Fifty Years of Sun 'n Fun

Text and photography by Claude La Freniere
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The SUN 'n FUN Aerospace Expo celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. It lit up the Lakeland skies, solidifying its status as the second-largest aviation show in the United States. More than just a gathering, this iconic event is a celebration of aviation history, innovation, and inspiration for future generations.
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Celebration of Aviation

Since its humble beginnings in 1974, SUN 'n FUN has become an essential aviation landmark, attracting more than 200,000 visitors each year to Lakeland Linder International Airport (KLAL). This historic edition, held from April 9 to 14, brought together a record crowd despite difficult weather conditions, including the cancellation of Thursday afternoon's show due to the risk of tornadoes.

Behind this event is SUN 'n FUN Fly-In Inc., an organization dedicated to aerospace and STEM education. Proceeds support the Center for Aerospace Excellence (ACE), a renowned institution serving more than 50,000 students annually, while also being home to the Florida Air Museum and the Lakeland Aero Club, the largest high school flying club in the world.

Lakeland-Linder Airport (KLAL) has undergone a remarkable renaissance, becoming much more than just an aviation facility. Thanks to strategic investments, it now hosts flight schools and even Amazon Prime Air cargo planes, cementing its place as a regional hub.

Beyond aerial demonstrations and exhibitions, SUN 'n FUN is an immersive experience for aviation enthusiasts. Participants, whether engineers, pilots, or students, can immerse themselves in aviation culture through a variety of educational and interactive activities.

No event would be possible without the dedication of volunteers. With more than 3,500 volunteers this year, their unwavering commitment is the beating heart of SUN 'n FUN Aerospace Expo, ensuring its continued success over the decades.
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A Dazzling Showcase of Aviation

The SUN 'n FUN Aerospace Expo presents itself as a dazzling showcase of aviation, welcoming visitors with an impressive collection of aircraft of all kinds. From vintage planes to modern jets, homebuilt aircraft, and warbirds, the expo offers a diverse and immersive experience.

The event's trade show features more than 560 exhibitors, including big names in aviation such as Enstrom Helicopter, Junkers, Waco, Daher, Diamond Aircraft, and Epic Aircraft. Visitors have the unique opportunity to meet passionate professionals dedicated to improving the flight experience, as well as explore a full range of aviation products and services.

For those aspiring to a career in aviation, the career fair offers opportunities to meet companies looking for new talent. Indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces are available to facilitate meetings and recruitment throughout the duration of the event.
In addition to pilot activities, the expo offers STEM educational initiatives and family entertainment. Stunning air shows, family play zones, and educational presentations provide an enriching experience for all participants.

Flexible Admission Options

Admission to SUN 'n FUN is $45 per day or $170 for the week, with parking options available starting at $10 per day. For a VIP experience, the 9/27 Club offers a privileged view of the air shows, with rates ranging from $185 to $1,000 for the week, including exclusive services and dedicated parking for an extra $35 per day.
For aerial photography enthusiasts, a Preferred Photo Seating option for $45 per day is available in addition to the standard admission ticket. All prices are in US dollars and offer visitors an unforgettable experience in the heart of aviation.

New Attractions for Aviation Enthusiasts

This year, Sun 'n Fun introduced new attractions for aviation enthusiasts, cementing its status as the industry's must-see event. The Future 'n Flight Plaza has debuted, spotlighting innovation in aviation with high-tech company exhibits, a career fair, and the International Oasis providing a space to relax and connect for international participants.
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Traditional Fly-In

At the heart of Sun 'n Fun, the Fly-In remains a well-established tradition. Each year, more than 3,000 aircraft of all types converge on the event, providing a spectacular and diverse view in the skies of Lakeland.
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Judging the Planes

Many unique aircraft owners, builders, and restorers entered the SUN 'n FUN competition in one of ten aircraft type divisions. Classic planes are particularly prized, requiring factory-worthy perfection to impress the judges. This competition goes beyond simple competition; it celebrates the passion, ingenuity, and history of aviation. It is a unique opportunity for aircraft owners to achieve prestigious recognition within the aviation community and for the public to discover the wonders of aeronautics.
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STOL Invitational Competition

The 2024 edition of the STOL Invitational was a highlight of the event. Elite pilots competed in modified bush planes, demonstrating their skills in takeoffs and landings over minimal distances, showcasing innovation and agility in light aviation.

