Sun ’n Fun unveils highlights of 2020 lineup

The Thunderbirds are back plus a U.S. Air Force F-35 stealth fighter is scheduled to perform in Lakeland for the first time.

LAKELAND — There’s no need to grab for your earplugs as Sun ‘n Fun prepares to welcome a performer capable of flying in under residents’ radar.

Luke Air Force Base's first F-35 Lightning II flies overhead March 10, 2014, before it lands on base for the first time. The aircraft is the first of 144 F-35s that will eventually be assigned to the base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Darlene Seltmann)

The U.S. Air Force announced its F-35A Lightning II Demo Team will perform at the 46th annual Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo, scheduled for March 31 to April 5, 2020.

Greg Gibson, chief marketing officer and airshow director for Sun ’n Fun, said it will be the first time the U.S. Air Force’s newest fifth-generation stealth fighter will fly in the Lakeland airshow.

“We’ve hosted static displays of the aircraft before, but never a full flight performance demonstration,” he said. “We’re very excited for that.”

A F-35 plane was on ground display at the 2016 event, according to spokeswoman Carol Cali, but attendees’ access was limited for security purposes. The aircraft, produced by Lockheed Martin, combines the high speed and agility of a fighter plane with the ability to go undetected by radar, infrared or emission detect, according to Gibson.

Sun ’n Fun attendees can expect to see a solo F-35 aircraft perform aerial acrobatic feats as opposed to the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds — making their return to Lakeland in 2020 — who focus on maneuverability and teamwork to create tight formations.

“Having both demonstration teams as part of our 2020 Sun ’n Fun airshow lineup is a privilege,” Gibson said.

The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron "Thunderbirds" perform at the Thunder & Lightning Over AZ Air Show on March 22, 2019, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, AZ. The air show in Tucson, AZ kicks-off the 2019 season for the Thunderbirds who will be on tour March through November. (U.S. Air Force Photo/SSgt Cory W. Bush)

It will be the Thunderbirds’ first Sun ’n Fun appearance since 2015. The military demonstration team was scheduled to appear in 2018, but canceled its performance after one of its pilots, Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, died in a training crash the week before.

“We’re obviously very excited to have them back,” Gibson said.

Other performers booked for the 2020 Sun ’n Fun include the U.S. Special Operations Command Para-Commandos and the U.S. Army’s Black Daggers, both parachute demonstration teams, and the U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets.

John “Lites” Leenhouts, CEO and president of the Aerospace Center for Excellence, said having so many military demonstrations in the upcoming Sun ’n Fun lineup fits the event’s objective: raising funds to support ACE in providing STEM-related and aerospace educational programs.

“The opportunity to connect with America at an event like ours and as a result inspire the next generation of aerospace professionals in whatever path they choose is invaluable for our engagement with youth as well as the Air Force’s goal of recruitment,” he said.

Gibson and Leenhouts were attending the International Council of Air Shows in Las Vegas to book other aerial shows to round out the 2020 lineup.

“We have a couple of special announcements I can’t share quite yet, but they’ll be worth coming out for,” Gibson said.

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at or 863-802-7545.


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