This ain’t your grandfather’s SUN ’n FUN

Two months from now we’ll all be talking about the SUN ’n FUN International Fly In and Expo in the past tense. It will be behind us, and if history repeats itself, SUN ’n FUN 2013 will be as successful as it has been in the past. This year will be different, however, because this year it will begin to become apparent that SUN ’n FUN and the Fly In are not a single event.

They are related, but separate. SUN ’n FUN is the organization that puts on the International Fly-In and Expo. But they do a lot more than host what is arguably the best and most worthwhile GA gathering on the planet. No, no, they do much more than that.

This ain’t your grandfather’s SUN ’n FUN.

What started 40 years ago as a unique social gathering of pilots and homebuilders has grown into a massive internationally relevant showcase for the GA industry as a whole. With thanks to former ringmasters Billy Henderson and John Burton, as well as the thousands of volunteers who have developed a talent for growing the sleepy, casual environs of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport into a thriving city every spring, SUN ’n FUN has gone through a transition the rest of the industry should take note of. To the degree possible, others should emulate what is happening here, too.

SUN ’n FUN is now the central hub around which an entire county is shifting to a decidedly pro-aviation perspective. Whether the issue is tourism, economics, education, industry, or just good old GA, SUN ’n FUN’s small staff of year-round contributors to the cause are making inroads that are creating a real difference in central Florida.

Yes, you read that right. SUN ’n FUN is a year-round destination these days, not just a blast of bright colors and airplane noise that blows into town for a few days in April. If you look carefully you can see the evidence of this shift when you next visit the big Fly In and Expo.

Notice the young people. Some of those fresh faces belong to kids participating in the STEMtastic program, SUN ’n FUN’s own educational program that introduces elementary and middle school students to the ways of aviation, while strengthening their grasp of science technology, engineering, and math. The theory is simple enough. Show a kid that education can lead to real fun, and trust the kid to pursue that goal throughout the remainder of their educational career.

It doesn’t end there, though.

Throughout the school year SUN ’n FUN hosts a growing number of aviation minded teenagers who attend the Central Florida Aerospace Academy. The Academy is located on the grounds of SUN ’n FUN, and that proximity to runways and ramps is no accident. As GA enthusiasts the world over know all too well, if you can get teenagers out to the airport on a regular basis where they can participate in a meaningful way, you can build a whole new crew of aviation enthusiasts. Many of those young folks will become pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, and administrators, too. Others will take up non-aviation careers, but will remain aviation enthusiasts and participants for many years to come. Either way, it’s a win for the kids and a win for GA.

Oh yes, it’s probably worth noting that to this point the Central Florida Aerospace Academy enjoys a 100% graduation rate. That alone suggests the kids who attend there are focused and motivated to succeed in ways that many in their peer group are not.

Add to that focus on primary education an option for secondary education, and GA starts to be a factor in the lives of people in these parts. Polk State College, our local institution of higher learning, introduced a two-year pilot science degree program this year. While it is starting out small and manageable, the program is expected to grow into a four-year program in the near future. And while SUN ’n FUN has no direct connection to the college or the pilot science program, they are actively focusing young people in this area on aviation as a career, and making it clear that an excellent education in the field is available right here, locally.

This sort of shift in thinking takes leadership and resources. SUN ’n FUN benefits from having access to both, and being actively engaged in developing more of both. They are proving they know how to increase the number of young people involved in aviation by actually doing it. They know you have to bring the kids to the airport. You have to show those kids the respect of allowing them to learn and accept responsibility in a real way when working around real machinery and real people. Showing a Powerpoint presentation in a classroom across town just isn’t going to cut it.

So when you visit SUN ’n FUN’s International Fly-In and Expo this year, or next year, or 10 years from now – take note of what you see happening there and ask yourself, “How could we implement this sort of aviation centric activity in my town?”

The answer to that question just might lead to a whole new batch of GA enthusiasts. And they just might change the world. You never can tell what will happen when you get the right people together and all start pushing in the same direction.


  1. says

    Jamie, thanks for bringing attention to the exciting things happening at SUN ‘n FUN. Our members of the Silver Wings Fraternity ( ) have been associated with SUN ‘n FUN since it started, and when it was based on the north side of the field. We originally had a tent for our members to congregate, but we have enjoyed our own clubhouse for the past 15 years located behind the FAA building.
    We have watched and helped SUN ‘n FUN grow over the years, and witnessed all the challenges it overcame. It has always had highly capable, professional employees who planned, managed, and hosted the Fly-In and a few events through-out the year. However, to say the site was under-utilized would be an under-statement. They now actively rent out the facilities to outside groups to increase revenue. As a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, all proceeds go toward realizing its educational missions.
    Now, under the enthusiastic and visionary leadership of President John “Lites” Leenhouts, Board Chairman Bob Knight, and the great staff members who assist them, the campus is much closer to realizing its full potential. All types of aviation-themed events are scheduled year-round, ranging from Saturday fly-ins, weekend fly-outs, concerts, dances, BBQ’s, safety seminars, and educational opportunities for both students and adults. Their STEM-tastic programs introduce kids to aviation, and watching the expressions on their faces as they learn new things, and take introductory flights, is priceless.
    The Wings ‘n Things program is such an example, and the other programs their Florida Air Museum conducts also helps meet these goals. Corporations and other organizations have taken notice of their growth and accomplishments, and are eager to donate and assist in these goals. A gift that will be hard to miss is the Boeing 727 cargo plane recently donated by the FedEx Corporation that will serve as an excellent hand-on learning tool for years to come.
    The on-site Central Florida Aerospace Academy is a partnership with the Polk County school system, and the students we have interacted with are the brightest and most motivated we have ever met. The vast majority of them will enter aviation careers, and will do their part to enhance and save aviation in this country. The school was constructed with a generous donation by aviation-advocate James C. Ray, a philanthropist with the Ray Foundation of Naples, among his many other accomplishments, rather than waiting for public funds.
    SUN ‘n FUN established a flight scholarship that pays for 75% of a student’s cost to obtain a Private Pilot license, which several have already achieved, and many more are in the pipeline. A flight school on the campus, as well as several others on the field, provide excellent training. If the students have difficulty making up the remainder of the cost, SUN ‘n FUN allows them to work it off doing odd jobs around the campus.
    Lets not forget the several thousand volunteers that freely give their time and energy, both year-round and during the Fly-In and Expo. It simply would not happen without them. There are different reasons they volunteer, but all of them love aviation and want to do what they can to help preserve and grow the greatest expression of freedom – personal recreational flying.
    As the economy improves, SUN ‘n FUN will continue to grow and improve as a year-round destination, and will continue to be a delightful diversion in our harried lives. We in the Silver Wings Fraternity look forward to hosting our members at SUN ‘n FUN 2013, and we invite all pilots and aviation enthusiasts to stop by and get to know us.
    Michael Taylor

  2. says

    Your article got me looking forward to this year’s SUN-‘n-FUN even more than before. I agree with your observation about the current and proposed educational resources available to the “next generation” of aviators through Central Florida Aerospace Academy and (soon) Polk State College.

    Recently at the Sebring Sport Aviation Expo I was fortunate to meet some of students from the academy as well as some of the educators and leaders paving the way for a similar program at Polk State College. It’s great to see Central Florida having such an impact upon the future of general aviation, as well as our communities.

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