SUN n’ FUN starts the 2021 American Air Show Season

Blue Angels Sun n' Fun
The Blue Angels performing at Sun n' Fun 2021. (All images: Author)

The United States Navy Blue Angels 75th anniversary season kicks off with their “new” F/A-18E/F Super Hornets at SUN n’ FUN 2021.

Officially known as the SUN n’ FUN Aerospace Expo, the famous airshow held annually at Florida’s Lakeland-Linder International Airport, Florida, this year took place over a six day period, from April 13 to 18, 2021. As the second largest air show in the world, after the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, this aviation extravaganza is a mixture of general aviation convention, camping, fly-in, spring break for pilots, and yes an air show.

This is not the Paris Air Show, with multi-billion dollar contracts signed for commercial jets or military hardware, think more of a family general aviation convention. With an average attendee household income of $100,000 USD plus, this is also Mecca for general aviation manufacturers and associated equipment providers.

SUN n’ FUN has grown tremendously since its founding in 1975. With last year’s cancellation due to COVID, this year’s show was the 46th.

Organized by the Aerospace Center for Excellence, an aviation related nonprofit corporation, the SUN n’ FUN Aerospace Expo typically brings in $3.5 million USD. These funds support: an on-sight high school dedicated to training future pilots and aviation mechanics, the Florida Air Museum, and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs across the state of Florida.

This year’s ticket sales of +200,000, as well as a record number of aircraft flying in, reflect a pent up demand not only for air shows but also for people wanting to get out and enjoy life. SUN n’ FUN is the busiest airport in the world during the show, with over 2,000 movements (take-offs and landings) a day. Over the course of the week, there are normally 10,000 such movements.

As far as COVID is concerned, as of April 16th, 38.5% of the American population has at least received their first COVID vaccination shot plus 24.3% are fully vaccinated. Indoors, at the show, masks were mandatory, whilst optional outdoors. With the show being approved by the State of Florida, it seems that there is some sense of normalcy returning to our lives.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels launched their 75th anniversary season at SUN n’ FUN. As an added bonus, the Blues have traded in their old legacy F/A-18 C/D Hornets for the larger and more capable F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets. This is the first “new” aircraft added to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team since they adopted the legacy F/A-18C/Ds in 1986.

Blue Angels Sun n' Fun
The Blue Angels during their display at Sun n’ Fun.

The Blues operated the legacy Hornets for the last 34 years, the longest period that one airframe has been operated by the unit. At the end of the 2020, the demonstration team transitioned to the newer aircraft during their annual winter training. These Super Hornets were some of the older types in the fleet. The Navy will realize some cost savings by retiring the legacy Hornets and standardizing with just the Super Hornet fleet.

Here’s what we wrote about the new F/A-18E/F in a previous article we published here at The Aviationist:

The new Boeing F/A-18E single-seat and two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornets are larger, more capable aircraft than the “legacy” Hornet. As we previously reported on, the Blue Angels say, “The Super Hornet is 25% larger, can fly 40% further, remain on station 80% longer and carry more weapons than its predecessors. The Super Hornet F/A-18 E/F models have deployed with battle groups since 2001.”

The bigger F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets have a wingspan that is 4′ 3.6″ wider than the previous Hornet. That is over four-feet more wingspan. This greater wingspan will be visually apparent in Blue Angel demos.

The Super Hornet is also 4′ 3″ longer than the legacy Hornet and sits nearly one-foot higher at the top of its twin tails. These larger dimensions may make the new Blue Angel Super Hornets even easier to see and photograph at flight demos.

When we spoke to former Blue Angel’s commander, then-Capt. Eric Doyle, Blue Angel #1, about the transition to the new Super Hornet. Capt. Doyle told that, “Our goal is to make it seamless. You’ll see blue jets appear in another year that are Super Hornets, that are going to look a lot like this one. They’re F-18s, so they’re built by Boeing, and the demo will look very similar.”

One difference that may also be apparent to airshow fans with the new, larger, Super Hornets is more thrust. Pilots who have flown both the Hornet and Super Hornet tell that sustaining turn-rates and generating acceleration at low altitudes is going to be much easier in the larger, more powerful Super Hornet. This could make the Blue’s demos even more thrilling and dynamic than their previous routines.

The Blue Angels have received an impressive 18 Super Hornets, as compared to their previous compliment of 12 legacy Hornets. This will allow the Blues to operate the F/A-18 E/F models for decades to come and spread out the airframe hours across all 18 aircraft extending their operational life. Additionally, they have upgraded “Fat Albert”, the team’s dedicated transport, with a C-130J Super Hercules acquired from the British Royal Air Force.

Blue Angels Sun n' Fun
The new Fat Albert

There was just so much unique aviation eye candy at this show. Walking the static line of aircraft, one could spot a civil-registered MIG-23 Flogger, and then a Mirage F1 owned by Draken International and used for adversary air training with the United States Air Force.

The private owned MiG-23ML N223ML.
One of the Mirage F1 operated by Draken in the adversary role.

As this show has over a thousand of private aircraft flying in, there were some very rare vintage aircraft. An appealing Stinson was parked amongst the pre-WWII civilian aircraft. Walking through the vendor’s section featuring in general aviation aircraft that are in production, this Author was surprised to find out you can buy a newly built Waco.

YMF-5 Waco.

SUN n’ FUN 2021 definitely did not disappoint, especially after last year’s air show season was cancelled. The flying portion, of each day’s show, provided over five hours of aerial entertainment. The vendor displays and exhibit halls showcased general aviation aircraft and accessories for sale. The wide variety of static aircraft and privately owned aircraft offered a most impressive gathering of airplanes to enjoy. Should you find yourself in Florida sometime in April, I highly suggest you check out SUN n’ FUN.

About Randy Jennings
Randy Jennings is the proud son of combat WWII Mustang pilot, Warner Jennings. From birth, he has been obsessed by all things aviation; past, present and future. As a photojournalist, he has covered aviation events in the United States and Europe. He lives in the Washington DC region with his beautiful wife and rambunctious daughter.