Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland is the place to be in Florida if you're looking for family fun and things to do in April. The 45th year of the show features the Blue Angels, a drone light show and more.
LAKELAND — Six F-18 fighter jet pilots will compete against the latest drone technology in the skies over Lakeland for the admiration of thousands of spectators next week.
The 45th annual Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In & Expo featuring a wide variety of high-powered aviation performances, exhibitors and educational classes will take place at Lakeland Linder International Airport Tuesday through Sunday, April 7.
“One reason I think Sun ‘n Fun has been so successful over the years is people with a diversity of interests can find satisfaction here,” said John “Lites” Leenhouts, president and CEO of Sun ‘n Fun.
The annual April fundraiser is the second largest aviation expo of its kind in the world, second to only EAA AirVenture Oshkosh held in Wisconsin.
This year’s lineup welcomes back the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, who arrive Thursday, April 4, to perform a daily show featuring a series of precision aerobatic maneuvers in their six F-18 Hornet fighter jets.
“All the buzz is that the Blues are back in town,” Leenhouts said. “It’s high tempo, fast and exhilarating.”
Their appearance marks the return of a jet demonstration team to the Sun ‘n Fun’s performers after the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds canceled their 2018 appearance at the last minute. One of the Thunderbirds’ pilots had died in a crash roughly a week before the exposition.
In sharp contrast to the military jets, this year’s event will put the latest unmanned aerial aircraft technology in the public spotlight by offering its first drone light show, the “Star Dance Spectacular” Wednesday and Saturday nights.
“Yesterday’s thrill of watching an airplane go upside down and do all sorts of acrobatics has waned some over time,” Leenhouts said. “Some of (the millennials) will want to see the Blue Angels, but there will be many more of them that want to see the 60-drone act.”
Matthew Quinn, owner of the Michigan-based Great Lakes Drone Co., said his employees have spent more than six weeks carefully crafting a choreographed drone light show synced to music for the event.
“Our show will be very unique,” he said. “We are doing a few things we’ve never shown anyone before.”
The performance will feature custom-built, 3-pound unmanned aircraft mounted with 7,000-lumen LED lights forming 3D patterns that, according to Quinn, have been visible to airplane pilots more than 5 miles away. His lips are sealed when it comes to sharing what the theme is for the “top secret” show.
“We’re announcing that we changed the show for a specific reason at the last minute to honor some performers,” Quinn said. “I’m leaving who as a surprise.”
Great Lakes Drone Co. will also be an exhibitor in the event’s Drone Zone that provides attendees with the opportunity to try firsthand flying a drone within a caged environment in addition to several education seminars on the various uses of unmanned aerial aircraft.
“We’ve seen there’s massive advancements in drone technology and it’s going to keep growing,” Leenhouts said. “Drones need to be here.”
For aviation enthusiasts yearning for the days of old, planes on exhibit will include a XP-82 "Twin Mustang," a rare prototype aircraft built during the Korean War. Greg Gibson, air operations director for Sun ‘n Fun, said history will come alive when the Cavanaugh Flight Museum presents a live re-enactment of a search and rescue mission for a downed pilot during the weekend.
“It’s a very realistic simulation of what it would have been like to be a fighter pilot shot down during the Vietnam conflict,” Gibson said.
Sun ‘n Fun is the nonprofit organization’s largest annual fundraiser for the Aerospace Center for Excellence, which provides educational opportunities and scholarships for students interested in aviation, including those at neighboring Central Florida Aerospace Academy.
“It’s all about encouraging a passion for aviation and the airplane industry,” Leenhouts said. “We give young men and women the opportunity to gain skills that they otherwise would never have.”
More than 3,500 volunteers have donated their time to preparing for the event that raises more than $2 million annually.
Tickets for the event can be purchased on Sun ‘n Fun’s website at www.flysnf.org or at the gates daily as early as 8 a.m. Cost for adults is $39 daily, or $150 for the week; $18 daily for children age 17 and younger, or $60 for the week. Admission for children ages 6 and younger is free. Special discounts are available for Florida residents, military service members and affiliated membership groups.
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at 863-802-7545 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally published to theledger.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.