BARTOW — Peg and Sam Ballou have returned annually to Lakeland’s Sun 'n Fun Fly-In for years, but their first stop in Polk County is never Lakeland.
“It’s a hassle-free way to come into a highly populated show,” said Peg Ballou, a flight instructor near her home in Bucyrus, Ohio. “We fly into Bartow because it’s simpler, the gas is cheaper and we’re catered to and coddled the whole week.”
They’re not alone.
Airport managers in Plant City and Winter Haven said the number of planes passing through their airports increases dramatically during the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In, now under way at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport through Sunday.
“We’re using the south side of the airport for planes,” said Leo Treggi, manager at Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field, “and we usually don’t use that. It’s on the other side of the airport.”
Cindy Barrow, longtime manager of the city-owned Bartow Municipal Airport, said Thursday that she counted 97 planes parked on that airport’s ramp, with only five or six available spaces left.
They were full Tuesday night, opening day of the six-day Fly-In.
“We had to start parking planes on the grass,” Barrow said. “It’s been full force this year. It’s the first time in a long time that we have been full up with (airplane) tie downs on the first day.
“The weather plays a very large role in it,” she said. “A lot of these are small aircraft that come in from up north, and if there’s bad weather along the way, they might not come down. But when the weather is good, we see a tremendous increase.”
Barrow said her office gets weeklong Sun 'n Fun admission tickets to sell to people coming through Bartow/
“By Tuesday night, we were out of the tickets we’d gotten for both Tuesday and Wednesday,” she said.
In Plant City, Stan Pure said 65 planes routinely park there.
“This week, we will get about 150 aircraft landing here,” he said. “They’re all people who don’t want to fly into Lakeland.”
To handle the load, the airport, which is managed by the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, sets up a temporary flight control tower.
“Lakeland closes its runways during the airshows,” said Pure, who owns the fixed base operations, including fuel service, in Plant City, “but here, they can land any time they want. It’s much less rigid for pilots who aren’t used to flying into airports that are that busy.”
All those planes bring a windfall to these airports, managers said.
Barrow said Bartow sees nearly double its fuel sales, and Plant City fares even better.
“Normally, we would do 500 to 600 gallons a week for transient traffic,” Pure said. “This week, we’ll do 5,000 gallons.”
Profits from those sales fluctuate, depending on fuel prices.
In Winter Haven, this will be the city’s first year providing fuel to pilots, since that service had been controlled by a vendor in the past. Treggi said the airport already is seeing an increase, but won’t know its impact until the week is finished.
Winter Haven and Plant City airports manage the additional load with existing staff, but in Bartow, parking all those extra aircraft means bringing in a couple workers for the week.
Barrow said she also has hired a temporary employee to shuttle passengers around the planes. And two traffic controllers are in the flight tower, when normally there’s just one.
Barrow said it’s an exciting week for airports, despite the nonstop pace.
“The fun part is meeting all the people coming through and they’re excited to be here,” she said. “We’re glad we can be here for them.”
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