Fans of aviation will be on cloud nine this weekend at the inaugural Festival of Flight at Tampa North Aero Park.
The free two-day festival pays homage to all things aviation, from kites, bubbles and hot air balloons to World War II aircraft and high-tech planes, along with vendors, a food truck, live music and entertainment.
It's hosted by hot air balloon company American Balloons and the airport's flight training wing, Tampa North Flight Center.
The event kicks off at 7 a.m. Saturday with a hot air balloon launch, followed by a jam-packed day of aircraft demonstrations and activities. Though the event is free to attend, patrons can pay to take a ride in a hot air balloon or try their hand at piloting an airplane. The day concludes with a runway full of hot air balloons, burners lit to illuminate the night sky, described by flight instructor Chuck Norris as the centerpiece of the event.
The fun continues at 7 a.m. Sunday with a hot air balloon launch and plane fly-in, followed by more music, planes and vendors, with the festival closing at noon.
The idea for the Festival of Flight arose after some renovations at the almost 40-year-old airport. The office building was overhauled, and the Happy Hangar Cafe was added.
The runway-side restaurant has a menu of all-day breakfast items and American classics like wings, hamburgers, salads and sandwiches. The 48-seat cafe is a small, clean space, the green-blue walls adorned with framed posters and paintings of airplanes. Several large windows allow patrons an up-close view of planes taking off and landing. Picnic benches on the deck get diners even closer to the action.
The folks at the airport were looking to host a grand opening for the Happy Hangar Cafe, while Jessica Warren, owner of American Balloons, was in search of a new local festival. The ideas merged, and the Festival of Flight was born.
One of the goals of the festival is to invite the community to be frequent guests at the airport.
"It's a very friendly place to be and a place you can just come and hang out," Warren said. "You don't have to have anything to do with planes. You can just sit here and watch them take off all day."
The 72-hangar airpark covers nearly 21 acres and is flanked on three sides by neighborhoods. Since the Happy Hangar Cafe opened about a month ago, Norris says that many of their neighbors have started visiting.
"I think it's one of the best things that's ever happened to the airport," Norris said, noting his 20-year tenure at the airpark.
Norris said that fewer people are becoming pilots these days, and he hopes that welcoming the public to the airport will get people excited about aviation.
"You can hardly see an airplane at some airports. It's out of sight, out of mind, and that's going to keep people out of aviation," he said. "If you can't see them, how can you fall in love with them?"
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.