A Review of Sun ‘n Fun

April 4, 2011 by Craig Fuller

Each month, I write a short email newsletter that’s been called FIRST MONDAY.  This month, the focus is on events at Sun ‘n Fun.  It was, to say the least, a memorable event. 

You will find several of our AOPA LIVE segments and stories about the week.

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  • Jim Epting , AOPA 01258266

    Mr. Fuller and AOPA. Copied in below is a letter of serious concern that I dispatched this date to Mr John Burton, the Exec Dir of Sun-n-Fun. As you read the letter you will note my considerable disagreement with his operation, and his public spin as regards business as usual, Friday April 1st at SnF. As AOPA puts major sponsorship into this event, I wanted to share my concerns with you. I firmly believe that unless SnF makes significant improvement in their operation, AOPA should consider withdrawing their name from the markee, just as EAA has already done. I stand ready to discuss this matter at your callonce you have read below. Thank you for the opportunity to comment. My contact info is a matter of record at AOPA. Best regards, Jim Epting

    Mr. John Burton April 8, 2011
    Executive Director, Sun-n-Fun
    P.O. Box 7670
    Lakeland, Florida 33807

    Dear Mr. Burton,

    I would appreciate a few minutes of your executive time to have you read these thoughts. It is very important to me to write this letter, and I feel it deserves to be read. This letter regards SnF Friday, April 1 only, not Saturday or Sunday. Where my opinion ends up, and whether it has any effect, is up to you.

    In the following commentary I draw upon experience gained from coordinating 200+ major air shows including Aviation Nation at Nellis AFB, and from having served during my USAF career for two years as Exec Officer for the Thunderbirds. Today I am retired USAF, and an aircraft owner and flyer with 2,000+ hours logged in general aviation aircraft. I have been a loyal SnF patron and am proud of having attended all 26 SnF events since 1985.

    First and most important, I am thankful for the safety of those at SnF during the terrible storm on Thursday, March 31 2011. The goal of any disaster response should always be two fold: recovery and further prevention. However, this was not the story at SnF despite spin-doctoring publicity about being ready to go on Friday morning. Describing Friday is where my nice words end. The following comments are first person observations regarding the morass April 1 at SnF 2011.

    Today as I read AOPA’s ePilot I am thoroughly disgusted by the video in which you laud SnF’s post-tornado recovery. It appears the almighty dollar and bottom line drive the ship at SnF — at the expense and well-being of the attendees who bring the millions you seek. As I saw it, Friday at SnF 2011 indicated a serious need for operational overhaul and reprioritization! Friday reflected inept management action, zero contingency planning, staff invisibility, etc. SnF’s public spinning of the situation as ready to go the next day was in fact far from the truth. Two previous bad weather days and Friday having being designated as AOPA Day likely drove the “everything’s fine”. The truth is that the public was knowingly put at great risk by SnF’s bogus spin on Friday.

    SnF should have been closed Friday and that time used as a disaster recovery day. Here is my view from on scene: Gridlocked traffic, parking lots barely passable and largely underwater swamps; untrained and too few attendants; some gates to parking didn’t open until after 1030; gates that did open were single file from three-directional traffic creating one huge choke point; disabled parking was a nasty quagmire of foot-deep mud; cars and carts everywhere were stuck in the mud up to their bumpers, many in entry ways; traffic backed up over ten miles down Pipkin, County Line and Medulla roads and Interstate 4. Vehicles and elderly wandering into Disabled Parking had to be extracted by farm tractors! SnF crowd control was run by kids; cars were scattered helter skelter on whatever high ground didnt have standing water.

    Those of us stuck in traffic inched forward taking 3+ hours to crawl the last 3 miles. Imagine our surprise when SnF had the unapologetic nerve to still charge us to park! Given the situation, parking on Friday should have been free! That didn’t happen; instead we paid for the privilege of slogging through muck up to a foot deep to get in to where SnF then scooped up an additional, overpriced $35 a person! On Pipkin Road alone I counted over 100 souls who wisely gave up, rutted across medians and left. Many more abandoned cars along roadways, which a Lakeland police officer told me the Florida Highway Patrol would be ticketing! I watched as many walked up to three miles to get in, some with canes, one poor soul used a “walker”. PI attorneys would have had a “field” day. Later I spoke with friends who flew in to LAL. They didnt pay to park, or to enter SnF; no money, no wrist bands, nada! The same was true on Saturday. It was a different world on that side of SnF.

    After being robbed for parking and entry, we again had to cross the mud bogs to get out afterwards. This was a fitting final chapter in frustration. Inexcusably, it was late in the day Friday that I observed SnF finally laying gravel to stabilize wet areas and assist traffic through the muck. Add to this picture the fact that parking fields smelled like portapotty hell: envision recycled waste water fields sporting the aroma of a 10,000 animal Iowa hog farm. This was a terrible image for SnF. The wonderful scent of spent Jet-A, 100LL and smoke oil had given way to the stench of putrid waste disposal! Attendees were walking in it, breathing it … Disgusting!

