Sun N Fun 2016 Photo By Kevin Hong4Veterans Steal the Show at SUN ‘n FUN 2016

By Paul Harrop

SUN ‘n FUN is considered the first major airshow of the year, and 2016 is one for the record books. From April 5-10, aviators from all over the globe descended on Central Florida. The Lakeland, Fla. event was held a few weeks earlier than usual and most regular attendees noted the unusually temperate weather. Daytime highs hovered in the low 70s, much cooler than the show has a reputation for being.

The CAF was present in full force with its tent "Hangar 57" along with the CAF units, the Florida Wing, the Gulf Coast Wing, the Dixie Wing, the Rhode Island Sea Coast Squadron and the Red Tail Squadron.  This was one of the first major events that the CAF Rhode Island Sea Coast Squadron attended. CAF Cols Guillaume de Ramel and Mike Hall took the 6 hour flight from Newport, R.I. to Lakeland, Fla. in order to be present at SUN 'n FUN with the squadron's SNJ.

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To help tell the inspirational story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tail Squadron RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit appeared with Texas Raiders, the CAF's fully restored B-17G Flying Fortress from the CAF Gulf Coast Wing and the CAF Dixie Wing’s P-51 Mustang Red Nose. The CAF was able to share an important story that honors the history and legacy of these World War II aviators, and serves as an inspiration to current generations to RISE ABOVE obstacles in their own lives. We were three unique CAF assets coming together to honor these special veterans.

Sun n Fun 2016 Red Tail Exhibit

Warbirds of all vintage were a major part of the festivities. The Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II roared into the festival on Thursday. The latest-generation multirole aircraft didn’t disappoint those who came to see the latest in military might. Joined by the F-22 Raptor on the ramp, the airplane made its first appearance at SUN ‘n FUN. Piloted by Capt. Daniel “Jinks” Haley, 32, the jet was popular on social media from the show. Haley flew the Joint Strike Fighter from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., home of the 58th Fighter Squadron.

The thousands in attendance watched the airshows, led each day by P-51 Mustang Crazy Horse II flown by famed pilot Lee Lauderback. The solo aerobatic performance ushered in each show with a familiar sound, provided by the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. While not as extreme as some of the following performances, the elegance of Lauderback’s precise piloting set the stage for each airshow, and set a high bar for anyone who dared follow.

Crazy Horse II made headlines early in the week, when Lauderback arrived to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport with a special guest in the back seat. Taylor Avery is a senior at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy. CFAA is an aviation high school on the Sun ‘n Fun grounds. Avery, 18, is an Air Foce ROTC Cadet and on track to become a military pilot after he graduates from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he is planning to start this autumn. He’s already a private pilot. His upward mobility within the world of aviation is due to his high marks in the academic world. Avery’s hard work earned him a flight in the Mustang from its base at Stallion 51 Corp.’s headquarters at Kissimmee Gateway Airport. For the young pilot, the Mustang was a lot to take in. “This airplane is amazing… I usually fly around in a little Cherokee, to get into this machine, its just amazing,” said Avery after his flight.

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As young pilots like Avery looked forward to their planned military careers, SUN ‘n FUN honored veterans of all wars with special recognition. The Commemorative Air Force tent on the flightline was site of a photograph of service veterans in attendance. Noted aviation photographer Kevin Hong posed several dozen veterans and active duty personnel in front of the CAF’s P-51D Mustang Red Nose. Two World War II veterans were in attendance. Col. George Hardy flew Mustangs and later B-29 Superfortress bombers as a Tuskegee Airman. He was joined by Col. Bill Brake, a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot who flew 23 missions over Europe while serving with the United States Army Air Corps.

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Col. Brake was excited to see the CAF Gulf Coast Wing’s B-17 Texas Raiders on display at the show. Brake wanted to walk around the airplane, to remember his time in the left seat so many decades before. Photographer Hong, who is member of the wing, had other plans. Brake and Hardy were chauffeured out to the ramp, where a big surprise was in store for the old bomber pilot. Brake told Hong in front of a gathered crowd of volunteers, media, and warbird fans that he wanted to go up and touch the four-engined plane. “You want to touch it?” Hong asked, leading him on. “Well, we’ve got something better for you,” he paused. “What’s that?” asked a curious Brake. “How about you fly in it with us today?” Brake was ecstatic. A video of the exchange, documented on the CAF facebook page, has been shared more than 640 times as of publication.

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For Cols. Brake and Hardy, flying in a warbird was something they remembered well from their youth. However, riding in the back of a B-17 was something neither had ever experienced. After a safety briefing from the ground crew, the men were seated aft of the window gunner’s position for a flight around the Orlando-Tampa area. The pair was full of smiles the entire flight. Hong, a crew member on the flight had hoped to help each of the vets to the cockpit in flight, but the bouncy, Florida air made it too risky. Neither of the nonagenarians seemed to mind.

The big bomber landed and taxied up to a crowd of fans and media. Several United States Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk pilots were there to speak to the World War II aviators, who shared their perspective freely. “I’ve learned two things…” said Brake as he was exiting the aircraft. “…The B-17 can still take it, and man it was windy for the gunners in the back!”

For Col. Hardy, receiving the warm reception helped bring his aviation experience full circle. He remembered the challenge of being among the Tuskegee Airmen as a young African American in the 1940s. He had escorted B-17s over Europe during his time as a fighter pilot, but had never ridden in one. The experience brought the sacrifice of the machine’s young crews to mind. “You have to imagine these young people, 18, 19, 20 years old – getting into these machines and flying for hours… it really was a sacrifice,” said Hardy. He hopes the airplane can share that history with generations to come. “If you don’t remember your history, you might have to repeat it,” he added.

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According to Bill Fischer, Executive Director of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Warbirds of America, there were 143 registered warbirds in attendance at SUN ‘n FUN. Fischer said that is about average for the show. In addition to the bomber and the Mustangs, there were several dozen trainers and multiple Corsairs on display. Jet warbirds were also well represented at the event.

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CAF CEO Steve Brown said "It was great to see the impact that Texas Raiders made in the ramp at SUN 'n FUN, along with all of the other CAF aircraft which attended. Along with the CAF RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit, all of our CAF aircraft and members executed the CAF's mission of education to the attendees of this event. It was a special treat for me to be in the company of Tuskegee Airman George Hardy, to hear his story first hand, when he was interviewed on SNF Radio. A special thanks to the Florida Wing for welcoming us to their home state."

For more photos of SUN 'n FUN 2016 by Kevin Hong, click HERE.

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Paul Harrop is an aviation television personality for AOPA. His work can be seen weekly on AOPA Live This Week, and on FlyBy: Powered by AOPA. Follow Paul on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

The CAF wishes to thank Paul Harrop for his marvelous article, and Kevin Hong for his equally beautiful images.

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