Sun 'n Fun 2003: Wrap-Up

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Sun 'n Fun 2003 ends on mixed reviews -- to no one's surprise. Strong sales, many proclaim; too long, others contend; yet still a must-do. AVweb's Dave Higdon provides this recap from Lakeland.

About the only word that comes to mind when assessing the 2003 version of EAA Sun 'n Fun is "dialectic" -- that is, the annual spring aviation celebration generated generally opposing reactions from those who came, saw, bought and bartered. At the seven-day fly-in that ended Tuesday, aircraft and kit manufacturers mostly reported good business response for their investments; they sold airplanes -- most of 'em sold some, at any rate. Some even proclaimed that activity exceeded their best expectations, even besting historical highs from Sun 'n Fun fly-ins past.

And the worst reports from this perspective were that business only felt like old times for four of the days.

From the other corner were companies who found the experience lacking for various reasons: too slow, too long, too little payback for their investments in time and capital. The best reports from this corner also cited booth or display action strong on four of the seven days -- but not traffic strong enough to match the best four days of years past, with three average-sales days leaving them short of the break-even point.

In between -- and you knew there was a middle position coming -- were thousands of fans who found some of the old facilities changed, some new facilities in place, and all the same good reasons for shaking off the blues of winter with a trip to a fun, personable event sited between two major Class B rings in central Florida.

Daily observations saw the usual cycle occur in the main and aircraft campgrounds, aircraft parking and display areas, and out among the grassy areas in which volunteers park the thousands of private planes flown into Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. If there was anything significantly different about the scene, it seemed to stem from the new cycle on which Sun 'n Fun runs.

This year EAA Sun 'n Fun ran on a Wednesday-through-Tuesday cycle for the first time, from April 2 through 8. That cycle replaced the Sunday-through-Saturday timing used for more than two decades. As explained last year by John Burton, president of Sun 'n Fun Inc. and executive director of the fly-in, the schedule change was designed to give the event a run-up pattern in which the Friday-Saturday-Sunday crowds at least matched the Sunday-Monday-Tuesday crowds of years past -- all while making the last two to three days stronger than in the past. Vendors had suggested that the crowds tapered off during the last three days of the old schedule, leaving sales staffs with mostly one another to visit.

This year the crowds seemed to strengthen from Wednesday through Saturday -- then dropped off Sunday and Monday. By Tuesday, the on-site traffic was about equal to the final day of year's past.

And whether the change helped or hurt overall attendance is hard to say.

Airshow By The Numbers -- And The Numbers Are Under A Microscope

Locals Examine Attendance Figures In A Quest For A Hard Body Count

For years, organizers of events like Sun 'n Fun used the number of paid admission days to report attendance at their gatherings, numbers that roughly equated to the convention-and-visitors "room nights sold" in its methodology. One visitor buying a full-week admission was seven participant days, and so forth.

This year a local controversy concerning Sun 'n Fun has put the numbers under the microscope. While reported "attendance" in recent years hovered around 700,000, an investigation by the Lakeland Ledger newspaper put the actual number of people at closer to 250,000. How this effects the local reality that a quarter-million people come for a week and spend money for three to 10 days exceeds my grasp.

But an effort is underway to get hard numbers, including a team from the University of South Florida-Lakeland who polled the people on the field and gate guards who clicked their mechanical counters to record each individual in every vehicle through the gate.

The bottom line remains -- this year there's not a solid number for reference, even though many signs indicate a strong show. And Sun 'n Fun honcho John Burton knew coming in how problematic it was going to be to get good numbers for this year's fly-in.

"We really don't know what to expect, given the new schedule, the continued struggles with the economy and now a war going on," Burton told AvWeb prior to opening day. "So many people are pulling back from other recreational activities because of war worries that it's hard to know whether people who would have come will still come."

Unfortunately, with official numbers still some days away, it's not possible for us to give any solid assessment of the attendance. Beyond seeing many familiar signs of past successes -- the field appearing equally full of airplanes, people moving elbow-to-elbow in the exhibits buildings, long traffic queues inbound and outbound during the peak days of the event -- accurately gauging the 2003 attendance figures is beyond our abilities.

