PLANT CITY — It was just an idea, a small aviation festival to get folks out to the Plant City Airport.
But when Jason Jones brought his suggestion to friends at the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce a couple of years ago, it took root. Then it took off.
A committee formed and Jones became the chairman. Why stop at planes? the members soon asked.
How about adding vintage and muscle cars?
Maybe get the model train folks involved. Add food vendors and free plane rides. Why not offer a little something for everybody?
So two years ago, Jones' idea became reality, not exactly what he had imagined, but a festival nonetheless and unlike anything else in the Tampa Bay area: Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
"We talked about having motorcycles, but couldn't make it work in the title," he said, laughing.
The show, entering its third year, is set for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Plant City Airport, 4007 Airport Road, just west of Sydney Road. Admission is free. Parking is $5.
Jones' idea started as a way to give parents and children something to do together on a weekend.
"We didn't want to do just another air show but a more static event where the kids can walk up and see the exhibits," Jones said.
He recalled the first festival and the anxiety he felt as the clock approached 11 a.m. and only a few people had shown up. But it was Easter Sunday. They'll come after church, he told himself. His prediction panned out. By the time the festival was over, about 3,000 people had come. That led to another festival and then another.
This year, Jones is expecting to beat last year's attendance of about 4,500.
The highlight is the free plane rides for children ages 8 to 17 sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association's Young Eagles program.
The first 150 will get to fly, though EAA members say they may extend that a little if the members are up to it. Last year they flew about 300 children.
Several other options are planned as well, mostly on the tarmac, from vintage cars and remote-controlled planes to a search-and-rescue helicopter and a K-9 demonstration.
About a dozen aircraft will be exhibited, including a Super T-6 modeled after the training planes flown by World War II pilots.
Another highlight is the huge model train exhibit put on by the H.B. Plant Railroad Historical Society.
The modelers typically show up the night before to lay out the tracks and miniature towns and do a test run. They set up in the hangar bay.
"For a lot of kids, it just captures their imagination," said Gilbert F. Thomas Jr., the society's director of shows. "We'll have an airport scene and a rural area. We'll put in some strawberry fields since it's Plant City. You got to have strawberry fields, and we'll have an industrial area where they unload container cars, and a train station. It's pretty involved."
Like the modelers, EAA members say the festival is one of their highlights. The pilots donate their time and fuel expense, which can add up. Costs can run $500 per member.
"I find it to be one of the more rewarding things," EAA member Tom Penrose said. "As a kid, I was fascinated with airplanes and to watch a boy or girl light up and smile and have a parent come up and thank you afterward, it's very rewarding."
The event is expected to draw several Scouting organizations. Girl Scouts and the American Heritage Girls, a Christian-based group, will be there along with about a dozen Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs.
The Boy Scouts will try to earn merit badges in aviation and search and rescue, said David Carlson, assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 826 in Lithia.
"Anything dealing with airplanes they love," he said.
Contact Rich Shopes at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.