Daniel Webster is a member of the US House of Representatives, sent to Washington on behalf of the people of Florida’s 10th Congressional district. One of his committee assignments is Transportation and Infrastructure, which includes 21st Century Freight Transportation, Aviation, Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. So it will come as no surprise that I was thrilled to find myself sitting in the pilot’s lounge at my home field sharing with my congressman the good news about the Polk Aviation Alliance and the bright future aviation has in central Florida.
This meeting came about thanks to a phone call from the Congressman’s office asking if I could make time to talk with Webster about aviation’s potential in this corner of the world. And while it is hot and sticky in the sub-tropics during the summer months, Webster used his August break well by visiting groups large and small to get insight and feedback from his constituents.
Alongside me was John “Lites” Leenhouts, the president and CEO of SUN ’n FUN, which hosts the second largest aviation gathering in North America each spring. Debbie Murphy, the capable and well respected airport director who oversees operations on my home field, was there, too.
Commerce was not alone at this chat. Education was well represented, too. Assistant principal Keith Smith represented Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a high school on the grounds of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport where teenagers learn core subjects as well as aviation specific lessons. These kids learn to fly, turn wrenches, stitch fabric, and rivet skins. Oh yes, and so far the school has a 100% graduation rate. Not bad, huh?
Covering the higher education aspect of the industry, Eric Crump participated as well. Crump is the aerospace program director for Polk State College, which currently offers an associates degree in pilot science. The college is working diligently to add a bachelor degree program to its aerospace offerings in the coming year.
Now envision this gathering, if you will. When was the last time you heard about a congressman taking time to come to the airport where he sat down and chatted with people who represented airports with and without control towers? Can you recall an elected official spending time with the head of a large fly-in to find out what’s on the horizon? Do you recall reading any stories about federal officials encouraging the administrators behind two aviation specific educational programs to expound on where they are, where they are headed, and what kind of success they are seeing in their students?
This is what politics is about y’all. It’s not necessarily about policy, or funding, or government at all. It’s often about people sharing information, explaining their goals, admitting their challenges, and making it clear they are more than happy to maintain a relationship that is mutually beneficial to all concerned.
The ammunition that was passed around in that meeting was the most powerful ordnance available — knowledge. Through our Alliance these disparate groups who not so long ago would have been left to their own devices in representing their wishes now have the ability to collaboratively present a big-picture sketch of what we are working to achieve. Instead of competing against each other to eek out every possible opportunity that comes our way — to the detriment of our neighbor — we’re working together as a unit to maximize the benefits of every aspect of aviation in our county.
Having been in that discussion, as well as others with city managers, mayors, Chamber of Commerce members, and economic development directors, I can tell you without the slightest bit of doubt aviation is on the uptick in my corner of the world. At 54 years of age I’m no longer one of the youngsters hanging around the airport. There are plenty of young fresh faces with big dreams coming to this sandy peninsula where they seek out aviation schools and businesses to interact with in my very central Florida county. And this is just the start.
If I were inclined to make a few predictions, I would make these with a very high degree of confidence:
- SUN ’n FUN 2014 will be noticeably different and more impactful to the industry than any in its 40-year history.
- Polk State College’s aerospace programs will continue to expand and attract dramatically increasing numbers of students because of its innovative curriculum, an undeniably attractive cost structure, and exceptional weather and facilities to work from.
- Central Florida Aerospace Academy will attract families to move here specifically so their children can attend this remarkable institution – a phenomenon that has already begun, I’m pleased to say.
- And aviation will absolutely, without a doubt, thrive in this corner of the United States.
All that success will come about due to a wide variety of factors. The willingness of a small, increasingly influential group of men and women to speak up, share the good news of what we’re doing here, and invite participation from virtually anyone who wishes to become a part of the success story we’re building, is not the least of those reasons by any stretch.
I would be remiss if I didn’t express my sincere thanks to Congressman Webster, as well. For while it’s an important step to gather people who are willing to work together and tell their story, that effort is limited if there are no leaders willing to listen. Representative Webster listened, and for that I will be forever grateful.