We can say, as of this writing on the afternoon of the final day, that Sun 'n Fun 2003 lived up to its basic mission: providing tens of thousands of aviation junkies with a spring kick into the annual fly-in season. It did so without a fatality, with a handful of the usual fender-bender type incidents and one serious runway accident at the Paradise City Ultralight Area from which everyone survived.

Schedule Switch: New Cycle Throws Off Typical Timing Of Sun 'n Fun

Blooming Balloons, Big Crowds & Pyro Magic Made Saturday The "Big Day"

Early on Wednesday morning, opening day of the 2003 Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, more than a few folks arrived before dawn, primed and ready to witness the annual mass balloon ascension that long marked Sun 'n Fun's opening day. Fortunately, they seemed to take in stride the word that they were early -- by about 72 hours.

With a new cycle and a different opening day came a shift in event timing organizers hoped would best attract the big crowds vendors wanted for the three days between Friday and Monday. By all appearances, the shift seemed to work -- at least for those three days.

So Sun 'n Fun opened on Wednesday without a morning gala of hot-air balloons. Thursday -- in past years the day of the night fireworks aerobatics show -- was much like any other midweek day at Sun 'n Fun.

And instead of opening Sun 'n Fun with a midweek balloon fiesta, organizers scheduled the colorful crowd pleaser for the middle day of the fly-in, Saturday. Not only did the Saturday balloon launch draw a record 41 aeronauts and their ships, the event also kicked off a day filled with special attractions: extra air-show flying, an evening "balloon glow" of tethered balloons lighting the evening sky with their propane flames, and a grand closer -- two hours of night pyrotechnic acts of aerobatics.

Saturday also seemed the day when the on-field mob peaked, in terms of both humanity and airplanes.

In fact, the three-day lead-in to the weekend seemed to deliver as desired. Traffic in the five permanent metal exhibits buildings hit maximum saturation on Friday and Saturday; the pedestrian traffic out among Custom Planes, Warbirds, Vintage and the outdoor commercial exhibits looked and felt as busy as the busiest days of past Sun 'n Funs.

By all observable appearances, the three days from Friday to Sunday gave Sun 'n Fun its big bang. And from then on, by those same appearances, Sun 'n Fun 2003 started to wane in intensity. Sunday morning dawned with the Warbirds collection down by about half, thanks to a large exodus Saturday evening before the night show.

Large gaps grew in all the other parking areas, gaps that started Sunday afternoon as pilot after pilot pulled plane after plane from their tie-down spots of the prior few days and headed home. Many of the pilots based their decision on hopes of beating a massive front threatening to sweep a significant meteorological obstacle across their routes home.

For others, the show was ending for them after they had arrived two and three days ahead of opening day. "Time to go back to the real world, ugly though it is," opined one Bonanza pilot who arrived Monday and left Saturday. "Next year, I may try to schedule my trip differently. This year, though, I wanted to stick close to my usual Sun 'n Fun schedule in case things got dead in the last couple of days.

"From the looks of it, my timing is about right."

"Baghdad? Oh, Yeah How We Doing Over There -- You Heard?"

War Worries May Have Hurt Attendance -- But They Didn't Distract The Flying Faithful

In some ways, immersion in an event like Sun 'n Fun 2003 offers some relief from the worries of the world. With aviation spoken by nearly everyone, the constant drumbeat of war news took a back seat to talk of avionics and engines, airframes and air traffic control, upgrades and aftermarket goodies.

Away from hotel-room and sports-bar television sets, the only on-field reminders of the conflict in Iraq came from the headlines of the Tampa and Orlando newspapers sold on the field. Between the folks camping and many other folks spending only shower and sleep time in their hotels and motels, Sun 'n Fun seemed something like an oasis of peace and tranquility.

Aviation was spoken here and not even combat aviation -- save the narration that accompanied the afternoon warbirds acts at the start of the daily air show describing the role of the P-51 Mustang or F4U Corsair in winning "The Big War." When talk turned to smart displays and advanced technologies, those conversations tended to focus on Chelton's recently approved EFIS display technology, the Avidyne Entegra Primary Flight Display, UPS Aviation Technology's all-new CNX80 WAAS-approved all-in-one GPS/Comm/Nav, or the Blue Mountain electronic displays for experimental aircraft.

