Sun ‘N Fun’s Winter RV Fly-In

As the mercury languishes below freezing, the approaching air show season may seem a long ways away in some locales - but not in Lakeland, Florida. Down at Sun 'n Fun, they kicked off the year with an RV Fly-In that may become an annual event. Jamie Beckett was there and shares his observations (and photos) with us.


While the majority of the country was settling in for a long struggle with the slush and snow of early winter, the gates to Sun n Fun’s Lakeland, Fla., facility were thrown open for a new special event. The pre-Super Bowl weekend of January 25th and 26th saw an RV Fly-In take place that may well become a much-anticipated annual event. This first go-around featured no admission or parking fees, a laid-back atmosphere and good attendance, which were all positive signs that Sun n Fun’s efforts to expand their presence to reach beyond the confines of the month of April on the calendar are well under way.

A Break In The Weather 

As the weekend of the fledgling winter RV Fly-In approached, the weather was not encouraging. Several days of fog-shrouded mornings throughout central Florida, coupled with the advancement of a rain-producing cold front to the northwest, left little doubt that weather would be a primary factor affecting attendance for what may well become an annual event. The Sun n Fun Fly-In held each April on these same grounds at Lakeland Linder field is a well-known international draw for aviation minded tourists and locals alike. But it wasn’t always so. The first fly-in was largely a local event that attracted fewer than two thousand visitors. The scuttlebutt leading up to the RV Fly-In was that it might be headed in the direction of future growth that the spring event has seen.

The RV series of experimental aircraft are sold as kits by Van’s Aircraft Inc. of Aurora, Ore. One of the most prolific providers of kits on the market, with a high completion rate for builders, the RV is as ubiquitous an experimental as there is. In better than a quarter century of production, the experimental manufacturer has put out enough kits that there are now in excess of two thousand flying examples of their designs. Available models include the RV-3 single-seaters, as well as RV-4 and -8 tandem and RV-6, -7 and -9 side-by-side two-seat models. The aircraft enjoy an enthusiastic following in the experimental community, making the RV crowd an outstanding target audience for an event that will, at least in part, stretch the wings of Sun n Fun as a year-round aviation attraction and educational resource. Still, with the forecast as it was, things weren’t looking all that rosy for organizers in the days immediately prior to the inaugural gathering.


Sun ‘n Fun vice president Greg Harbaugh looks over the arrivals as the fly in gears up.
[Click any photo to view a larger image.]

As luck would have it, the sun shone on the morning of Saturday the 26th. Granted, it was shining down on the top of an overcast layer that covered the entire local area. But good fortune was with the RV crowd, and the overcast was high enough to let traffic fly in and out with ease. By 10:00 am the grassy infield adjacent to the FAA Aviation Safety Center was covered with a good two dozen examples of Van’s Aircraft’s extraordinarily successful kit aircraft. Several others were scattered around the grounds, and even more were in them midst of flying into the event from various points on the compass. Estimates were that as many as 40 RV aircraft flew in for at least part of the day. At least an equal number of other manufacturers’ aircraft were present as well.

Former astronaut and current Sun n Fun vice president Greg Harbaugh’s opening comments to those who were present in the Forum building were enthusiastic and hopeful. As he quickly ran down a growing list of coming events that Sun n Fun will sponsor on site, he stated emphatically, "We’re looking to stimulate and energize the aviation community." Harbaugh has been on the job for slightly less than a year at this point, but he confided to the audience, "We’re really excited about the energy we see."

Young Eagles Take Wing 


Boy Scouts gather in enthusiastic anticipation of becoming Young Eagles shortly.

Uniformed Boy Scouts were in abundance outside the FAA building, which is a functional Flight Service Station during special events such as the RV Fly-In. Many of the scouts were attending in the hopes of fulfilling some of the requirements to achieve their Aviation Merit Badges. Since visiting a museum, interviewing a pilot and going for a flight are all tasks for completion of the badge, Scoutmasters from across the area brought their charges to participate, and learn from the experience.

Troop 148 from Wesley Chapel/New Tampa, Fla., was lead by Scoutmaster Ray Blacklidge and Asst. Scoutmaster Dick Bramel. "Just watching the boys have fun is fun," said Bramel as he waited outside the FSS for some of his scouts to return from the flight line. Blacklidge produced a manual spelling out the requirements for the coveted merit badge, with more than two pages dedicated to the various tasks required to fulfill the completion standards. The layout was similar to the familiar Practical Test Standards booklets flight students use as guides during their own training, leaving the impression that, if any of these scouts decide to go beyond Young Eagle status, they’ve got a good head start on the process.

Retired 747 Captain and Sun n Fun director Roscoe Morton was among the pilots providing Young Eagle flights for the day. "I think there’re 200 or 300 out here to fly," Morton guessed. As he finished signing off the certificate for one new Young Eagle, Morton acknowledged his longtime participation in the program saying, "This is nine years of it." He and his compatriots showed no signs of slacking off anytime soon.

