Aviation nirvana – my trip to Sun ‘n Fun

I was introduced to flying by my father, who was a ball/tail gunner on B-17s during World War II. I grew up building models and listening to the few stories that he told of his time in the 15th Air Force of the USAAF. Like any kid, the fighters of WWII held my fascination, especially the P-51 and P-38, which flew escort for my father on many of his 52 missions. And the F4U Corsair, because it was the most fun to build as a model and was the star of my favorite show growing up, Black Sheep Squadron.

But the B-17 was my absolute favorite because it was my dad’s plane. We lost my father to cancer in 2003, just before my son was born. He has grown up with stories of Granddad but never had the chance to meet him or hear his stories for himself.

My son and I attended Sun ‘n Fun for the first time in 2017 via car, as we were without a plane. While we enjoyed ourselves, I learned that to truly enjoy the airshow, we needed to return by airplane and camp under the wing. The following year, with our new (to us) airplane under our bottoms, we headed Southbound to KLAL for opening day of Sun ‘n Fun 2018. This was my first major airshow fly-in, and I had a co-pilot with pretty limited experience flying, having only flown with me a few times before and (at 13 years old) certainly with no formal pilot training.

LAL holding
Arriving at LAL often means a lap or two in a holding pattern.

Headed southbound, we began descending into KLAL, talking to approach on the way in, who informed us that the airport opening was delayed, and that we could expect a longer than anticipated hold. This wasn’t great news, as I didn’t purchase an airplane with a relief tube. But luckily I was nervous enough about flying into an airshow that I didn’t have time to worry about needing to use the facility.

About 20 minutes later, approach called to let us know that the airport had opened a bit earlier than expected, and departures were starting to leave.

“N12345, traffic at 1 o’clock, heading eastbound, climbing.”

“N12345, traffic 11 o’clock, heading northeast bound, level, same altitude.”

“N12345, traffic, uhhmmm. 345, there is traffic pouring off of KLAL, I can’t advise you. Keep your head on a swivel. Good luck and squawk VFR.”

Gulp.

I’ve never heard anything like that before from ATC. He sounded like he was wishing me luck on my climb up the stairs to the gallows.

I had the boy’s head swiveling while I flew the airplane, looked at ADS-B, looked at traffic coming off KLAL, and followed the NOTAM to hold over Lake Parker. I flew past the lake at well above holding altitude and circled back to enter just as you would on a 45 degree entry to downwind. There was a bit of jockeying between aircraft but we quickly established ourselves in the visual hold, on speed and on altitude. As we passed over the power plant and over ATC for the first lap, I heard the call I’d been hoping for.

“T tail over the plant, turn left and keep holding. Follow the edge of the lake.”

Phew! We were in the hold and established. Now to settle down for our 45 minute hold till the airport opened. We had the NOTAM on our laps, and we basically had to just keep an eye out for someone dropping in on us. Then once the airport opened, we could follow someone in like one of the lemmings we were, land without crashing (and being on YouTube) and then decompress. We weren’t there, but we were close.

As I made the circle around, I kept talking to my son, calling traffic to each other, and wondering how long it would actually be. We had enough fuel for an hour of circling, with reserves. Maybe a bit more at this reduced speed.

There is the power plant, here comes the call to keep circling. It is only lap #2 and I’m starting to get the hang of this.

T tail at the power plant. Rock your wings!”

Huh? What did I do? I gave the wings a good rock.

LAL diagram.
Put it on the dot ATC asks for – not before and not after.

“T tail, you are number 1 for the arrival. The airport just opened. Proceed westbound and follow the procedure.” Then the controller started machine gunning instructions off to aircraft following us, making us the leader of a gaggle of inbound aircraft.

What?! I’m not prepared for this. And I don’t want to be number 1. I want to follow someone. Preferably someone who will bounce the landing and keep all the eyes on them and off of me.

We continued straight ahead following the procedure in the NOTAM, made our turn to head to the tower, and switched over frequency to be able to talk to them. Tower frequency was dead silent. No calls, no traffic. And nobody to follow.

Finally as I was about 1/2 mile from the field, I got the call.