The closest visible reminder of modern military concerns came late Saturday morning when a lone F-117 Stealth Fighter made an unpublicized series of fly-by passes along Runway 9/27. Air traffic stopped, viewers stood their ground and ogled at the angular airplane as it passed.

And when the F-117 departed the area, all talk seemed to return to the fun and peaceful flying at hand.

Sporting Chance: All Eyes On Light Sport Aircraft, Sport Pilot Proposals

LSA Vendors Await Final Rules To Freeze Designs And Warm Up Marketing Efforts

Watch for these names: CT2K; C42; Romulus; Savannah. And there are more too numerous to list. These names share an ambition to be among the first of a new generation of certificated aircraft defined by the upcoming Light Sport Aircraft category. Expected to emerge this summer after nearly three years of work progressing through the vast rulemaking machinery of the FAA, DOT and the Office of Management and Budget, LSA and its Sport Pilot licensing counterpart hold promise to revolutionize participation in general aviation.

Unlike the long-underutilized Recreational Pilot licensing track, Sport Pilot will half the training time required to earn a license to fly a plane defined as a Light Sport Aircraft. The pilot will be able to fly on a Third Class Medical Certificate -- or on a state-issued driver's license as an alternate to the Class 3 medical. The Recreational license requires the Third Class; no medical or license is required to pilot a FAR 103-legal ultralight. Holders of existing conventional pilot certificates can be qualified in an LSA design with transition instruction and a logbook endorsement.

The aircraft will be capable of carrying up to two passengers at speeds expected to be in the range of 115 knots, compared to the single-seat, 55-knot limit imposed on FAR 103 Ultralights. And the planes of qualified manufacturers can be sold ready to fly -- or sold as kits requiring less than the current 51-percent minimum construction contribution of the builder before receiving an "Experimental/Amateur-Built" certificate from the FAA.

And with target prices for LSA aircraft ranging from $30,000 to $70,000, the class appears poised to be highly competitive with a wide variety of types and configurations available.

The FAA and industry sources tell us that August is the target month for issuing the final rules -- buoying hopes that by the 30th Annual Sun 'n Fun a new infusion of pilots and planes will help populate Paradise City, Sun 'n Fun's home for today's crop of ultralights and light-experimental flying machines.

The Goods: Vendors Flavor Sun 'n Fun With The Scent Of Progress

New Planes, Avionics And Goodies; As Usual, Sun 'n Fun Has Some Of Each Flavor

One of the major draws to EAA Sun 'n Fun each year is the expectation of seeing some of the latest and greatest products to reach fruition after a winter's worth of R&D work. And in that regard, Sun 'n Fun 2003 suffered no setbacks compared to past years.

New Piper kicked off Sun 'n Fun 2003 by announcing two new models -- actually fixed-gear variants of the PA-32 Saratoga dubbed the 6X and 6XT. Mooney unveiled a new shorter instrument panel for its models. Cirrus Design kept a trio of SR22 demonstrators busy showing off the new Avidyne Entegra Primary Flight Display EFIS panel mounted on the left side -- complemented by a total engine and power management display available for the first time on the EX5000C MFD center stack.

UPS Aviation Technologies unveiled its new CNX80, the world's first all-in-one navigator/comm approved for stand-alone IFR GPS navigation. Chelton announced the approval of its highway-in-the-sky EFIS system and STCs covering more than 500 planes.

Honeywell showed off an improved prototype of its latest multifunction display, the KMD 250, sporting all the internal hardware needed to serve as an Integrated Hazard Awareness System for remote datalink and weather inputs. Avidyne showed off the latest improvement of its EX500 MFD, one that sports the hardware to display weather images from Avidyne's own satellite-based datalink feed.

Lancair, the kit company, showed off its hot-performing Legacy on fixed gear. OMF showed off its improved Symphony. And, as noted above, there was a plethora of designs targeted for the expected Light Sport Airplane category.

If there wasn't something new for every type of shopper, it didn't come to our attention -- and it's hard to imagine what was missing.

