there like the Dynamic, a Czechoslovakian aircraft made by the same company that makes the Mermaid LSA amphibian. The Dynamic lists for $135,000 fully equipped, including a glass cockpit and two-axis autopilot.
Throughout the LSA area you could hear pilots saying, “This is the answer.” The price of these aircraft is a fraction of FAA-certified aircraft. They burn less fuel and are cheaper to insure.
One especially interesting and innovative feature in this aircraft category is a new option on the Miniature Mustang II.
It is now available with folding wings, like a fighter aboard an aircraft carrier. The option is priced at $490. It is possible to park it under the wing of a Cessna so the Cessna can be moved in and out without disturbing the Mustang.
Other new LSAs on display were the STOL 750 LS and the Zodiak 659, both made in the U.S. by the same company. Another newcomer was the Zenith 801.
We encountered the most interesting story of the event at the Sun’n Fun Museum. There we met an old friend, Howard Lee, who is a volunteer in the museum and a fountain of information on most of the exhibits. The museum is not especially large, but it is big enough to house a couple dozen or so aircraft, several of which are one-of-a-kind. Lee said we couldn’t leave without hearing the story of one rare aircraft in their collection.
It was an aircraft built by Ford in 1926. Few people are aware that Henry Ford built such an aircraft —only two of them were built. They had 60-hp Franklin engines. The Ford logo was painted on each side of the fuselage. Ford may have thought he was going to produce and market an airplane equivalent of the Model T. The major selling point for the aircraft was its level of safety. Well, one of the aircraft crashed, killing the pilot. Ford immediately ordered that everything connected with the aircraft be destroyed. The men who built the aircraft didn’t want to see that happen. They built a false ceiling in one building and hid the remaining aircraft there until Ford died. Then they took it to a Detroit trade school to have it restored. It is now in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
After this fascinating story, Lee introduced us to octogenarian Arnold Allen, who was one of the builders of the original aircraft. He wanted to build a replica and spent five years doing the research to make that reality. The replica is now on display in the Sun’n Fun Museum. Allen, a resident of Clearwater, Fla., visits the museum from time to time and never misses the annual air show.
The flying portion of the air show is a highlight of each day during the week-long event. There are only two places in the country where you can see the assemblage of aerobatic talent that this nation produces—one is Oshkosh and the other is Sun’n Fun. Among the top names on this year’s Sun’n Fun roster were Sean Tucker, Patty Wagstaff, Gene Soucy, Michael Goulian, Matt Chapman, Julie Clark, Matt Youkin and Bill Stein, among a host of others.
The aerial show opened with a member of the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team jumping with a huge American flag while the crowd sang the Star Spangled Banner. His descent was followed by formations of warbirds and a flyby of the World War II B-24 Liberator bomber, one of only two in flying condition.
And speaking of warbirds, we should mention one of the most interesting things in the ultra-light area. These featherweight aircraft are now available in models which resemble virtually every military plane that flew in World War I.
Perhaps the highlight of this year’s show was the appearance of Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, who shot down a MiG 21 in a dogfight over Hanoi during the Vietnam conflict. Cherry appeared with the pilot he shot down, who he met during a live Vietnamese TV broadcast on April 5, 2008.
They met again just before Sun’n Fun when they dedicated Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green, Ky. Cherry is president of the park, and the first exhibit to go on display was the F-4D he was flying when he shot down Nguyen Hong My. Cherry has just published a book, “My Enemy, My Friend,” which was on sale during their several Sun’n Fun appearances.