“Aircraft arriving over Lake Parker, expect holding until 7:15 pm over Lake Parker,” was what we heard on the radio a few minutes after our planned group departure from Leesburg International Airport (KLEE) in Leesburg, Florida.
Four aircraft from the Mid-Atlantic had made it easily, albeit, at different times to our chosen airport of rendezvous. Considering the aircraft in play: a Columbia 400, a twin Baron, a Cessna 182 and a Cessna 172, we definitely needed a rally point to meet, prepare, and plan a departure to Sun ‘n Fun (SNF).
According to our original plan, we had all congregated at KLEE, briefed the arrival procedures and departed on cue around 6:00pm. The plan was to arrive at Lakeland Airport around 6:30pm for a group arrival.
Being the slowest aircraft of all, a Cessna 172, we had departed last. Hearing the SNF radio communications, Linda and I, pondered our options. We tethered between proceeding to our destination despite the holding, to diverting to an alternative airport such as Winter Haven Airport, a short distance away.
This was the first time either of us was attending SNF and there were several reasons why we ultimately decided to continue forth: the experience to hold and proceed inbound, handle the pressure of holding and tracking, and the ultimate experience to land at Lakeland during SNF and during peak traffic. After the successful landing on the purple dot at Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, last year, I was so ready for an orange dot landing at Lakeland, Florida 🙂
With holding in place, we had no choice but to merge in with the holding aircraft and find a lead aircraft to follow at 100 knots and 1,200ft. One loop down, there were more aircraft arriving. Soon I was following a different aircraft.
“Keep it tight, Good job y’all, you are making my job easy,” comforted the Air Traffic Controller.
On, and on we looped at 1,200ft and 100 knots. Occasionally I had a random aircraft sneak in between me and the lead aircraft. One such followed, fell back and stayed at the center of the lake, sometimes getting between me and my lead, and confused the hell of me!
I continued to track the tail wheel aircraft ahead of me, as much as I could. Ultimately around 7:15 pm I heard the tail wheel cleared to proceed to Lakeland, but no such clearance for me. So I continued on to loop, when,
“High wing holding over Lake Parker, turn right now and proceed,” said the Controller.
I quickly turned, and followed the tail wheel ahead of me. While we read the 37 page NOTAM ahead of time, we were a little fuzzy on the procedure after holding. Optimistic as always, I hadn’t thought about the steps after holding. It was easy to forget what we needed to do after looping around at least 10 or more loops around Power plant and Lake Parker!
“Follow highway 4 for 3 miles before turning south between the white water tank and the upside down cake tower, follow south for 3 miles over the “V” shaped building and continuing out to the blue topped terminal building before turn right for a landing on the skinny runway, monitor Lakeland frequency on 119.60” repeated the Parker Approach controller.
Unlike Oshkosh where you are specifically cleared, here at Sun ‘n Fun, it was more follow the leader. During planning, I fretted about whether I would be cleared to hold or not be able to identify the leader. It all worked out eventually. In fact incredibly so. There were three different holds: one over the power plant at 1200 and 100 knots, one at 1,700 and higher speeds and one north of the power plant at lower speeds. After some holding, some aircraft departed to nearby destinations for fuel emergencies. There was even one amphibian that chose to land on Lake Parker and wait it out! Ultimately considering the number of aircraft holding, I was glad that we opted to proceed and hold at Lake Parker. There was no way we could have made it to Lakeland, if we had landed at an alternate airport and returned later.
Once cleared to follow the high wing taildagger, we quickly followed the aircraft, slowing down and followed instructions to follow and land on the orange dot. The orange dot in Lakeland is ¾ of the way from the threshold. The taildagger, low and slow. I slowed down as much as I could. I continued to check my airspeed, altitude and the spacing with the aircraft ahead of me. It was a matter of seconds. One moment I was 69 knots, hand on throttle ready to do a go around, since the orange dot was ways away and I was getting too close to the taildagger and the next I was dipping right and swaying uncomfortably onto the parallel runway! A moment’s distraction was all that was needed. After almost 14 years of flying, having never stalled an aircraft unintentionally, here I was stalling on final at Lakeland during Sun ‘n Fun!
“What the heck!”
I was lucky to have an alert pilot in the right seat, who quickly noticed we were at 50 knots and dipped the nose to get us out of an inadvertent stall. I took over, stabilized and paid better attention than be distracted with the happenings on the parallel runway. We landed safely just barely on the orange dot and followed the stream of aircraft arriving ahead of us and taxied the long distance to the other end of the airport to the General Aviation Camping site just as the sun set.
The weather at Lakeland was expected to be gorgeous the next few days. So I had no worries about our camping there. Despite my fear of mosquitoes, our first night of camping ended with no difficulty. Friday morning arrived with some low fog. I couldn’t believe that for a change we had arrived as planned on the intended day! We hoped to have two full days at Sun ‘n Fun: two afternoon airshows, one night airshow, seminars, workshops, aircraft display, Florida Air Museum and if possible Fantasy of Flight.
First off let me tell you, once we landed, I realized that there are no bathrooms at Sun ‘n Fun, just portable Johns or Port ‘o potties! This brought back memories of my earlier visists to Oshkosh!
Sun ‘n Fun is a smaller affair than Airventure at Oshkosh, WI. Forums run from 9:00am – 2:00 pm at the Central Florida Aviation Academy (CFAA) which fortunately is in a building that has bathrooms. Florida Air Museum is small compared to the museum at OSH.
Meals are still a problem. Since meat is big in the south and most vendors don’t offer non meat options! There is a rare food vendor with salads, or if you crash a party you are not invited to, you might find a food truck rally with actually some Thai food 🙂
I got to visit with some vendors, attend a couple of forums, view some displays, catch the afternoon airshow, and catch an evening movie. Unfortunately come Saturday morning, we learned about a major Sunday storm over Georgia that would hinder our return the next day despite the good weather at our origin and destination. Unfortunately we expected bad weather over the Mid-Atlantic on Monday. So if we hoped to return home without a two day delay, we needed to return on Saturday. Which we did, just after the sun set.
The return was fairly easy: follow flagmen to the active runway and depart. Climb for 3 nm before turning and departing the area. Unlike OSH, yet again, no one clears you. You just follow the lead aircraft and depart!
Tthis year marks the 40th anniversary of Sun ‘n Fun. Blue Angels are back. F22 Raptor was back. My favorite airshow performer was still Manfred Radius on the Sailplane. And most importantly I did fly in 🙂