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Sun, Apr 09, 2006

Warbirds Thin On The Ground At Sun 'N Fun 2006

Thinner Still In The Air Over Lakeland Linder

The unmistakable baritone of a Packard Merlin engine splits the sky above Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, and hundreds of necks crane to see the unmistakable silhouette of a North American P-51D Mustang flash by. "P-51 Mustang, the Cadillac of the sky!" some "Empire Of The Sun" fan shouts excitedly.

Cadillac of the Sky? Yeah... in Cadillac's dreams.

The Mustang's roar hasn't faded when the basso profundo of a big radial signals the arrival of an F4U Corsair overhead. The two mighty fighters lap the field, reminding a cohort of elderly men of the sounds of their youth, and introducing a new generation to these magical sensations.

But is this all there is? From the first day of the show, we were struck by how few the warbirds were, and how narrow the range of types. Then, there were only four fighters, zero bombers, and a boatload of trainers and liaison planes on hand. Twin engine types comprised a Twin Beech and a pair of military C-47s.

Saturday's airshow was a little better. A PBY showed up, and it made a formation takeoff with a Grumman Albatross. The O-2s are always up for flying. But the T-34s aren't; many of them are flying less while the T-34 Association works out alternate methods of compliance with a fatigue-related AD that has thinned the herd of those once-commonplace trainers. Those that remain stay closer to their homes.

Rumors say that the warbird paucity in 2006 is due to a dispute over fuel bills from Sun 'N Fun last year and lots of bad blood between the event and the warbird community--one of a number of segments of aviation that is increasingly dissatisfied with SnF management and conduct. We were unable to confirm those rumors. Certainly fuel costs have limited operations, especially for money-conscious operators. For whatever reason, the warbirds are few this year, and we were warned that this in the offing.

It's a good thing to have a flying Mustang and Corsair, of course. It's great for the public to see these rare planes, to perceive their speed, to hear and even to feel their mighty power. A couple of fighters are immeasurably better than none at all, and these fighters are beautifully restored and are flown with elan.

But, but, but. But just a year or two back, the warbird ramp was crowded with mighty single- and multi-engine planes from many nations. Where did they all go?

FMI: Read ANN's Coverage of Lakeland 2006

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