Flight Safety had two Pipers with instructor pilots on site who were also taking scouts aloft. Instructor pilot John Lawler ambled out to the flight line with three excited youngsters in tow, as his partner for the day, fellow Flight Safety pilot Steve Graff, waited for his riders to respond to the announcement that their chauffeur was ready to go. "I wish I knew about it [Young Eagles] when I was a kid," said Graff. "I think it’s great."

Rotary Powerplants On Display 


A Mazda rotary engine powers this proud RV.

Back in the tie-down area, cowls were being removed and heads were poking into cockpits for a closer look at what was what in the kit-building business.

One of the great attractions to an experimental fly-in remains the remarkable variety of modifications and unique personalized touches that the individual builders incorporate into their projects. Aside from the fact that RVs come in so many different varieties, the finished products often differ significantly in everything from color schemes, to instrument panels, to interior upholstery and even powerplants. The variety of options verges on mind-boggling.

Allan Watkins, a recent transplant from Pueblo, Colo., to central Florida, was poking around the handful of RVs with rotary engine installations for ideas and insight. Watkins, who is an A&P and aviation enthusiast, explained, "I’m shopping around for an aircraft to build." As an auto mechanic with 20 years experience in Mazda rotary engines, he is partial to the idea of installing one as his preferred powerplant when the time comes. At Linder he found more than one example of what he was interested in. He is leaning toward an RV-6, side-by-side two-seater. "It’s got a nice wide cockpit," says Watkins. "Plenty of room."

Still, he was more than happy to spend an hour or more swapping stories and troubleshooting a coolant problem with the owner of a single-seat RV 3 who has been running a rotary in his machine with good results.

While the rotary engine has to be modified to some degree from the automobile version in order to facilitate a workable aircraft installation, Watkins claims the rotary has significant advantages to traditional air-cooled, horizontally-opposed engines. Since the engine is liquid-cooled, the danger and damage of inadvertently shock cooling the engine is minimized considerably. It also has a more desirable power and torque curve according to Watkins, and can run reliably at high power settings without the same risks of wear or damage that a more traditional reciprocating engine might suffer.

One of the pluses that believers report is the claim that the rotary is capable of producing significantly more horsepower with fairly minor modifications. Originally producing 105 horsepower when the engine was introduced by Mazda in 1979, a version that displaces only an additional 100 cc’s was producing 246 horses by 1995.

Of the three forums that were offered at the Fly-In, one was dedicated to issues concerning flying with the rotary engine. Another was billed as "RV Go Fast Secrets" where the operational aspects of the rotary certainly would fit the topic.

Classics Are Always Welcome 


Bob Lock cleans every last speck of dust from his immaculate New Standard.

Noticeably different in size and shape from the RVs that were so well-represented, was Bob Lock’s beautifully restored 1929 New Standard biplane. Bob has been hopping rides in the area under the banner of Waldo Wright’s Flying Service. His intention is to operate from October through April in Florida. Currently he flies out of Fantasy of Flight’s private grass strips just a few miles down the road in Polk City, Fla. He plans to be carrying passengers aloft for Sun n Fun as well before departing for cooler northern climes this spring.

The D-25 holds four passengers in the front cockpit, with the pilot sitting all by his lonesome behind them. The Wright Whirlwind radial up front virtually guarantees a generous portion of wind-in-your-face flying for all who climb aboard. Lock had originally intended to be hopping rides around the patch during the Fly-In too. But with the Young Eagle flights going on, and a seemingly endless stream of RV owners flying in and out, he restricted himself to polishing the old bird to a glossy shine and answering questions from admiring onlookers.

Perhaps sensing a lack of radial representation on the field, a spotless Cessna 195 taxied in by noontime as well, selecting a spot right next to the FAA building to shut down. It spent the afternoon gathering its own share of wishful pilots who no doubt had a fantasy or two of their own about which airplane they would be making an offer on should they be lucky enough to have a winning Lotto ticket in their wallet.

$100 Hamburgers Priced At Only $4 


Burgers and hot dogs are the welcome fare of the day.

EAA Chapter 454 provided breakfast and lunch for the assembled faithful through early afternoon on Saturday. Lunch was a simple choice of American cookout staples. But the diners seemed to be more than satisfied with the fare and the price, which was quite reasonable by air show/Fly-In standards. Considering the cost of admission and parking for the day, most seemed to think it was a good deal all around.

It isn’t every day that you are likely to find professional flight engineer Malcolm Warren, who also happens to be the chapter president, manning the fry-o-lator. Perhaps even more humorous than seeing this usually reserved, soft-spoken man toiling away like a teenager at a fast food drive-through, is the fact that Warren, an Englishman by birth and obvious accent, was cooking an enormous quantity of french fries without the slightest trace of fish anywhere — a gastronomic choice that is in direct contrast to the traditions of his heritage.

Fellow chapter member Mike Jannine, who in real life an is an A&P with an IA rating as well as the holder of a commercial pilot ticket, had the left seat on the grill duties for the day. Cooking and serving up a seemingly endless number of hot dogs and hamburgers, he had no complaints about the turnout for the event or his duties as chief chef for the masses.