    It was not just me or other visitors who were complainers. Vendors who went to great expense to be at LAL were struggling with SnF’s out-of-control, but business-as-usual attitude. Some actually gave away their products to keep customer goodwill intact and let their loyal customers know they cared (Thank you Rosen, Bose, and David Clark). Show performers, many of them old friends from my Thunderbird days, discreetly declined comment rather than speak their minds. As for SnF, there was not the first gesture of rebuilding goodwill, just the usual price gouging and “spend money and go home” attitude. That was indeed business as usual.

    Considering the larger picture, being ill prepared for natural phenomena is one thing; I did wonder what would be SnF’s response situation for an airshow performance disaster?

    Even though it’s only a short ride to LAL from my home base at SPG in St Petersburg, this was it for me. In recent years SnF has become disappointing, but this year the added annoyance and aggravation were enough for me to decide to NOT come back. SnF was so bad on Friday that after a week I’m still angry. It really was that bad. With two bad weather days, it is quite possible that SnF took a huge financial hit this year — a self-inflicted, although hopefully not mortal wound. Whatever the case you have lost me; I will not be back. I wonder if I matter at all. Am I a voice in the wilderness?

    As a final comment, with the news of TSA moving into LAL because of DirectAir starting airline service, will accessing and movement on the airport, and at SNF, require TSA badging and security? Heaven help GA pilots enroute to SnF who violate the SIDA area next year. The Airport Authority and County Commission’s decision to expand LAL and bring in DirectAir may well have a more devastating impact on SnF than a few tornados. I hope your contingency planning includes this potential game changer. I would also hope management would make well-thought-out changes so as to not end SnF for everyone.

    Respectfully submitted for consideration,


    James R. Epting, Lt Colonel, USAF (Ret.)
    11728 Ridgeview Lane
    Seminole FL 33772

  • woody Cahall

    Colonel Epting,

    Although this is Craig’s blog, I felt the need to respond to your well-thought comments and offer my personal perspective. I am an AOPA staffer who was on site all week. Like you, I am grateful that there were no serious injuries. That factor allows us to comment more critically and without high remorse for personnel injuries although we do wish speedy recovery to those who suffered cuts and bruises.

    I once went through the eye of a typhoon north of DaNang and a devastating storm at Oshkosh. The weather event at Sun-N-Fun is now in my top three. Although I took the best shelter that I could find during the storms most intense ravages, I was out on the grounds immediately after the storm and saw, first hand, the still continuing damage.

    During the 18 hours or so following the storms devastation, I have to say that I was very proud of our industry. The team work, espre décor, cooperation, and spontaneous individual leadership was astounding. Everyone on the grounds was assisting or were enlisted to assist. Exhibitors that thought they would pack up and leave stayed and exhibited what they had left. Attendees pitched in until the police finally mandated that they leave. Through the night and into Friday everyone shared their assets without financial consideration to assure that the mission would continue. Along with many other AOPA staff members, Craig was also on-site during the storm and witnessed the same gallantry that I saw. His blog comments are a reflection of that observation.

    Your comments offer an accurate observation of Friday. Although many of us tromped out Thursday night in ankle deep mud, we were all back in very early Friday morning to continue the recovery. We were not aware of the chaos on the roads and parking lots for Friday’s attendees. We have heard from quite a few since then. Others also made a connection to Friday being AOPA day. I know John Burton personally and hold him in high regard. I am also reasonably well connected to AOPA decisions. I can assure you that AOPA Friday never played into decisions. In fact, AOPA’s decision to sponsor the 2012 SnF was offered as a recognition of the show spirit that dominated the post storm hours. I certainly do understand how a less virtuous intent could be supposed – but it just isn’t the case. Airside recovery was stellar by any measure.

    More to your point – I, and others, are now quite aware that the attention to airside, left landside operations at a severe deficit on Friday. In retrospect, parking should have been free and admission reduced or possibly eliminated and I’m sure John would have agreed. Landside was an oversight – as I’m sure you understand, aviators tend to place priority on airside. That was done. The full recognition of the problems that attendees faced on Friday did not fully hit me until I drove out late Friday evening and saw the unique and creative parking along the roads.

    I know I’ve migrated away from AOPA as an exhibitor and sponsor and probably stepped over the line to SnF management areas of responsibilities. But, I would like to assure you that in this crises time – there was no covert or profit intent. Oversights – certainly. But the SnF staff is very small and I believe did an excellent job in continuing the primary mission.

    Please don’t break you long time SnF attendance record or your support of General Aviation. Deep mud, long lines, and frustrations are certainly understood. But not enough to abandon the few remaining showcases for GA.

    We very much appreciate the time you dedicated to expressing your concerns.

  • Jim Epting , AOPA 01258266

    Woody, Letter sent was version 1.9 . The really bad ones went in the trash — too much emotion and personalization — that’s no way to communicate. Your response was a masterpiece though, very well done and calming somewhat on this end. Mr Burton could use your talents as some of the responses I have seen so far are childishly defensive versus acknowledging the problems.

    As regards my continued attendance at Sun-n-Fun, by this time I will likely have been blacklisted from same, so we’ll seeya at Oshkosh :-) je