Static Exhibitions

Visitors were impressed by the diversity of aircraft on display, from contemporary aircraft to classics and Warbirds from all over America. The Military and the Warbirds Alley sections offered visitors an immersion in the history of aviation, with a multitude of emblematic aircraft from the American Armed Forces and the Second World War, as well as demonstrations of secret mission simulators.
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US Air Force Simulator

This simulator offered an immersive experience with Operation: Shadow Strike. In a movie trailer equipped with moving seats and sound effects, participants experienced a secret mission as they piloted an F-35 Lightning and a CV-22 Osprey, rescuing captive humanitarians. With a first-person view and 4D effects, this simulation offers total immersion in the action. Visitors experienced thrills and memorable memories as they piloted fighter jets and carried out daring rescue missions.
Military Aircraft Exhibits
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A-10C Thunderbolt II USAF: The A-10 is a single-seat, twin-turbojet, straight-wing subsonic attack aircraft developed for the United States Air Force (USAF) and specifically designed for close air support of ground forces. In service since 1977, the USAF plans to retire its entire fleet of Warthogs by 2029 in order to transition to the F-35.
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E-9A Widget 84-048 USAF: This specialized military version of the Bombardier Dash 8 is used as a surveillance platform over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, providing telemetry and radio relays in support of assessments of air-to-air weapon systems.
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BQM-167A Skeeter USAF: This high-performance remotely controlled aerial target provides a representative threat drone target to support the Air-to-Air Weapons Systems Evaluation program.
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C-17 Globemaster III: The most flexible cargo aircraft to enter the US airlift force.
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Boeing CH-47F Chinook: The CH-47F is an advanced multi-mission helicopter intended for the US Army and international defense forces. It contains a fully integrated digital cockpit management system, common aviation architecture system cockpit, and digital automatic flight control system.
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EA-18G Growler USN: Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 142. The Boeing EA-18G Growler is an electronic warfare aircraft embarked on an American aircraft carrier, a specialized version of the two-seat Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet, providing essential electronic superiority in air operations.
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Lockheed Martin HC-130J Super Hercules: The Coast Guard's HC-130J Super Hercules long-range surveillance aircraft provides heavy airlift and long-range maritime patrol capability with the means to detect objects and share that information with operational forces.
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KC-135 Stratotanker USAF: The KC-135 Stratotanker is the primary aerial refueling capability of the United States Air Force and has excelled in this role for over 60 years.
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Lockheed Martin LC-130H Skibird USAF NY Air Guard: Polar transports equipped with new NP2000 T56-A-15A 3.5 turboprop upgrades. This unique aircraft is equipped with specialized ski landing gear for takeoff and landing on snow-covered runways in Arctic and Antarctic environments.
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MQ-1C Gray Eagle US Army: The MQ-1C Gray Eagle ERMP (Extended-Range Multi-Purpose) is a medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aircraft system designed for persistent reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and attack. It has a battery life of 25 hours and operates at altitudes up to 29,000 feet.
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QF-16 Zombie Viper: An F-16 Falcon modified to be flown either by a pilot or remotely by ground operators. It can perform various missions without risk to the crew, such as testing new weapon systems, air-to-air live fire training, testing surface-to-air missiles, and others.
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T-45 Goshawk Marines: The McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) T-45 Goshawk is an extensively modified version of the British BAe Hawk jet aircraft. It is used by the US Navy as a training aircraft for landing on aircraft carriers.
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UH-60 Blackhawk US Army: The UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is the primary utility transport and medium-lift air assault aircraft of the United States Army. The basic crew of the UH-60A is made up of three people: pilot, co-pilot, and crew chief.
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F-14 Tomcat: Quite a surprise, an F-14 Tomcat looked like it was brand new from the factory, even though the Tomcat was withdrawn from the active US Navy fleet in 2006 after being supplanted by the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. In fact, it is the Tomcat that was on display in front of the Florida Air Museum which has been given a makeover.

Warbird Alley: A Legacy of Courage and Determination

At Warbirds Alley, one could immerse oneself in the vibrant history of military aviation with a remarkable selection of iconic aircraft, and explore legendary machines that forged victory and captured the imagination of entire generations.

