AIN Blog: Weather Takes Sun ‘n’ Fun Fly-In by Storm, Quite Literally

 - April 1, 2011, 10:50 AM

If I were to experience a tornado, or a near-tornado, my guess would have been while visiting one of the aircraft manufacturers in Wichita. After all, it's hard to miss the emergency tornado shelters scattered throughout the Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Learjet campuses in the self-proclaimed Air Capital of the World.

The last place I would have thought I'd be encountering an up-close view of such a destructive weather event was at the Sun ‘n’ Fun Fly-in at Lakeland (Fla.) Linder Airport. But that's exactly what happened yesterday at about noon.

After attending a King Schools press conference and then having a nice chat with John and Martha King about BARR and their erroneous arrest at gun point last year upon landing at Santa Barbara Airport in a “stolen” airplane, I went to the media center, one of the few permanent structures here at the Sun ‘n’ Fun grounds, to finish writing Thursday’s AINalerts. As I was typing away, I noticed it started to get dark outside. A typical Florida thunderstorm, I thought.

About 11:55 a.m. it got really dark, to the point that it almost looked like it was nighttime. The media center, which is normally sparsely occupied during midday, started to get crowded. Five minutes later the thunderstorms arrived and the lights in the media center started to flicker. I had just finished the Alerts copy and was trying to attach the file and send it to the AIN editorial office in New Jersey via the press room’s Wifi. But the power flicker had reset the router and as I tried to log back on, the lights went out.

Transferring the file soon became the least of my worries. Outside, the storm and winds were so intense that it started raining sideways. A few brave photographers stepped out on the back porch of the media center to take photos. While none of us in the media center got hurt, those out on the porch were more lucky than they realized at first.

After the storm subsided at about 12:30 p.m. we were able to quickly see that all was not well . An exhibitor tent crashed into a tree not far from the media center porch and was wrapped around a huge tree limb that was now resting on the ground. Had it not been for the tree, the tent could have easily whipped through the porch area, potentially injuring the unsuspecting photographers.

It continued to rain steadily, but with nowhere near the intensity of the strong cell that had torn through the grounds, so the journalists started to venture out of the media center to better assess the damage all around. I saw several mangled aircraft, but quickly returned to the safety of the center after police cars drove by, their loud speakers blaring loudly that another cell was on its way and we should seek shelter immediately.

Meanwhile, rumors of a collapsed metal structure that trapped 70 people circulated in the media center. This later turned out to be false–it was a tent and only seven were injured, with only minor injuries reported.

The police cars made several more passes as time wore on, warning of additional intense storms, but these never materialized. About 2:40 p.m., Sun ‘n’ Fun media communications manager Jim Bernegger briefed the press and reported that 40 aircraft had been damaged or destroyed. That number has since been revised upward to 50, and the injuries now total 15, with seven of them requiring a visit to the hospital.

During yesterday’s ad hoc briefing, Bernegger also set the record straight about the rumored building collapse and 70 people being trapped. Yet some aviation news organizations, in the rush to get the news out, still reported this rumor as truth as late as 4:30 p.m. I won’t name the news organizations, but I can proudly say that AIN wasn’t among them.

After getting the all-clear about 2:45 p.m., I ventured outside again to get a better look at the damage. It was bad, if not downright depressing. I hope I never see anything like it ever again.

An Eclipse 500 was among several display aircraft that were damaged or destroyed when the violent storm cell tore through Lakeland Regional Airport. Furniture at exhibitor booths was tossed around, tents were upended, garbage cans and port-o-potties were pushed over and lots of aircraft were ripped from their tiedowns.

The Eclipse was damaged by a Rans light sport aircraft that was blown into the twin-engine jet. “It doesn’t look too bad–mostly skin damage,” Mike Press, co-founder and executive vice president of Albuquerque-based Eclipse Aerospace, told AIN shortly after the cell passed. “Fortunately, there are no injuries,” he said. “Airplanes can be replaced.”

Several other light sport aircraft were flipped upside down, and a float-equipped Husky was not only flipped upside down, but both of its wings were severely bent and twisted. Screw-in tiedowns, much like those that are used to secure dogs’ leashes to, were left hanging by ropes from the mangled airplane.

Sun ‘n’ Fun officials suspended the balance of the scheduled afternoon and evening activities at 3 p.m. to enable attendees and exhibitors to vacate the site and permit a safe and efficient clean-up. As media, I could have stayed to take more photos, but I decided to leave to get out of the way.

City of Lakeland and Polk County emergency response personnel, as well as throngs of volunteers, worked overnight to clean up the grounds, and they did a remarkable job. Sun ‘n’ Fun opened as scheduled at 8 a.m. this morning, and while the parking lots are mud pits and several exhibitor aircraft are absent, throngs of attendees are here to see the show and, of course, to see the Blue Angels perform.

The show must go on, and it did.

Sun ‘n’ Fun ends on Sunday.