Sun ‘N Fun: Blowing Off The Rust


I was never a whiz at doing math in my head, but I’m worse now. So I practically had to resort to my fingers to calculate how long it has been since I humped cameras, recorders and notebooks around to cover a show: 19 months. That’s right. The last show I did was AirVenture 2019.

The skills appear to be about as perishable as flying a decent instrument approach or maybe finding my way to the gym again. How the &^%$ do you set the audio level on this stupid camera? I can’t remember. And where are the spare batteries I know I’m supposed to have? I wasn’t alone. When I was interviewing Bryant Elliott at Piper about the autoland-equipped M600, he stopped in mid-sentence at one point and said, “I can’t seem to get this right.” (Neither did Sun ‘n Fun, if that’s any consolation.) The show rap takes time to reestablish.

I heard the comment more than once. For exhibitors and attendees alike, shows have a certain rhythm you get into your head, what you want to see, where you’re walking and how you’ll get there without winding up in front of a line of PortaPotties stupidly wondering if they really had that many the last time you were here. I stood dumbly looking at a map to find Paradise City, a place I’ve been a hundred times.

For reasons that escape me, one of the radio shows wanted to interview me and the first question was framed for me to effuse about the tremendous excitement and enthusiasm I was sensing out on the show grounds. I’m sure my gaze must have reflected back a question wondering if this person had ever read anything I’ve written. I don’t have an effuse mode.

I did not sense enthusiasm. I sensed relief and resignation for finally getting back to some degree of normality. I sensed some fatigue from the dreary isolation of worrying about staying healthy, of keeping businesses afloat and wondering when it would all end. I sensed people being genuinely happy to see friends and colleagues they’ve seen, for the last 19 months, in only the bloodless pallor of Zoom calls. I was, too.

Dozens of people tagged up with me to make small talk about the show but really to say, hey, I’m coming out of the hole. You think it’s safe? You answer your own question on that one. I didn’t go because I thought it was safe, I went because I have a job to do, accept whatever risk is involved and because I happen to like doing this job.

I’m always asked about my impression of show attendance. Several years ago, I stopped this guessing game. Vendors I talked to thought the booth traffic was light, which is no surprise. Sun ‘n Fun said it was seeing record advance ticket sales, but that’s not the same thing as overall attendance. Not based on observation but gut feel, I would expect lower attendance. The exhibitor population was down by about 20 percent, with some major players absent.

Dynon had a combination virtual and manned booth, but you could find an actual human to talk to. Garmin was set up with a wait-in-line arrangement to keep people from overwhelming the booth as they usually do. I’m not sure it worked, judging by the crowd I saw on two pass-throughs. Textron had an entirely virtual display that was either the lamest thing I’ve seen in my entire career or pure genius. I’m leaning toward the latter.

It had a giant, sunlight-readable superscreen, great audio of talking heads effusing—better them than me—about Barons and Bonanzas, and little kiosks where you could scan a QR code to learn more or actually phone someone for a chat. If this is the future, I don’t mind it that much. No one would mistake me for a people person, and if I can conduct my interview with a low risk of acquiring a fatal pulmonary condition, I’m all in. Maybe not effusively, but certainly with an approving nod.

Pandemic isolation has siloed us all in such a way that we may have missed some things. While unemployment is high, aggregate economic demand is stirring and if the airlines are tanked, GA isn’t. Bryant Elliott told me Piper is going great guns and so are Tecnam and Cirrus. Randy Schlitter, who is by my estimation the closest thing to a 21st century Renaissance Man, told me he didn’t display his RANS aircraft at Lakeland this year. “Too busy. No time to do it,” he told me. I made a note to travel to Kansas and fly the new S21 Outbound. Craig Barnett of Scheme Designers told me he’s designing so many paint jobs for airplanes that he’s working nights and weekends just to keep up.

I suspect some of the companies who skipped Sun ‘n Fun this year may have done so for the same reasons. A year of showless business gave them no choice but to adjust their marketing budgets and outreach channels. Will they be back? We’ll know in a year, but my guess is yes. Expos are more than just marketing exposure; they serve as networking and idea exchange opportunities. New business comes as much from new ideas as it does from occupying a corner of the static display.