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B-25J Mitchell Panchito: The B-25, produced before the United States entered the war, saw approximately 9,815 units built, becoming the most produced American twin-engine aircraft of World War II.
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C-45 Beechcraft 18 Expeditor: The Beechcraft Model 18, also known as the "Twin Beech," is a twin-engine light aircraft produced from 1937 to 1969. With more than 9,000 built, it served both civilian and military purposes
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C-47 Skytrain: The Douglas C-47 Skytrain is the official designation given by the US Army Air Forces to one of the military versions of the DC-3, of which it was the most produced model, and it was used on all fronts during the Second World War.
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F4F Wildcat: The Grumman F4F Wildcat is an American fighter aircraft in service with the American Navy and Marine Corps, as well as in British naval aviation during the Second World War.
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F4U Corsair: It is one of the most emblematic aircraft of the Second World War, recognizable by its stocky silhouette and its “inverted seagull” wing. This design allowed for a short chassis while still accommodating a large diameter propeller necessary for its powerful engine. It was the first American warplane to exceed 400 mph in flight.
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Lockheed C-121A Constellation "Bataan": After eight years of restoration, the Lockheed C-121A Constellation N422NA (c/n 2605) made its first flight on June 21, 2023. The Connie is named "Bataan," a name dating back to when this Prop Liner was used by the USAF as a personal transport for General Douglas MacArthur when he was Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers during the Korean War.
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P-40 Curtiss Warhawk: The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk is an American single-engine, single-seat, all-metal fighter and ground attack aircraft that first flew in 1938.
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P-51D Mustang: The Mustang was one of the best and most famous fighters used by the United States Air Force during World War II. There were 13 different Mustangs at SUN 'n FUN 2024.
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SBD Dauntless: The SBD Dauntless (SBD stands for Scout Bomber Douglas) was a US Navy bomber during World War II.
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T-28 Trojan: The T-28 Trojan is a training aircraft used by the United States Navy after 1949. There were seven different T-28s at SUN 'n FUN 2024.
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Beechcraft T-34 Mentor: This American single-engine propeller-driven military training aircraft is derived from the Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza and served until 1950.
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North American T-6 Texan: This was the standard training aircraft for fighter pilots of the Allied nations during World War II. It was known as SNJ in the US Navy, AT-6 in the USAAC, and Harvard in the Commonwealth Air Forces.
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TBM-3E Avenger: The Grumman TBF Avenger is a torpedo bomber that entered service in 1942 and was used for the first time during the Battle of Midway.
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Consolidated PBY Catalina: A maritime patrol flying boat used by the Allies during World War II. Known for its versatility, it carried out reconnaissance, sea rescue, and bombing missions. Its large wings and retractable floats make it iconic.
Warbirds Galore

Due to the multitude of Warbirds available, they were used extensively, particularly with the active participation of Commemorative Air Force aircraft. On several occasions during the week, as many as 16 to 20 aircraft were seen in flight simultaneously, flying in formation over the airport. This demonstration offered an impressive spectacle, featuring a multitude of Warbirds including P-51 Mustangs, C-47 Skytrains, T-6 Texans, T-28 Trojans, B-25 Mitchells, SBD Dauntless, and Nanchang F4F Wildcats.
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This Lockheed C-121A Constellation "Bataan" has served as General Douglas MacArthur's personal transport during the Korean War.
Among the Warbirds that flew solo, the most impressive displays included the B-25 Mitchell "Panchito," C-47 "Placid Lassie," Lockheed VC-121A Constellation "Bataan," P-51D "Crazy Horse," the two P-51D "Jack Aces," the P-51D "Gunfighter," and the P-51D "Quick Silver." There were also some jet Warbirds from the 1950s to 1970s, such as the L-39 and T-33, which took part in the flight demonstrations.
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Tora! Tora! Tora!

But the highlight of this Warbirds symphony was undoubtedly the Commemorative Air Force's dazzling performance of "TORA TORA TORA." This epic reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor immersed viewers in history with historic aircraft, including Japanese and American replicas flying in formation to recreate the events of December 7, 1941. The stunning pyrotechnic effects added to the intensity of the experience, capturing the emotion of this pivotal event in American history.
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The Excellence of Civil Aerobatics

World-renowned aerobatic pilots captivated audiences with their performances at various air shows throughout the week.
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Rob Holland flying his MXS-RH
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Michael Goulian flying his Extra 330SC
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 Extra 330SC flown by Kevin Coleman
Among them were high-caliber artists such as Michael Goulian and Kevin Coleman on their Extra 330SC, Patty Wagstaff on Extra 300LC, RJ Gritter on Decathlon, Jim Peitz on Beech Bonanza, David Martin on Jungmeister U85, Greg Koontz on Decathlon, Redline Airshows with two RV-8s, Rob Holland on his MXS-RH, and Titan Aerobatic Team with four T-6s. The sky was brought to life by their breathtaking acrobatics. Additionally, civilian paratroopers from the Patriot Parachute Demo Team also dazzled the audience with their parabolic formation jumps.

