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But 2020 wasn’t a typical year. Not to be deterred by the year’s sweeping cancellations of aviation events nationwide in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the leadership of the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo seized upon the holiday season and Florida’s mild early winter weather to host what may have been the largest aviation event of 2020…anywhere.
On Friday and Saturday, December 4 and 5, several thousand people converged on the campus of the fly-in and expo for a socially distanced outdoor festival that drew together elements familiar to both fly-ins and local holiday events. While nearly 70 backcountry flying experts competed for the shortest landings on the Lakeland Aero Club’s grass airstrip, Santa and Mrs. Claus made their own arrival at show center in a PT–17 to collect Christmas wish lists from scores of eager children. More than 200 automobile enthusiasts displayed classic and muscle cars. A balloon glow accented a twilight airshow that featured the U.S. Air Force F–35 and F–16 Viper demo teams.
Between exhibitor aircraft, warbirds, STOL competitors, and attendees flying in from all over the region, approximately 350 aircraft arrived for the event, according to show officials. Aircraft camping sold out with 100 participants. For those coming just for the day, low IFR conditions on Saturday kept arrivals slow at first, but ceilings eventually lifted, presenting a beautiful cloudless sky for the STOL competition finals and the afternoon airshow.
On Saturday morning, John “Lites” Leenhouts hosted AOPA President Mark Baker and Experimental Aircraft Association Chairman Jack Pelton for an engaging conversation on the state of general aviation in a pandemic. Much of the conversation centered on the future of aviation events, with the three executives sharing their organization’s plans for 2021. Leenhouts promised Sun ’n Fun will take place in April 2021. Pelton also emphasized EAA’s commitment to hosting Air Venture 2021, and Baker explained AOPA’s plans to conduct a series of AOPA Pilot Gathering Air Tours to visit pilots at nearly two dozen events across the nation next year.
“General aviation is alive and well,” Baker said. “Aircraft sales are fantastic right now, people are doing flight training, flight schools around the country are busier than they’ve ever been…people are turning to general aviation more and more.”
Organizers of the holiday fly-in emphasized the entirely outdoor nature of the event, which allowed attendees to spread out as the pandemic continues. Attendees were encouraged to practice appropriate health safety protocols. Greg Gibson, chief marketing officer for Sun ’n Fun, estimated between 4,000 and 7,000 people were in attendance over two days, and he indicated interest in continuing to hold this holiday event in future years.