Safer Skies: Sun 'n Fun 2003 Ended Fatality-Free, If Not Accident-Free

Less Confusion At Lake Parker, Fewer Fender Benders On Field -- All Good Things

One benefit of the new Sun 'n Fun cycle -- the Wednesday-to-Tuesday scheduling -- seemed to come in the form of a lower flow rate through the infamous Lake Parker Arrival. Pilots who flew the arrival seemed to echo the observations of controllers that there were fewer instances of overcrowded queues circling the highly visible lake -- thanks to its power-plant landmarks: one on the north shore, the other on the south end.

With traffic arrival spread more evenly between Monday and Thursday's observed peak, the Parker Pattern never quite hit the oversaturation levels that occurred last year -- and occurred in spades anytime the field closed off schedule. And the field suffered fewer disruptions thanks to fewer -- and milder -- incidents of airplane havoc.

For example, last year brought two low-level midair collisions between landing aircraft -- one of them fatal, unfortunately. This year, the interruptions of arrivals happened after a couple of ground loops and one instance in which a Stearman flipped tail-over-nose. None of these incidents caused any serious injuries.

And the only serious accident occurred when a 1999 Philippe Ghiles MCR-1 Banbi -- a two-place French experimental design -- failed to negotiate a takeoff from the well-kept 1,400-foot grass ultralight runway of Paradise City, a runway within the aircraft's demonstrated capabilities.

As a witness to the accident, it's hard to say what went wrong -- other than the obviously visible problem of the tricycle-gear airplane dragging its tail most of the runway length due to an unusually high angle of attack. A light, quartering headwind blew for the Runway 27-oriented strip at the time of the accident -- about 6:20 p.m. -- and the mid-80s temperatures of earlier in the day had given way to cooler air.

The plane ran off the west end of the strip, cleared a ditch and flipped upside down. While both occupants suffered injuries, neither was reported as serious and both were out of hospital observations the next day. The unidentified pilot told investigators that he lacked room to stop on the runway after he accelerated to take-off speed without lifting off. The plane belonged to Orlando-based American Ghiles Aircraft Inc., and reportedly carried one of the company principals among the two on board.

The accident closed the Paradise City strip for the evening. While a couple of other minor incidents befell the Paradise City operation, no one else suffered anything serious.

Future Changes: Only Time And Analysis Will Tell

The Many Uncontrollable Variables Make Weighing 2003 A Tough Call

A year ago, Sun 'n Fun ran on its traditional schedule, Sunday through Saturday. A year ago, America was trying to get on with life in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Twelve months back the economy seemed more robust. And we weren't beset with war-oriented willies in April 2002.

Given all the variables, it's no wonder the management and participants in Sun 'n Fun had more questions than answers when they began arriving for this year's Spring Aviation Fling back on March 30. "Who knows," was the most-common response to questions about expectations for this year.

And armchair quarterbacks are already weighing in on how best to improve on this year's fly-in. Make it five days and cut out Monday and Tuesday. Move the dates to Tuesday-through-Monday, matching the cycle the EAA uses now for AirVenture in Oshkosh each July. Move it back to Sunday-through-Saturday, so that smaller vendors only give up one full week and two weekends -- instead of two full weekends, one full week and part of a second.

Still others are sniping that the numbers didn't match last year, while questioning the numbers from year's past. With 741,000 reported in 2001, under 700,000 reported last year and this year so different to gauge, it's no wonder that Sun 'n Fun Inc., local officials and FSU-Lakeland are conducting a more-detailed attendance and economic-impact survey.

And all through the fly-in, Burton and his staff -- both paid professionals and volunteers -- played down the idea that all the chips ride on Sun 'n Fun 2003. "We won't know how well we did this year until we get through the show, sift through all the feedback we're getting, and look at the final numbers," Burton explained early on.

"We'll see what went well, what worked, what didn't work, and go from there."

In one coming change, the area in which the Sun 'n Fun Media Center has been located for more than a decade will be given over to a permanent facility for Flying Magazine, similar to the hospitality building the popular publication operates at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. The Warbirds folks are hoping for some changes, as well.

One thing seems certain: As an aviation institution, for marketing, for selling and for enjoying the first event of the spring fly-in season, Sun 'n Fun didn't lose any points for the spectators and participants.

And if the organizers offer as much to see, do and enjoy again next year, the 30th annual Sun 'n Fun Fly-In will continue its tradition of providing a venue for friends to meet and an excuse to get the airplane out of the hangar and hobnob with its fellow flyers.