In addition, Lift Aircraft presented its Hexa, an innovative drone designed to transport one person, offering a unique flight experience accessible to everyone. With its 18 engines and propellers, this revolutionary vehicle opens up new perspectives in the field of air transport, offering exciting possibilities for the future of aviation.
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The Polaris Ghost Squadron: A Unique Squadron

In the prestigious framework of SUN 'n FUN, an extraordinary civilian air squadron captivated the attention of aviation enthusiasts around the world: the Polaris Ghost Squadron. With its astonishing fleet of eight jets hidden under shades of discreet gray and black camouflage, this asymmetrical squadron left its mark.
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At the heart of this squadron, the MiG-29 Fulcrum owned by Jared Isaacman attracted attention, one of the rare private examples of this legendary model. Accompanying this aviation gem are three Dassault Alpha Jets and four L-39 Albatros jets, all manufactured by Aero Vodochody in the Czech Republic.

This asymmetric squadron deployed maneuvers of rare elegance, evoking the spirit of the greatest military formations. With figures involving up to eight, four, three, or even two aircraft simultaneously, not forgetting solo performances, each flight was an impressive spectacle.

The High-Flying Military Spectacle

Alongside these dazzling civilian performances, the military component spared no effort to amaze the spectators.
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VFA-106's F/A-18 Super Hornet Rhino Demonstration Team: Nicknamed the “Gladiators,” they put on a stunning show, performing no less than six memorable displays. After each of its flight performances, the F/A-18 Super Hornet flew in formation with an F4U Corsair for the patriotic “USN Legacy Flight.”
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USAF Displayed the F-16 Fighting Falcon "Viper": This impressive demonstration of typical airspace interdiction simulated NORAD response to an aircraft violating US airspace.
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F-35A Lightning II Demo Team: Under the command of U.S. Air Force Captain Melanie “MACH” Kluesner, the F-35A Lightning II pushed its limits in five breathtaking demonstrations. After each of its flight performances, the F-35A flew in formation with a P-51D Mustang for the USAF Heritage Flights.
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KC-135 Stratotanker: From the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron (AFRC), it amazed the audience with two (simulated) aerial refueling demonstrations with an F-16 Viper.
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USAF Thunderbirds Demonstration Team: Led by Lt Col Nathan Malafa, they demonstrated the elite pilot skills and exceptional capabilities of the F-16 Fighting Falcon during three unforgettable sorties.
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The Sun 'n Fun Nighttime Air Show Sets the Sky Ablaze

One of the most anticipated moments of SUN 'n FUN was undoubtedly the evening shows, which lit up the sky on Wednesday and Saturday evening. From 7:00 p.m., with the sunset in the background, spectators were transported into a world of aerial magic, headlined by the F-35A on Wednesday and the Polaris Ghost Squadron on Saturday.

Once night fell, the spectacle reached new heights with the Titan Aerobatic Team setting the sky ablaze with dazzling aerial acrobatics accompanied by pyrotechnics, creating colorful trails of fire and colored smoke. Then Team Arythmia lit up the skies with their luminous paramotors, followed by a series of extraordinary performances, including Manfred Radius' H-101 Salto Sailplane, Kyle Fowler's Long EZ, Ken Reider's RV8, Nathan's GhostWriter Chipmunk Hammond, all equipped with pyrotechnics mounted on their planes, and the Tora Bomb Squad for pyrotechnics on the ground.
All complemented by stunning fireworks, powerful music, giant lasers, and an incredible finale by Great Lakes Drone Co., which used drone swarm technology to create luminous shapes and moving 3D in the sky, including the Sun 'n Fun logo and jets like the F-16.
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Overall, SUN 'n FUN was the scene of exceptional aerial performances, highlighting the talent and mastery of civilian and military pilots to the delight of aviation enthusiasts. SUN 'n FUN 2024 was an exceptional event that paid tribute to the passion, courage, and innovation that characterize aviation. It will remain engraved in memories as an exceptional edition, having brought together more than 200,000 visitors passionate about aviation. With breathtaking aerial displays, spectacular nighttime performances, and an electrifying atmosphere, the event celebrated the history of aviation while opening new perspectives for the future. An unmissable event for sky enthusiasts, the 2025 edition scheduled for April 3 to 13 already promises to be even more grandiose.