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