Voting With Their Lungs

In our pre-coverage of Sun ‘n Fun, I allowed as how the organizers had done about what could be expected for COVID-19 mitigation. When I interviewed Lites Leenhouts for our pre-show coverage a month ago, he said masks would be required in the hangars, although not outside. This made sense. He said the show wouldn’t police this and wouldn’t eject people for not complying. That made sense, too.

So how did they do on execution? Sadly, I’d give them a D-minus. I would say mask usage in the hangars was around 10 percent and no more than 25 percent on the sweeps I took through the buildings. I hadn’t been in the first hangar Tuesday morning for five minutes when a vendor complained to me he was told that the mask “requirement” was now a “suggestion.” That things were going south was obvious when the badge checker at the door had his mask around his chin. I saw dozens of people wandering around carrying their masks.

Sun ‘n Fun said it was taking the COVID-19 risk seriously, but I am disappointed to say it did not. And what is the risk, anyway? No one can really say. Florida has been experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, but just today, a report said the test positivity rate is trending down—a good sign. If the risk is significant, the vendors—who are in the buildings all day—may be most at risk. We’ll see if any infections develop. I hope not.

My view is that if you tell people you are going to do a thing, do that thing. Don’t give it lip service. I would have stationed prominent signage stating that masks were required, just as had been planned. And I’d have further had the pass checkers tell attendees, we are asking you to wear a mask. I realize that task is not a pleasant one, but that is the job at the moment. Sometimes exercising leadership isn’t easy. If the people walk by without masking up, so be it. You’ve made a fair effort.

I saw no such effort.

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  1. Funny, I never stop flying; in fact I flew more during the “pandemic” because it was so much easier than driving. I’ve invested too much money and time to just part my plane for a year. Honestly, I don’t think non-surgical “magic masks“ made a dent in actual transmission rates. YMMV.

    • Some of us, however, have our income tied to our business interests. With 90% of our aviation-centric business vanishing, I had to put my CFI training on hold (my retirement plan, it was to be.)

  2. I spent Wednesday at the show and Thursday with an old airline buddy who winters in Winter Haven near the airport. This AM, we took a golf cart around Winter Haven’s parking area and I’d say that there were more airplanes there then we’d ever seen before. Also, the flying activity seemed definitely up at KGIF.

    Sure felt good to be out and about and — I,too — had to get pointed to find Paradise City because they put that big fence up around the runway. Shoulda done that years ago as a safety buffer. The parking lot didn’t seem very full on day two, however. Couldn’t have asked for better weather on Wednesday. As for masks … I had one, didn’t wear it and never once even thought about it other than when I got my daily pass and it said, “Masks required.”

  3. Hilarious, I loved it. The Rev Spooner would say ‘You fumpy grupper’. Don’t change.
    As for masks, you are IMO dead right about that, put it on, what’s the harm, maybe a little eye liner to make your baby blues pop!

  4. I didn’t attend, but I have not seen one person in the photos posted with a mask on.
    Nevermind if you think masks are effective, asking your kids to obey the rules then no one follows/enforces them sends the wrong message. Like telling them “Don’t drink and drive” while you have a beer in your hand then drive to the store to get some more. Stop being stupid, set the example… your kids are watching and taking notes.

    • I agree. It’s not about a mask’s effectiveness, good or bad. When a business or event says clearly “mask required” it is the responsible, courteous, polite, respecting thing to do. I can’t imagine how you can pick and choose whether it means for you to do so or not. Your choice as a responsible person, being responsible to that event or business request/requirement, is to either wear it or not to enter the place. Where does my picking which rules to follow end.

  5. This is my 20th year at Sun N Fun. Maybe my last. The auto traffic management continues to be horrific. Wednesday, there were three lines to take your money, then you are left to rely on the courtesy of others because you had to merge into ONE line for parking. In 2019, it took 90 minutes to exit the parking lot even though we were in the car before the airshow ended. Hope its better today. This year, I wanted to take my customary selfie in front of the SNF arch at the entrance – they didn’t even bother to put it up this year! As regards masks, I’ve been vaccinated twice but I still wear my mask as a courtesy to you. But I’m the guy that still uses his turn signals to ask you before I change lanes, too.

