When SUN ’n FUN closed on Sunday, April 16, 2018, Chairman of the Board Bob Knight stepped down as the point man of the organization after serving for six and a half years. While this was his last fly-in as chairman, he will remain on the SUN ’n FUN board.
A tall, genial Southern gentleman, pilot, businessman, family man, Navy veteran, and community leader, Knight has a reputation for getting things done.
Now in his mid-70s, he wants more time for his business and personal life.
“My wife’s going to shoot me if I don’t free up some time,” he said. After a sigh, he added, “We’ve twice planned a trip to France…and couldn’t go.”
Knight’s approach to leading the SUN ’n FUN organization came from his leadership in business. Before running his own company, he worked for Linder Industrial Equipment, which was owned by Paul Scott Linder after whom Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport is named.
While working for Linder, Knight earned his private and commercial pilot certificates and ratings for multi-engine and instrument. Flying enabled him to travel quickly to worksites throughout the southeastern United States.
As chairman of Knight Industrial Equipment, a 34-year-old engineering and construction company based at KLAL, he manages multi-million-dollar contracts in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Morocco, and Russia. His latest project was part of the $2 billion CF Industries Port Neal Expansion in Iowa.
Instructed by Charlie Miller on J-3 Cubs, Knight earned his private pilot’s license in 1966.
“It cost $5 for a half-hour lesson,” he recalled.
After serving in the Navy, he used the GI bill to fund the rest of his ratings and licenses, except for the seaplane rating, which wasn’t covered.
He treasures his Beechcraft A-36 Bonanza, which was a gift from his friend Herb Odem. He’s flown 5,500 hours in it, and he credits being able to fly to work-sites as a huge asset in his engineering business.
In 2014 he bought a T-28A Trojan that was modified into a T-28B.
In 2016, he bought a TBM 900 that he and a ferry pilot flew from Tarbes France, with stops at Glasgow and Iceland, overflying Green- land to Goosebay, to Labrador and then Bangor, Maine, with the final stop at Lakeland, Florida.
“I can’t stay proficient in three different aircraft flying only 100 hours a year,” said Knight. “My wife wants me to own fewer things with motors, so I’m planning to eventually get down to one airplane.”
I bet he keeps the sweet TBM.
While Knight is the first to credit the many amazing accomplishments of the last six years to others, it’s clear he spear-headed many major changes and projects. One accomplishment he owns is negotiating for the Breitling Jet Team to tour the U.S.
“One thing I did that really paid off was to go to the International Council of Air Shows convention in Las Vegas where all the airshow performers go to meet,” Knight said. “There, I met the Breitling Jet Team who were trying to find a way to come to the U.S. I invited them to use my hangar and office as a home base for their two-year tour. They started and ended here.”
The Breitling Jet Team kept crates of tools and parts in Knight’s hangar for two years. They used the top floor of his business for flight planning and meetings.
The team gave him specially labeled wine that he keeps in his upstairs office. At the end of their tour before they disassembled the last aircraft, they surprised him.
“They let me fly the number two plane as a thank you,” he said. “We’ve stayed in touch and they have invited us to visit them in Dijon.”
“Back 44 years ago, SUN ’n FUN began as a fly-in. As it grew, it became too much work for the volunteers to manage, so they formed a non-profit organization,” Knight said.
From there, the organization continued to grow, and a small full-time staff was hired to manage it year-round. It grew with 3,000 volunteers, including the “yearly birds” who live in the area and volunteer all year round.
When Knight became chairman, the organization had 32 people serving on two boards, one for SUN ’n FUN and one for the museum. The boards met two or three times a year.
“It’s hard to make decisions with that many people,” Knight said. “The board collectively reduced in size to form one board and we met more often. At first, we met every month. That was hard.”
Over the years the board became more cohesive and efficient.
Combining the boards into one helped streamline the organization, but there was still a giant financial issue to address. When Knight became chairman, the organization was, in his words, “functional, but living on a line of credit.”
The SUN ’n FUN organization was $2.3 million in debt. Funding relied heavily on grants and money raised during the annual fly-in.
“We could have rain, cold, a tornado, or super heat during SUN ’n FUN week,” he said. “The weather affects the success of the event.”
With the goals of reducing debt and expanding education programs, the board sought other sources of income and decided to rent the SUN ’n FUN grounds and facilities year-round.
According to Events Logistics Manager Debi Hobbs, “We host car shows, 5K runs, fly-ins, corporate picnics, weddings and receptions, motorhome and coach conventions, school events, graduations, gun shows — pretty much anything — bringing in $992,168 last year. Not bad considering we’ve really only been doing rentals for four years.”
“Hosting the Annual Mayor’s Breakfast at the museum has brought business leaders to the airport who might not have ever been here,” Knight said, adding 350 people came to the last one.
“Hangar A is being renovated to be air conditioned, which will boost our availability to host more events,” he continued. “We plan to move the Mayor’s Breakfast into Hangar A after it’s air conditioned to fit more people.”
In 2015, SUN ’n FUN President John “Lites” Leenhouts announced the organization was finally debt free.
During his tenure as chairman, Knight has been a “dear friend and a teammate,” Leenhouts said.
“He’s given me good counsel and he’s helped us make good decisions,” he said. “He’s been a great asset to SUN ’n FUN and helped us navigate through some tough times. He allowed us to go further than we ever thought we could because he didn’t get involved with making bad decisions. He helped us make good ones. At the end of the day, we went from more than $2 million in debt to more than $2 million in the bank.”
All proceeds from events on the SUN ’n FUN campus are returned to education programs, activities, and facilities. In 2017, SUN ’n FUN provided $2 million for aviation scholarships and education programs.
Many of those scholarships and programs are for students at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a public high school with an aerospace-focused curriculum built thanks to grants from NASA and the Aviation Education Foundation founded by James C. Ray.
Other projects completed during Knight’s tenure include:
- The Piedmont building replaced tents to hold youth activities.
- The Piedmont Aerospace Experience, a fully functional Boeing 727, was renovated into a classroom.
- Summer STEM aviation camps were established to help young students learn about aviation.
- The Lakeland Aero Club’s 12,500-square-foot hangar facility was unveiled.
- Headquarters of the Florida Chapter of the Warbirds of America building was completed.
- Eleven educational buildings scattered around the grounds of SUN ’n FUN were painted and unified under the name Aerospace Center for Excel- lence.
- A taxiway was built over the drainage ditch that runs between Paradise City and the Lakeland Aero Club hangar.
All of that took time and effort from the chairman.
“Between 20% to 30% of my work-day goes to SUN ’n FUN while I’m still running a business, so it’s been a lot of work,” he said.
On future plans, he said, “We have a ranch north of here for sale. It’s becoming a retirement home for cows and horses and it means we are there most weekends.”
He said maintaining fences is getting to be more work than he wants to do. And there’s that wonderful TBM 900 ready for traveling…