Hope for the new year

I recently had the good fortune to sit around a rather large table with a group of aviation believers. These are people who know aviation, have faith in it, and understand its importance to the economy of our nation and the world. They are also aware of the tremendous educational benefits aviation provides to its participants. Whether you’re young, middle-aged, or silver-haired, aviation has something to share that can enrich your life.

It’s true. Really, it is.

This discussion between aviation advocates took place at SUN ’n FUN in Lakeland, Florida. That’s the site of the second largest aviation gathering of aviation nuts in North America. And that’s important, because SUN ’n FUN itself is illustrative of the problem we face.

Even within the aviation industry, people do not realize what opportunities are available to them, and to the next generation of pilots and aviation professionals.

SUN ’n FUN is a year-round endeavor. Most people don’t know that. While it’s rightly famous for the massive size and scope of the week long International Fly In and Expo they hold each Spring, SUN ’n FUN is actually a resource of considerable potential that operates on a year-round basis.

If we within the aviation community aren’t even aware of the tools we have at our disposal, what are the odds the non-aviation minded world will get a clear picture of what we’re up to? So with the festive mood of Christmas, the New Year, and a recently celebrated birthday still bubbling up inside me, let me share a little good news about aviation. Consider it my gift to you. Hope for the new year, if you will.

There is a small but growing collection of people here in central Florida who think of aviation as a cultural imperative. You see, aviation breeds personal responsibility, a love of education, an understanding of technology, and an avenue to economic prosperity that leaves a non-aviation loving culture in the dust. That’s not a theory, it’s a known reality. And so this group of hard-charging, forward thinking individuals have begun to band together. They’re also proving an old maxim in the process: Many hands make light work. That’s true, as it turns out.

SUN ’n FUN is known as a recreational experience. A vacation of sorts for the aviation minded. That’s common knowledge within the aviation community. What is less well known is that SUN ’n FUN houses a specialty high school known as a workforce academy. The actual name of the school is the Central Florida Aerospace Academy. But it’s classification tells you more about its mission than its actual name. The goal of this high school is to take teenagers who have an interest in aviation and help them become airframe and powerplant mechanics, pilots, and administrators of aviation-oriented businesses.

It began in a hangar with 70 students during its inaugural year. It’s grown from there to a new building where students study traditional subjects, but also have access to world class labs for maintenance, and flight simulators that give them the ability to plan and execute flights during the school day.

Currently it’s graduation rate is 100%. That’s a pretty good indicator of success, wouldn’t you agree? It’s certainly well above the national average for public high schools. And yes, CFAA is a public high school, not a private school.

As if that’s not enough, SUN ’n FUN also houses the Lakeland Aero Club, which is operated by the students themselves, with adult supervision, of course. The club provides teenagers with the ability to fly real airplanes in the actual sky. Breezer Aircraft even operates a flight school on the field, using the SUN ’n FUN hangars as a base of operation.

It’s an amazing thing to see a high school empty out when the last bell rings, and a large contingent of the student body march down the path to the hangars where they begin their individual preflight inspections, and go flying.

This is not a dream, it’s not a plan that may come together someday, it’s not a theoretical possibility. This actually happens on a daily basis. It’s real.

You see, there is hope for aviation and aviators. It’s happening right here in central Florida.

That’s not the whole story, though. SUN ’n FUN also hosts a STEMtastic program for middle school students. And Polk State College now has an aviation degree program that allows students to start from zero and finish school with their commercial pilot certificate.

Thanks to the visionaries at SUN ’n FUN, and a broader bunch of forward thinking people who have come to realize there really are solutions to the challenges we face, there is a culture of aviation excellence developing in this corner of the world. It’s here where a 10-year-old can learn about the diversity of aviation first hand. They can plan on going to an aviation high school where they can actually work on and fly real airplanes. And they can set their sights on an affordable state college where they can get a great education, and graduate with the prerequisites to a great career already taken care of.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen there is hope. The dream of flying for a living, being a mechanic, or a designer, or an administrator in an aviation centric environment is not out of reach. I invite you to see it for yourself the next time you trek to SUN ’n FUN for the International Fly-In and Expo. You just might be surprised to learn how successful this initiative is at training and mentoring the next generation of aviation professionals.

