We Went to America’s Biggest Spring Aviation Expo. Here’s What We Saw.

The 50th annual Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo wrapped up its six-day run yesterday, attracting an estimated 200,000 visitors. The event, known in the aviation community as “Spring Break for Pilots,” began as a fly-in for a handful of pilots 50 years ago that allowed them to admire each other’s aircraft. Many still fly their aircraft into the Lakeland airport and set up tents nearby.

These days, the central Florida event encompasses 50 acres of aircraft, making it America’s largest geographic air show. It is arranged in display areas from vintage aircraft and military warbirds to home-built airplanes and experimental aircraft. An estimated 2,000 volunteers are on hand for the festival.

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Lockheed Constellation warplane
The magnificent Lockheed Constellation, built in 1943, commands a prime spot on the Warbird Plaza.

Aircraft manufacturers debuted new models early in the week: This year, Piper showed off its speedy new turboprop, the 700 hp M700 Fury, and Cirrus presented its latest in the SR series, the G7, along with a concierge-style turnkey ownership program called Cirrus One. In the new program, Cirrus owners can select from a palette of options from maintenance and hangar services to training, or having a professional pilot to fly you where you want to go.

Daher updated its TBM 960 turboprop with a stunning new paint scheme and enhancements to the Home Safe automatic landing protocol that allows passengers to push a button and land at the nearest airport, if the pilot loses the ability to land.

A range of new and vintage aircraft across 50 acres.
A range of new and vintage aircraft across 50 acres.

One of the biggest unveils was the new Junkers A50 Heritage, a vintage-looking aluminum airplane that bears a striking resemblance to the original aircraft founder Hugo Junkers first flew 95 years ago. Last year, the Junkers A50 Junior headlined the show as it was officially launched into the U.S. market.

But, according to marketing manager Marshall Haglund, the Junior “was not faithful to the architect’s original form,” so the company designed the A50 Heritage. “We have meticulously captured the essence of Hugo Junkers’ imaginative and original design,” Haglund said during the unveiling.

Junkers A50 Heritage
A big debut was the Junkers A50 Heritage, a retro aircraft based on the same aluminum platform the company launched 95 years ago.

The aircraft has a Scarlett 7U radial engine, authentic two-piece glass windscreens, and analog-gauge panel that set it apart from the Junior. While the differences may seem trivial to most showgoers, aviation enthusiasts and historians were enamored by the historical accuracy.

But the new airplanes take a back seat every afternoon when the daily airshow begins, starting with a parachute drop of the American flag and crisscrossing warbird formations.

This week, spectators saw a Douglas C-47, Placid Lassie, that once flew over Normandy on D-Day, along with a four-engined Lockheed Constellation in a polished aluminum livery echoing the airliners of the 1950s and 60s. Current military platforms, such as the F-35A demo team, roared overhead to finish the daily lineup.

Different marks on Sun 'n Fun Historical Aircraft
Fuselage insignias, more commonly called nose art.

Aerobatic stars—like Mike Goulian in his Extra 330SC and Patty Wagstaff in her Extra 300LX—cut through the thick, hot Florida air doing aerial dance routines, wowing the crowd gathered in flightline tents and on blankets in the grass.

On Wednesday, the night airshow launched with the Titan Aerobatic Team, a quartet of T-6 radial piston airplanes that fly in tight formation with pyrotechnics streaming from their wingtips to light up the dark sky.

Cirrus Jet
Both the updated Cirrus Jet and new Cirrus G7 were on display in Lakeland.

The evenings brought out another kind of display, the STOL (short takeoff and landing) Invitational, where ace pilots flying massively modified bush planes competed against each other for the shortest distance in which they could take off and land—often just a couple hundred feet.

Sun ’n Fun’s Aeronautical Center for Excellence hosted forums on technical subjects from welding to wiring for those who want to build their own aircraft. The Future ’n Flight Plaza featured a Career Fair, with airlines and aircraft manufacturers on hand to speak to high-school students looking for a career path in aviation.

Air Show using WWII Aircraft
The afternoons were all about the air shows, including these WWII aircraft.

“I grew up knowing I wanted to fly,” Chad Smith, a Lakeland native who every year attended Sun ‘n Fun, told the local Fox13 affiliate. “The big jet demo teams. Those are always very inspirational. The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds.”

Smith, who signed up for the Air Force at Sun ‘n Fun and worked as an Air Force mechanic for seven years, is part of the Fairfield KC135 Demo Team, which demonstrated refueling in flight. “Watching the planes and being around people really passionate about aviation makes me feel at home,” he said.

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