Meals were cheerfully cooked and served at the Boys Club pavilion on Laird Ave., a spot familiar to tens of thousands of Sun n Fun visitors each year who are in search of shade, a cool beverage and a bite to eat. As with all Sun n Fun events, a share of the profits from the day’s feast benefited the Boy’s Club.

Volunteers Are People Too 


Bill and Irma Burke admire a southern RV-6 while dreaming of their own, stored in a chilly hangar in Canada.

Irma Burke has spent her last three winters as an early bird volunteer for Sun n Fun. This year is no different, but with her husband Bill by her side (the name plate on his hat identifies Bill as the Fly-In Supply Chairman), she was out of the museum where she often works as they spent the early part of the day exploring the assembled RVs and mentally stacking their own RV-6 up against those that had flown in.

Bill put their airplane together working part-time over the course of three years back in their permanent home town in Ontario, Canada. Their airplane is stored away each winter while they spend a few months in summer-like temperatures, avoiding the frosty freeze of the Great While North. Their demeanor was similar to that of grandparents who have to make do with a neighbor’s grandchildren until they get home to enjoy their own. Other people’s airplanes are good to browse around, but never quite as satisfying as flying off into the distance in your own.

Like most airplane builders, and potential builders, Bill was spending a good portion of his time peeking at panel installations, fairings and fittings to see how the other guy had handled this problem or that. Overall he came away pleased, as did everyone else I encountered.

ISAM — A Different Kind Of Cultural Experience 


International Sport Aviation Museum
The International Sport Aviation Museum packs an impressive number of airframes into the available space.

During Sun n Fun the weather is beginning to heat up a bit. The thermometer was tickling the low 80’s by early afternoon on Saturday, but not nearly with the intensity or tenacity that it does in April. Consequently, the International Sport Aviation Museum was comfortably uncluttered by crowds for the better part of the day. It was open to visitors free of charge, as it commonly is during special events at Sun n Fun. But with the crowd significantly smaller than it is in the springtime, and the need to embrace the air conditioning not quite so pressing, the aisles were clear allowing visitors nearly unlimited time to investigate as many aspects of the aircraft on display as were visible.

Small by the standards of many museums, the space is maximized by displaying aircraft not only on the floor, but also by hanging them from the ceiling, and placing a few on top of the office space near the entrance to the building. At one end of the display floor there is a fascinating assortment of powerplants arranged in chronological order. They range from turbines through opposed reciprocating engines, an interesting collection of radials, including a seldom-seen Guiberson Radial Diesel engine manufactured in Dallas, Texas, and the monstrously large and complex, 18-cylinder, R-3350 Turbo Cyclone powerplant. A small plastic model of the Lockheed Constellation sits atop the engine as a reminder of the elegant aircraft it was famous for powering.

A small but interesting display of Howard Hughes’ life in aviation is situated in a darkened room beside the engines. The contents are enough to whet the appetite of anyone who finds Hughes’ life and work to be compelling. We can only hope that when the ISAM expands into a new and larger space there will be even more material available for the public to peruse in reference to this most intriguing of men.

A BD-5 hangs from the ceiling, wheels down for landing. From its current location is impossible to see whether the radio is still set to 121.5 — although it always was when the airplane was setting on the floor. A private joke for pilots and kit builders alike I suspect.

A beauty of the golden age, an Aeronca LW, sits next to a Beech Staggerwing, which is situated underneath another Aeronca, a C-3. The oddity of these two aircraft, arguably the most beautiful ever constructed, being in such close proximity to one that is just as arguably one of the homeliest is part of what makes the ISAM so worth a visit — especially on a special event day when there is no additional cost for entry. From Bob Hoover’s Commander to a Steve Whittman racer, powerless hang gliders and twin-engine aircraft with a combined horsepower exceeded by many riding lawnmowers, the breadth of aviation, experimental and otherwise, is represented well.

The Next Big Thing

Whether the winter RV Fly-In will grow large enough to draw international crowds, or thousands of loyal annual visitors, remains to be seen. But with the track record that Sun n Fun has earned over the years, and the facilities they have at their disposal, it is a good bet that next years’ numbers will dwarf those of 2002’s kickoff event. Similarly, the RV crowd is large, faithful and growing. It is likely that the event will become of enough significance to begin attracting commercial vendors, larger crowds and perhaps even a visit by the Van’s Aircraft Inc. sales team.

This first year was informal and small to be sure, but even in the face of bad weather and limited advertising the Fly-In drew a healthy crowd of pilots, builders, potential buyers and their friends. Who knows where it will all end up in 25 years. Somehow, I think it will be bigger — a whole lot bigger.

Mark your calendars for January 2003 early. This might be an event you’ll want to make a habit of.

Editor’s Note:

For more of the Winter RV Fly-In, check out Jamie Beckett’s exclusive gallery of photos – only on AVweb!