April 10–LAKELAND — Aviation enthusiasts who were camped in a field at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport stopped their conversations Monday morning and stared toward the buzzing sound of Dr. David Whitley’s 1942 Waco UPF-7 as the 60-year-old Rockledge pilot maneuvered the blue bi-plane into its parking spot.

"It’s been in the family for 45 years — it’s what I learned to fly in," said Whitley after stripping off an aviator cap and goggles. His late father, Dr. Milton Whitley of Hunstville, Alabama, originally bought the plane in 1973. "I first soloed when I was 18 in this plane."

The Brevard County ear, nose and throat physician is attending the Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In & Expo for the 11th time, one of thousands of pilots parking their planes in grassy fields along LLRA’s runways. This is the 44th year that the airport is hosting Sun ‘n Fun, one of the largest events of this type in the country, second only to Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Visitor from Tasmania

Frank Vranicar, 81, and longtime friend Trevor West talked beside Vranicar’s 1946 highly modified Aeronca Champ. West made a 15-hour commercial flight from Tasmania, located off the Australian coast, to meet Vranicar in Corona Del Mar, California. The pair then puddle-jumped across the American Southwest and Southeast to make their way to Lakeland.

"We were beating the weather all the way across the country," Vranicar said, noting they made stops in New Mexico, Houston and Tallahassee before landing in Lakeland on Sunday afternoon. "The day after we left, there were tornadoes in Houston."

Vranicar, a U.S. Army aviator from 1958 to 1961 and then an Air National Guardsman until 1979, is making his fourth visit to Sun ‘n Fun.

West realized the two friends have known each other for 20 years, meeting when West was a tourist wandering around the private airport in Chino, California.

"You promised me a beer when it was 20 years," joked West, who owns a Luscomb 8E and a Fisher Classic bi-plane, keeping one in Tasmania and one on the mainland in Melbourne, Australia.

Airplane for sale

Dean Baker, 56, sat beneath the wing of his 1949 Stinson Flying Station Wagon 108-3. He flew down from Marietta, Georgia, during the weekend, taking just less than five hours to reach Lakeland.

"The type of propeller I’ve got, it’s a slow mover," said Baker, who works for Lockheed and is a certified aviation mechanic. A red and white "for sale" sign sat in the plane’s window. He is asking $37,500 for the vintage aircraft, but says he knows he won’t get back all the money he has put into it.

"Nobody makes money in aircraft," said Baker, noting that he paid $35,000 for the plane 10 years ago.

High price of aviation fuel

Bruce Edwards, 69, and Lee Hussey, 64, talked about aviation fuel prices outside Edwards’ tent, pitched beside his 1966 Piper pa-30 twin Comanche.

"I paid $3.50 a month ago at Shelton Air self-service here," said Edwards, who flew in from Greenville, Alabama. "It’s $5 a gallon for the show."

Edwards said he has come to Sun ‘n Fun for the past 20 or so years.

"Airplanes — that’s the whole thing right there," Edwards said about why he returns year after year. "Being around people who like airplanes, who are like-minded."

He brought his wife, Tammi, who is among a small army of volunteers at the airport, helping to direct traffic, helping people park, guiding people and making sure that everyone staying on the property is registered.

"She’s done heard all our lies we’ve told over and over," Edwards joked.

Grand champion

Hussey flew in from Martinsville, Virginia, in a 1964 Piper Comanche PA-24 400. The plane won grand champion several years ago and Hussey still likes to keep the black and white single-prop plane looking spic and span.

"It’s a lot of work trying to have a show plane out here," Hussey said, adding that the judges notice little things. "It’s all in the details, polishing the plane, polishing the screws, polishing anything that can be polished and having it factory condition."

He said judges know when owners clean their own planes, versus hiring someone.

"Only owners polish little things like the screws," he said.

Airshow tykes

Along the road leading to the airfields, Les Koberg, plus his son and daughter-in-law, Lance and Christi Koberg, drove a golf cart that pulled grandsons Luke, 4, and Logan, 2 1/2 in their small, replica F-82 twin Mustang.

"Double Trouble is the name of the airplane and it fits," said the elder Koberg, 74, who built the model plane from scratch. "Everything works, although it’s not done yet. There’s a tiller you can put in the tail to steer it, navigation lights, propellers."

Christi Koberg said they attend Sun ‘n Fun every year.

"Luke is 4 and this is his fifth Sun ‘n Fun, so he was coming while he was still in the oven," she said.

The family drove in their RV to Florida from Marietta, Georgia, spending a week at Disney before driving over to Lakeland on Sunday.

"Believe it or not, they probably enjoy Sun ‘n Fun more," Christi Koberg said.

Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at kmoore@theledger.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on twitter at KimberlyMooreTheLedger@KMooreTheLedger.

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