Sun ’n Fun Back As First Major Air Show Since Pandemic

Credit: USAF

The Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland, Florida, canceled at the last minute in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, returns April 13-18.

While the show may be a bit smaller in some ways than previous events, it marks the first major air show since the pandemic began. 

Still, the event will feature thousands of aircraft, daily air shows and aircraft demonstrations. The show’s headliners include the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, making their first appearance with new F-18 Super Hornets and a C-17 and F-22 Raptor demo. 

“We’re the largest major air show on the planet in the last year and a half,” said Greg Gibson, Sun ’n Fun airshow director and chief marketing officer.

Exhibitors for the event total 400, down 20% from 500 in a typical year, although advance ticket sales are up, Gibson notes. About half of last year’s tickets are also good for this year’s show. Sun ’n Fun typically attracts 200,000 people cumulatively over the seven-day show, he said.

Financially, last year’s cancellation was “devastating” to the organization, Sun ’n Fun Fly-In. The air show is the primary source of funding for the Aerospace Expo, which offers education, outreach, summer camps and scholarships. 

“When you lose 80% of your revenue, you’re hurt badly,” Gibson said. But through donations, fundraising events, COVID-related Paycheck Protection Program loans, a halt to planned capital improvements, other cost-cutting and “good fiscal behavior” measures, the organization was able to survive and meet its scholarship promises. 

When the pandemic hit, it had just broken ground on a 22,000-ft. expansion of the Florida Air Museum. That was able to continue. Gibson predicts the organization will be financially in “really good shape” after Sun ’n Fun in 2022.  

The biggest challenge to this year’s event is to ensure that all safety procedures are in place to meet Centers for Disease Control standards, Gibson said. This includes having masks available, installing hand sanitation stations, contactless payment for ticketing, increased restroom sanitation and other measures. 

Exhibitors also have health protocols in mind. Textron Aviation’s presence as an exhibitor will be unique. 

While it will have a Cessna Caravan on physical display with an interior from Wipaire, visitors will be able to virtually access a Cessna 182 Skylane, Beech Bonanza, Baron and Citation M2 business jet through use of augmented reality. 

The exhibit will be physically unmanned, but company and product information will be available through video displays, graphic boards and mobile technologies. Visitors will be able to text questions to sales personnel, who will answer as quickly as possible.

“I’m really excited about using this platform to engage with customers,” said Chris Crow, vice president of piston and utility aircraft sales. 

The decision to not physically man the exhibit was made months ago. In the future, Textron Aviation plans to return to shows, such as AirVenture Oshkosh, in a more traditional format. But it plans to incorporate some of the new technology as well, Crow said.

“We’re excited that we’re starting to get back into the opportunities where shows are happening,” he said. “Obviously, Sun ’n Fun is a pivotal one in the piston side of the house. We’re looking forward to being there.”

Piper Aircraft, based in Vero Beach, Florida, says its exhibit will focus on open, fresh air spaces and include safety measures to protect attendees and its team. Those include face masks, a hand sanitizer station with temperature reading capability and social distancing signage.  

Its static display will include the new M600 SLS with the Garmin Autoland system, the Piper Seminole and an Archer from ATP Flight School. Product brochures will be available through download using QR codes and hard and soft surfaces will be cleaned throughout the day. 

“The team has put much thought into developing standards and best practices to enable us to physically participate at industry events while still facing a pandemic,” said Ron Gunnarson, Piper vice president of sales, marketing and customer support. “Given our commitment to safety and the measures that we are implementing, we feel confident that being present at Sun ’n Fun is the right choice.”

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.