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He serves as V.P. of Operations at SunState Aviation Flight School in Winter Haven, Florida. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com


  1. says

    Sir, its nice to be optimistic. I have worked in aviation my whole life. Went from night freight in Beech 18’s to a captain at United Airlines. I’m sorry I just don’t see the bright future you are talking about. With the cost of fuels on the north side of $6 and climbing. The near future replacement fuel most likely will be even more costly. The cost of flying in an economy with high unemployment or underemployment is prohibitive. It is just a fact. The American middle class can not afford to fly. I have all kind of friends who own their own planes and cant fly because of the price of gas. It’s a fact. Now the other problem. Who in their right mind would want a job in aviation under the present conditions? Lets be real, the airlines were always the place future pilots wanted to work. The best salaries, work conditions, and the best pensions and benefits. Not any more. Salaries are down 50 to 60 percent. Pensions are gone. You now fly 20% more to the limit of fatigue. You use to have ample time off to rest. Now you are gone 18 days a month and have no time home. All after spending record high prices for aviation education. Im sorry it just doesn’t add up. And the number prove it. Its just too damn expensive for the return. Captain William G. Miller United Airlines.

  2. says

    Thanks again for your usual pragmatic optimism. Each of your columns seems to make me want to move to central Florida just a little more. I yearn to be at that table!
    I think the point here is that while GA does not realize the assets at its disposal, we are still poised for growth. That growth takes a few things:
    1) the people at the table who “get it.”
    2) a realization of the assets at hand and a plan on how to use them
    3) a culture shift.
    As you point out, for whatever reasons, in central FL there is a group of aviation professionals and non-aviators who recognize the potential of GA not as a pay thing for the rich, but as a conduit for education, personal growth, economic development and FUN!
    Maybe this is how it is done. Focus on one airport, county, state, or academy at a time and grow from there? Change the culture one place at a time and let it spread when the world sees that it works?
    One thing I am learning as I come back to my roots in GA is that it takes a variety of skills, ideas, energies and commitments to create lasting change. Different kinds of visionaries. If they all hang out in Polk County, I guess that’s where I belong! I’ve taught at a community college for 16 years, think Polk State has any openings?
    Here’s to 2013, the year we turn it around!
    PS. And even though I do not agree with Kent, we need him too! His fuel solutions can save our industry!

  3. Kent Misegades says

    Good news is rare in aviation these days, thanks Jamie. No offense, but you live in a bubble that is Florida. Full of retired pilots with solvent pensions or retired from the government/military, many Floridian pilots are immune to the disastrous economy that is killing G.A. from the bottom-up. Government schools in most parts of the country talk-the-talk when it comes to the latest buzz word, ‘STEM’, but try to do something meaningful, like start an USAF JROTC program or offer to build an airplane with high schoolers. I have attempted both and doors were slammed shut in my face: “no money, too risky, kids aren’t interested these days” is what I was told. The only real hope for education are private schools, I am convinced. I am not a pessimist, but simply hoping for a better year for G.A. accomplishes nothing. We had a president who used this as his primary campaign theme in 2008 and look what this brought us – $6T in new debt in four years. I’d rather see a factual accounting of reality in G.A. – how many pilots do we have left, how many hours do they fly per year, how are G.A. airports doing financially, what are the trends in sales of light aircraft the past 10 years. This would be a welcome change from the usual Pollyanna rose-colored-glass pronouncements from the aviation alphabets each January.

  4. larry maynard says

    All of this is well and good. Not sure what the point of the article is though other than cheerleading and promoting a nearby aviation tourist site. Thanks

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