    • If you are vaccinated twice, and you still wear your mask, as a courtesy, then you are actually part of the problem.

      I LOVE that SNF isn’t the mask police. EVERYONE knows the risks, you don’t like it, don’t go. Wearing one outside is useless anyway. You don’t like that inside hangers they aren’t being forced. Don’t go. Complain to SNF, that’s fine. That’s your right. But I LVOE that people are standing up to the most ridiculous “it doesn’t hurt”, oh but we’re vaccinated.

      How this same people can actually fly an airplane amazes me. There is some science and knowledge required. But I guess that went out the door. Can’t wait to be there tomorrow and can’t wait to feel normal.

  6. I saw few masks at SNF this year. I think most folks are just worn out from Covid/mask fatigue.

    I enjoyed speaking with many senior airplane owners, particularly in the vintage section. When it came up they all said they were fully vaccinated and ready to live their lives again. Elderly guys happily shook my hand and talked freely.

    I look at it this way: If you are say, 78, and you know your life and flying days are limited, why, after full vaccination would you not go out and live again? I hear some out their screaming “because you could make others sick!” Well, if you are truly vulnerable to Covid (as in old or sick) and you are not vaccinated you probably should not be at a large public gathering.

    The logical approach was to isolate/protect the vulnerable from the beginning of this thing and let everyone else take varying degrees of risk, like letting children go to school for God’s sake! Instead, our society largely took a shotgun approach that simply didn’t work. The states with the most drastic measures had as much Covid or more than anywhere else.

    It amazes me how many people will do things that clearly put others at risk like taking young passengers on motorcycles or pilots of questionable skill/health giving children Young Eagle rides and then these same people pontificate about how irresponsible you are if you don’t wear a piece of cloth over your mouth after you’ve spent a year in isolation, lost your business and are finally fully vaccinated.

    • BIngo, right on. BTW the CDC states clearly, you can’t actually transmit COVID if you have a mask on. My may get it, MAYBE, but you can’t actually transmit once fully vaccinated. But if you wear a mask out of courtesy, well you’re just not thinking rationally.


        The CDC DOES recommend still wearing a mask indoors and avoiding large crowds even if you have been vaccinated, because there isn’t enough data to prove that it’s safe to behave normally otherwise.

        I feel sorry for the attendees who decided to go to SnF because they felt satisfied that the “requirement” for wearing a mask in the hangars would be there, but then find that virtually no one is wearing one. Even if they decide to avoid the hangars as a result, that means they basically paid for full admission for only a partial experience.

  7. I don’t get what “masks required” means if there is no enforcement of it. Without enforcement, it’s just “masks suggested”. And if that’s what they intended, the SnF organizers should have just said that from the start (though reading between the lines, when they said they wouldn’t have any “mask police”, I suspected very few people would actually wear them). At least that way, the few people who are wearing masks would have known for sure that they would be the minority, and maybe they would have made the decision to stay home. You can’t fault those people for having a lower risk tolerance than others.

    I truly do hope it’s a nothing-event regarding covid spread.

  8. Sure, we all have different levels of risk tolerance. And very often our own individual fear of risks is irrational. I freely admit I am afraid of things that that I know are less risky than others I worry little about.

    I know extreme skiers that won’t fly in a Cessna, I know a guy that rides cycles every weekend who preaches the dangers of social drinking and premarital sex.

    This happens within aviation all the time. Some pilots dwell on the possibility on engine failure but flirt with terrible weather.

    I do wonder, however, why anyone that is uncomfortable being fairly close to others who are not wearing masks is interested in attending public events. It’s like being uncomfortable going above the speed limit and resenting all those drivers rushing by you on a busy interstate.

  9. I enjoyed your article Paul, and would love to have met you. It felt wonderful to once again be at an aviation event and walk around outdoors without masks and feeling quite safe because social distancing was fairly easy to maintain outdoors. As for masks inside the hangars (exhibit buildings) I’m with you 100%. Not good at all! I’m fully vaccinated thank goodness, but the majority probably weren’t, and it was way too busy in there for people to not be wearing masks. As for people commenting that there’s no need to wear a mask if vaccinated, that may be technically correct, but everyone else has no idea whether you’re vaccinated or not, so the last thing vaccinated people should be doing is going maskless and having unvaccinated people thinking it’s okay to not wear one. Until the authorities everywhere say masks aren’t necessary, we should all be wearing them in areas that require them. All that being said, I had a great time and plan on returning again.