“T tail, turn downwind!”

What? I didn’t get the winds. When I checked ATIS earlier, all it said was that the airport was closed. There was no weather info. The airport opened so quickly, I didn’t have time to check it once we entered the hold. Oh no!

I’m not supposed to talk to the controllers, the radio is for one way conversation only in this instance, but what else can you do in this situation?

“T tail doesn’t have the winds. Right or left?”

“Right turn T tail. Right turn. Enter the downwind.”

I snapped the plane over to a 30 degree descending right turn, which elicited a positive response from ATC. Since you are not talking back to them to acknowledge their instructions, the only way they can tell if you are going to do what they want is to see the reaction from your plane. A positive and clear move seemed like the appropriate response and after feeling like an idiot for not knowing the winds, it was nice to hear ATC’s response.

“Good turn T tail, keep it coming.”

I continued the downwind, which was closer in, and lower than I’d ever done before, when ATC said, “T tail, left turn back to the runway. Overfly the green dot, land on the orange dot. Overfly the green dot, put it on the orange.”

I snapped the plane around to the left in a curving approach, kind of like Corsairs did in WWII landing on carriers, sailed over the green dot and miracle of miracles, plopped it down just past the orange dot.

“Good job T tail. Welcome to Sun ‘n Fun.”

Sun n fun tent
Aviation nirvana.

ATC was instantly busy handling the flood of aircraft behind me as we taxied down the runway/taxiway and followed marshaling to our parking spot.

I felt greatly relieved and very excited. We’d been the first ones into the airport (that time), we’d flown into our first major airshow, we’d gotten to fly like a fighter for just a bit, and we hadn’t crashed or really done anything wrong. We were now safely on the ground, successful and ready to enjoy the airshow with thousands of our new closest friends for the week.

I owe my aviation career to my father, who’d not only kindled the interest with his stories of missions during WWII, but had supported me through all of my training and experience. Now here I was with his grandson he never met, giving the gift of aviation to another generation. A gift that he gave to me so many years before. As I was having these thoughts, I was busy setting up our tent, air mattress, cook stove, freezer, generator, after dinner libations, and all the other requirements of a proper glamping site.

I missed him, as I always do, as I looked at my boy helping right along set things up. Lost in my thoughts, I suddenly heard an unmistakable sound coming from behind me. Radial engines.

I looked up, really for the first time since arriving, and realized our parking spot was almost on the centerline of the runway. I spun around to see what warbird was approaching and saw a majestic sight.

A single B-17, my father’s airplane, was on short final. The sun was setting and at that point was a red ball in the sky, taking the sky itself to that perfect red and pink hue with it. The left wing, just outboard of the #1 engine, was splitting the sunset in half. I stood there, slack jawed, for several seconds before I thought to grab my phone and take a picture. But realizing by the time I’d get my phone, unlock it, and frame the shot, the image would be gone. Instead I simply stood and watched as the B-17 sailed majestically overhead and touched down just past us on the centerline.

I’ve had lots of beautiful aviation experiences, but at that moment, with my son on the ground, and my dad sailing overhead, I think I hit aviation nirvana.

7 Comments

    • Thank you Sal. It was truly a special moment. This being published has great timing, as we are leaving for Oshkosh this morning in our recently completed SuperSTOL to make some new memories.

  • Had a great uncle that arrived in England as a B17 bombardier in August of ‘43. Said he hated flying lead because he couldn’t see the other planes in the formation.
    Closest thing to a WWII formation rally is a Sun-n-Fun or Oshkosh arrival. Flown two of those three but didn’t have to fly lead. It must have been grand with your son.
    Camped at this moment on the edge of runway 36 at Airventure waiting for tomorrow’s onslaught. And yes… we will … as we always do… be judging every landing…- because we wish we were there with you.
    This is a very small community, of very dedicated people, and everyone has the same goal. To walk away from every landing with an airplane that can be used again.
    And one final note. Don’t you just love it when the winds are from the east at Sun-n-fun. We camp on Hotel and there is nothing like the parade planes.
    Will be looking for your Saratoga in 2020.

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