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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Pilots and local residents descend on Gainesville for annual fly-in

Military jets, civilian planes offer an inside look into the aviation world

Lynn Whittaker attends the eighth annual Gator Fly-In on Saturday, March 23, 2024.
Lynn Whittaker attends the eighth annual Gator Fly-In on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

Dreary weather couldn’t stop legendary vintage warbirds, sleek military jets and unique private airplanes from buzzing the skies over Gainesville during its annual fly-in.

Hundreds of residents flooded the ramp area at Gainesville Regional Airport for the eighth annual Gator Fly-In and Armed Services Appreciation Day March 23, an event that gives the public a rare glimpse into the world of aviation.

This year’s event focused on promoting women in the aviation community and honoring Commander Lt. Col. Richard “Spad” McSpadden, a renowned aviator who tragically died in an October 2023 plane crash

McSpadden was the commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team and served as senior vice president of the Aircraft Owner and Pilots’ Association’s Flight Safety Institute. 

“Richard was a good friend of our Gator Fly-In. He was here and supported us and celebrated us,” said Pam Landis, the fly-in event coordinator.

Just one week before the fatal crash, McSpadden emailed Landis, expressing excitement about this year’s event and confirming his hotel booking. On March 23, an aerial salute for fallen aviators, known as a “Flown West” ceremony, honored his legacy.

The event saw children of all ages experience the world of flight for the first time. This year especially focused on inspiring young women to get involved in the aviation world.

“It's always been a very male dominated world and we're just so happy that we're seeing more and more young ladies that are getting involved in this for so many years,” Landis said. “Yes, women are pilots, women are mechanics, women are air traffic controllers. We're happy to celebrate them this year.”

Andrew Pavao, an Alachua resident who works in Gainesville, brought his 4-year-old daughter to the fly-in to expose her to aviation because her grandfather was an Air Force mechanic. 

“We wanted to come here and see some of the planes, and get her comfortable with other machinery,” Pavao said. “I think it's a good experience for little kids to see the magnitude of some of the airplanes.”

Among the airplanes on display was a North American P-51 Mustang from the Commemorative Air Force, a rare warbird credited with leading the U.S. to victory in World War II. 

“This airplane is the airplane that allowed us to escort the bombers all the way into Germany during World War II and get the air advantage,” said Larry Lumpkin, the airplane’s sponsor and coordinator.

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The crew of a P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance airplane from Naval Air Station Jacksonville offered tours of the usually classified cabin, giving the public a look at the Navy’s “submarine hunter.”

Hundreds of people saw the radar screens, computers and sonobuoy stations that allow the Navy to track down foreign submarines. The airplane has also been the focus of media attention for unsafe intercepts by Russian and Chinese fighter jets.

The event wasn’t just dedicated to the military. Attendees could purchase 15-minute “Swamp Tour” airplane or helicopter rides for $50. Passengers flew over downtown Gainesville, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and UF’s campus throughout the day.

Civilian pilots from faraway airports could also land at Gainesville to offer their airplanes for display. Owners were eager to showcase their airplanes and share its history with pilots and non-pilots alike. 

Aaron Lock, a private pilot and naval surface warfare officer, brought his 1946 Aeronca Champ. To him, the fly-in demonstrated the community’s strength and potential for inspiring the next generation of aviators.

“It’s nice to see this whole community just come together from afar. I've talked to a lot of pilots and non-pilots as well,” Lock said. “It's nice to just chit-chat about their love of aviation and even helping the kids out in the cockpit.”

Some owners, like local resident Cameron Bunting, exhibited their uniquely-shaped homebuilt airplanes. Bunting owns a Rutan Long-EZ experimental airplane, which features a tail in the front and an engine in the back. It can cruise at 150 miles per hour and fly for up to 10 hours.

“I've tried to talk to people so they can have an idea of what they're looking at. I’ve got a pretty unique airplane, but all airplanes are cool,” Bunting said.

After four hours of food, fun and flying, guests trickled out just as airplanes took off for their home airports, all eager to return for next year’s ninth annual Gator Fly-In.

Contact Daniel Bednar at Follow him on X @Danielbednar5. 

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Daniel Bednar

Daniel Bednar is a first-year political science major and the Criminal Justice reporter for The Alligator. When he's not writing, you can find him scuba diving in the Keys or flying airplanes. 

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