    • And….the biggest reason to do so is because the host of the event required you do so. That was made known before you purchased your ticket. When we entered the event we knew that was a requirement. But, to many aviators, that and I guess many other rules (as in must, required, and requirement) just don’t apply to them.

      “Guests must follow all posted COVID-19 instructions while visiting the 2021 SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo.
      Masks will be required in all areas where social distancing is not achievable, such as exhibit hangars, ticket queues, enclosed tents and guest shuttles. Signage will be in place reminding guests of this requirement”.

  10. Interesting isn’t it? Pilots that complain about wearing masks especially when in large groups, jumped on the ASDS-B bandwagon and collision avoidance even if it only saves one life, yet 560000+ people died in one year from a virus that might have been mitigated by early mask wearing.

    Oh… I stay away from crowds and don’t have ADS-B in my Pitts.

    • Maybe you missed the point, vaccinated people don’t want to wear masks. Remember, the vaccine is supposed to be safe, but if it is safe, why force masks. If not safe, why tell people it is. It’s all BS.

      COVID exhaustion, with millions vaccinated, people are tired of the lies and Bs about masks and social distancing. People who are fully vaccinated and wear masks because they think it makes others safe, are not educated, lemmings, or live in the UK or other countries that bow down to gov’t control.

    • PER THE CDC out of those Americans that have been vaccinated, only 0.0075% have still gotten infected and 0.0001% have died from Covid-19.

      You currently have twice the chance of being struck by lightning in a given year than dying from Covid-19 after being vaccinated.

      • Yes, the vaccine is safe and effective. The problem is, there isn’t enough data to guarantee that a vaccinated person won’t still transmit the virus. Additionally, how can you tell if someone has been vaccinated or not? Once we reach herd immunity where even unvaccinated people are unlikely to get the virus because there are so few opportunities for it to take hold, we can go back to normal. But until then, we need to do the socially responsible thing and act as though none of us have been vaccinated.

        No one WANTS to wear a mask, but no one WANTS to get covid either. We’ve made it this far, and we’re so close to going back to normal. Please, let’s not throw the game away on the 1 yard line.

        • Politely, Gary, how can you assert that we’re on the one yard line, when the “experts” keep moving the goal posts?

          • The goal posts signify herd immunity, not the plays, penalties or fumbles of the offensive team. Sometimes there’s an unforeseen blitz by the opponent, or a fumble by the offense, or a weather delay to the clock.

            The opponent has been hard to predict, cunning and formidable. But it has nothing to do with the position of the goal posts.

  11. I didn’t mind being a ‘stand in’ for you at pipistrel aircraft display. If you need help hauling your stuff around let me know.
    I’ll be here at Sun N Fun all week and will check back here in the morning.

  12. I guess I’m a lemming then when I bowed down to the government and joined the Army upon receiving notice I’d be drafted in 1970. I didn’t realize bone spurs would keep me out of Vietnam! I also slow down to the posted speed in a construction zone out of respect for the workers and the sign that posts the speed limit.

  13. Yars… you’re right. It doesn’t matter how formidable the opponent is, if the goal posts keep getting moved, there’s no way you can develop a strategy. Yes Dave, the goal posts do signify heard immunity and the scientists have known that number all along. That number isn’t changing so why is the goal post moving? To those that were upset about the mask thing, stay home. I’ll be able to get a hot dog faster next year.

    • Just a side note, calling an ‘audible’ for ‘heard’ immunity won’t necessarily work either…

      You guys can’t have a fixed 1 yard line, out-of-bounds markers, and rules of the game if the goal posts or end zone are moveable! Just because one of the coaches from the sidelines says to the players ‘you’re getting close to a touchdown’ or ‘you’re getting further away from a touchdown’ through passes, rushes or setbacks from penalties or fumbles doesn’t mean the end zone or goal posts have moved!

      It’s a new virus, with all the education and application of knowledge we have to acquire about it to get to a touchdown. The refs would never allow a coach to change the rules. And, who do you think the refs are?