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After over a year of lockdowns and quarantining, life has begun to take a turn towards normality as vaccines become more readily available. The year 2020 saw airshows and fly-ins across the world get canceled, or turn into virtual events. As we pass through the spring of 2021, the airshows have begun to return. Giving the industry exactly what it needed was the first major North American airshow of the year: The Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, which was held April 13 to 18 in Lakeland, Florida.
For many attendees, the show was a sigh of relief; friends who hadn’t seen each other since the pandemic began were able to meet once again — sharing not only the experience, but their love of aviation.
Sun ‘n Fun serves as a week-long bastion of aerospace excellence, featuring military and civilian performers, displays, and vendor marketplaces with every aviation product under the sun.
Not only did this week-long fly-in mark the start of airshow season for many, but it was also the debut of a new era in Blue Angels history. This, of course, is the era of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the team’s new C-130J, dubbed “Fat Albert.”
Skies visited Lakeland to check out the event and get a preview of the Blue Angels’ new demonstration — coming to an airshow near you.
The Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo features numerous civilian performers, flying anything from high performance aircraft designed for heavy aerobatics, to your everyday general aviation aircraft. For David Martin, the Beechcraft Baron is both! Martin performs loops, rolls, and inverted flight in this aircraft. His signature, however, is shutting both engines down mid-flight, and performing. Matt Haskell Photo
The AeroShell Aerobatic Team performs their signature maneuvers during the Saturday night twilight show at Sun ‘n Fun. Utilizing specially lit North American AT-6 Texans, the team is led by Mark Henley, with Bryan Regan on right wing, Steve Gustafson on left wing, and Jimmy Fordham in the slot. Having performed both day and night shows in the airshow industry for more than 35 years, the team is well known for its formation loops, rolls, and close formation aerobatics. Matt Haskell Photo
The start of airshow season saw a rare collaboration between airshows. The same weekend, in nearby Cocoa Beach. Florida, another airshow was held featuring the U.S. Air Force A-10 Demonstration Team. With close proximity to the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland, the U.S. Air Force allowed the double scheduling of the F-22 Raptor Demo Team and the C-17 West Coast Demo Team at both Sun ‘n Fun and the Cocoa Beach Air Show. This collaboration saw the Raptor flying to Cocoa Beach to perform a demo — before returning to Lakeland to perform its own demo — with the A-10 in tow to join the heritage flights on Saturday and Sunday, prior to returning to Cocoa Beach. Matt Haskell Photo
Not just an airshow, the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo is also one of the largest fly-ins in the world. Early in the week, large formations of warbirds joined and arrived as a group before landing and going on display to the public, with some flying throughout the week during the show. Here, a group of privately owned Beechcraft T-34 Mentors arrives at Lakeland Linder International Airport. Shortly after, an equally large formation of North American T-6 Texans arrived as well. Matt Haskell Photo
Flying over the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, and taking part in the warbird demonstrations, the twin Marchetti S2.11 jets and the Aero L-39 debuted their presence on the airshow circuit. Sponsored by Qyon, the team will be perfoming airshows within the southeastern U.S., serving as a single aircraft demo. The team can also be found on the air race circuit. Matt Haskell Photo
Despite the transition to a larger, more powerful aircraft, the maneuvers performed by the Blue Angels in the demonstration mostly remain the same. The maneuver the team is arguably most known for is the Diamond 360. During this maneuver, the core formation pilots fly in a tight circular motion around the show center, with only 18 inches of wingtip to canopy separation. Matt Haskell Photo
The Blue Angels formation pilots perform in the echelon formation during the Friday practice demonstration, maintaining a close, uniform formation in a right-to-left arching pass. The transition to the Super Hornet from the Hornet netted some minor modifications to the aircraft — the exact same as the Hornets before. These modifications include an inverted fuel pump, fuel tank, and a spring added to the stick in the cockpit to allow for more precision flight in formation. Opposing solo Cary Rickoff spoke on the characteristics of the new jet, and its predecessor, having flown both on the team. “They fly very similar. I was a Super Hornet guy by trade, and it’s very nice to get back into my old aircraft. The Hornet was a very nice aircraft to fly itself. It performed well and they were expertly maintained. I’m equally as happy flying the Super Hornet as the Hornet.” Matt Haskell Photo
Making its public debut, the Blue Angels’ new C-130J, affectionately dubbed “Fat Albert,” lands at Lakeland Linder International Airport. Purchased by the team from the U.K. due to operational requirements of U.S. Marine Corps aircraft, Fat Albert replaced the team’s aging C-130T model, and was re-painted in a new livery for 2021. The aircraft features many upgrades over its predecessor, including upgraded engines featuring six composite propellers, as well as upgraded avionics, and an all-glass cockpit with head-up display. While the aircraft is not yet certified to fly its traditional demonstration, the demo profile will be similar to that of previous Fat Alberts. U.S. Marine Corps Maj Rick Rose, Fat Albert’s pilot, compared the aircraft to the old T Model, stating: “It’s almost like a different aircraft, really. It’s the same airframe in general, but the new modifications add up to 20 percent thrust. You can definitely feel it, it can move. It gets off the runway quickly and can stop on a dime!” Matt Haskell Photo
A pair of Northrop T-38 Talons from the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base take off for a performance in the daily showcase. Much like the annual EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo serves as a fly-in for many military training aircraft, with a parking line often full of T-38 Talons, T-45 Goshawks, T-1 Jayhawks, and T-6 Texan IIs. The military will often display special liveries, with other aircraft flying in to allow additional flight hours for instructor and student pilots. Matt Haskell Photo
Among the attendees of the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo were classic jet aircraft owners throughout the United States, such as the pilots of these Aero L-39 race jets, Aero L-29, and Lockheed T-33. Often during the weekday portion of the show, the pilots will fly as part of the warbirds demonstration. Once the airspace reopens following the show, the pilots take to the skies to practice formation flying, adding flight time, or just to have some fun before returning to the airport before closing time. Matt Haskell Photo