What an adventure Sun N Fun turned out to be. Epic camping, fantastic neighbors, hiding from weather, and a bona fide emergency with fire trucks and everything. It was a tiring and wild ride, and I’m already itching to go back again!
Spork and I had plans to take off on Wednesday to go to Sun N Fun. We’d already cleared our plans with the Mrs, and she said as long as we didn’t miss math class, and Spork did his math work while we were gone, that it was ok to play hooky from everything else.
I was sitting at the church, waiting on Spork to get out of school like it was the last day of school before summer break. Bags were packed, the plane was loaded, flight plan filed, all I needed was for Spork to escape so we could hit the road. I especially wanted to get away because we were threading the needle with our trip down. The air show started about the time I was picking Spork up. It was a 3.5 hour flight down, and the field would open after the airshow at 5pm. It would then close again that evening for the night airshow so we only had a limited window to get to Lakeland and get on the ground.
During the first hour, departures are released only. Just like people have to get off the elevator before you can get on, planes on the ground need to leave before the new planes can start coming in. When the departures are cleared to start leaving, it looks an awful lot like this.
At airshows, the normal rules of traffic separation are waived by the FAA. I’m not talking about the rules for aerobatic airplanes, I mean the rules for regular people like us. Planes are taking off on the runway and the taxiway right beside it. They are side by side, and there are multiple planes on the same runway at the same time. There could be two planes pulling onto the runway, two midfield taking off, and two just a few hundred feet off the departure end, all at the same time. It is incredibly busy.
Since we are an arrival, we are told to hold at Lake Parker, which is the initial point for the special airshow arrival procedure.
We are planning on arriving at 5:45 with plans to start landing planes at 6pm, the expected one hour delay while all the bees leave the hive.
At about 5:10 we are talking to Tampa approach and they tell us that Lakeland will be closed till 5:30 instead of the expected 5pm. We are only a few minutes away from Lakeland, and we have already been in the air for about 3.5 hours (headwinds). We are planning on holding for about 15-30 minutes then landing at Sun N Fun. This all works fine, because we have about 5 hours of fuel on board. But if we now have to hold an extra 30 minutes, we are starting to get close to needing fuel as well as a bathroom. Things get busy as we start planning alternates and we pull the power back to really slow (90 knots vs 155). No sense rushing to get there just to hold. Of course we tell Tampa what we are doing.
But no sooner than we settle down on our now snails pace of 90 knots, than departures start coming out of Lakeland. Almost the first one heads straight for us, as I see on the ADS-B screen. Tampa gives us a vector but the best avoidance technique is to speed back up and give a slight turn. So much for going slow. Tampa gives us another vector for more traffic, then a few minutes later gives us a warning that he won’t be able to vector us around all this traffic, there is simply too much. He then says something I’ve never heard from a controller, “Put your head on a swivel, and good luck. Frequency change approved.” I can actually hear the tension in his voice. Gulp.
We head off to the East at 3500 feet, well above the Lake Parker holding altitude of 1200 feet. As we overfly Lake Parker I can see a few airplanes in the hold. I can also see airplanes everywhere departing. It is like standing just over a beehive. I pull the power and we descend into the Lake Parker hold. With a few adjustments we fit right in and settle down for our expected half hour plus hold. As we are making our second lap around Lake Parker, starting to settle in, the controller calls, “T tail over the power plant rock your wings!”
What have I done wrong? I just got here? I give a good rock and he comes back, “T tail, you are number 1 for the arrival. The airport just opened. Proceed Westbound and follow the procedure.” Wait, what?
He then starts machine gunning instructions to the following aircraft while we are suddenly thrust into the visual to Lakeland via the special procedure which involves turning left at a golf course, flying past a cake tower, and overflying a blue building. It sounds cheesy but it actually works very well. I’d already gone on Google Earth to try and pick out these landmarks. Thankfully they are much easier to find in real life than they are on the internet.
As we make our turn Southbound at the golf course, we are supposed to switch over to tower. We switch off a machine gunning controller and onto an eerily quiet tower frequency. We’ve not been able to pick up the ATIS because when we tried earlier all it said was the airport was closed. No weather information was given. We weren’t in the hold long enough to pick it up again and frankly we were staying busy looking out for aircraft. Now we are number one leading a bunch of airplanes into Lakeland and we aren’t talking to anyone. At least I don’t have a J3 cub going 40 mph in front of me. I power back up and get back to a normal approach speed for our plane.
Finally after checking the frequency I call tower for a radio check. The controller comes back immediately, loud and clear.
As we get to the airport, the controller calls, “T tail approaching Lakeland, turn your downwind now!”
Downwind would imply I knew where the wind was coming from. I wasn’t able to get the ATIS. I’m not supposed to answer the controllers, only rock my wings. However I don’t know which way to turn. I key up the mike, “T tail doesn’t have the winds, am I turning left or right?”
“Right turn T tail, start your turn now.”
I pull the plane around into a quick right turn.
“Good turn T tail! Keep going. I want you to aim for the green dot and land on the orange dot.”
I pull around into a quick turn to take us to the green dot. There is no rocking of wings at this point I realize, only quick compliance to demonstrate that you heard and will obey. Each move is made with a touch of gusto to show I’ve heard him.
“Good turn T tail, keep it coming. Ok, now put it down on or after the orange dot. Welcome to Sun N Fun!”
The controller is done with me, and is machine gunning instructions to the airplanes behind me. We are down and safe at Sun N Fun!
As I touch down, I realize this was actually really fun. Not the sedate square patterns I normally fly, but an arching, descending, snappy turning approach to a narrow taxiway with everyone watching and airplanes everywhere. And I got a number of attaboys from the controller to boot. We’ve made it!
But as they say, getting there is only half the fun. More to come in part 2.