LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) — A new leader has brought along changes to one of the nation’s largest aerospace expos kicking off this week.
“I said, ‘what the hay,’ it may be my time so here I am now a year later,” said Gene Conrad, President & CEO of Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo.
Conrad spent 12 years as director of Lakeland Linder International Airport before taking over at Sun ‘n Fun following John Leenhouts’ retirement at the end of last year’s event.
“I had the opportunity to go around and talk to all of our volunteers, talk to guests, talk to our exhibitors and vendors and listen,” Conrad said.
Conrad said he has worked to improve Wi-Fi infrastructure for guests and created a new area called “The Island,” sponsored by the Islands of the Bahamas.
“It’s really the social hub and the hub of all activities for all of our aircraft, all of our friends flying in for the event,” he added.
The “Island” will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner, music, and a general store for people to pick up items.
There is also an Uber/Lyft dropoff area and an Instacart location for people to pick up groceries from Publix.
“It’ll be really nice for the guys that are camping out here with their airplanes to not have to go anywhere because that’s an inconvenience to get off [property],” said Wayne Hitchcock from Shelbyville, TN.
Conrad is encouraging people to prepay for parking online.
“We need you to get your parking online. It’s $10 when you get to the gate, we’ll have people with scanners. We’ll click and then they’re gonna send you on your way. But if you don’t get it online, it’s 20 bucks at the gate,” he said.
This year, Sun ‘n Fun raised its age for free admission from six years old to 10 years old.
“Our job is to make sure that all of the millions of children that live within a hundred miles of this airport, get the chance to understand what aviation is,” said Eric Crump, executive director for Aerospace Center for Excellence.
Children can participate this year in “Junior Aces,” a series of hands-on activities.
“From soldering a radio to learning how to build an airport to actually doing buck riveting and building an airplane. Everything from flight simulation to robotics, technology and weather and meteorology,” said Crump.
Kids get a passport to collect stickers from different stations and then return it to Buehler Restoration Skills Hanger for a tool kit.
The expo is the main annual fundraiser for the Aerospace Center for Excellence, which trains young people in aviation.
“There’s a dire need for pilots, mechanics, dispatchers, air traffic controllers. Everything in the aviation system needs people right now,” said Crump.
Sun ‘n Fun runs from Tuesday, March 28 to Sunday, April 2.
For more information on tickets and events, visit flysnf.org.