Today is a good day to brag a bit. With the SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-In and Expo in the rearview mirror, it’s a great time to celebrate where we are as an industry, because there is a lot going right in general aviation these days. So let’s take a moment to recognize just a few of the folks who are setting the table for success.
It’s time to brag because there’s honestly plenty to brag about.
First, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest a tip of the hat to Ben Sclair, the publisher of this fine periodical. It was at SUN ‘n FUN a few years ago when Ben described to me his plan for developing a venue for people to speak their minds, for readers to respond, and in the process to foster a more vibrant and inclusive conversation than had been available before. He’s done that, thankfully.
Ben’s one of the visionaries who makes this business so exciting. He stood on the shoulders of his predecessor, took the existing framework of the product and improved it. General Aviation News has become one of the pillars of open communication and free thinking in the industry. Consequently, the respect Ben and his crew get at SUN ‘n FUN is apparent and well deserved. The industry is better for their involvement and his leadership.
From the newly expanded porch of SUN ‘n FUN Radio, where the volunteers are dedicated and the waffles are plentiful, Dave Shallbetter deserves thanks. Twenty years ago, SUN ‘n FUN Radio was little more than an idea. With limited space, a minuscule budget, and only a handful of volunteers, Herr Shallbetter made a go of it. Two decades later their programming runs year round on the Internet and the radio shack is a magnet for aviation luminaries, media hounds, volunteers, and fans. The level of quality found in their broadcasts continues to rise each year, their reach expands, and the impact of their programming increases. This is what grass-roots success looks like.
My friend and co-conspirator in the Polk Aviation Alliance, Eric Crump, deserves notice as well. Not only is he building a world-class aerospace program at Polk State College, right on the field in Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (LAL), home to SUN ’n FUN, but he’s involving his student body in that development in a meaningful way.
So it was no great surprise when Governor Rick Scott of the Sunshine State arrived at SUN ‘n FUN this year — Scott being the first sitting governor to make that trip — Eric Crump was walking beside the governor and his contingent of security when they arrived at the Aerospace Center for Excellence on the grounds of the event.
Crump’s students stood dressed in their Polk State Aerospace uniforms, ready to greet the governor in person. That may seem like no big deal to some, but it says something profound about the college, the program, and the potential these students possess, thanks in no small part to the ambitious nature of the program they’re involved in. I’m a believer.
I’ll point you to SUN ‘n FUN itself as being deserving of praise, too. This massive event is coordinated by just 15 full-time staffers. The bulk of the workload is shouldered by volunteers, many of whom travel great distances at their own expense to participate.
Although it’s not commonly known, SUN ‘n FUN is a non-profit organization. Its mission is to preserve and enhance the future of flight through world-class events, inspiring and educating people of all ages. They’re doing that and more.
With a year-round presence on the field they’re attracting investment, developing programs, and supporting others as they do the same. SUN ‘n FUN may be tucked away in the heart of the Florida peninsula, but the impact of their work is felt far and wide all year round.
JetBlue deserves a big thank you, as well. This airline and the foundation it established supports high school and college aerospace programs with a sincerity that is seldom seen in the industry. Its willingness to take an Airbus 320 out of service for the better part of the day to fly students from New York to SUN ‘n FUN and park them right in the middle of the action is mind-bogglingly generous.
The airline’s financial support of aerospace programs and STEM education in schools is equally impressive. But when the CEO personally attends an event like SUN ’n FUN and tours the grounds, when he brings a large contingent of corporate officers with him, when he walks the halls of the aerospace high school on site and encourages students and faculty to tell him how his company can help them achieve their educational goals – you’ve got a winner on your hands. JetBlue has become an invaluable partner and inspiration to students who are preparing for a career in aerospace and technology.
I’ll wrap up with a big thank you to John Small, director of workforce education for Polk County schools. You’ve probably never heard of John, and truthfully aviation isn’t really his bailiwick. But he’s a great example of a leader.
He saw the potential of aerospace as an educational driver and he jumped in with both feet. The Central Florida Aerospace Academy, which is on the LAL grounds, and every student who walks through its doors owes a debt of thanks to John for stretching outside his comfort zone, building partnerships that benefit the students he’s charged with educating, and blazing a trail in educational reform that is gaining well-deserved attention outside this corner of the world.
For all the gloom and doom, for all the nay-sayers out there — and there are many — have no fear. There is a lot going right with general aviation today.
These few individuals I’ve mentioned aren’t the whole ball of wax — not by a long shot. There are people all over the country doing yeoman’s work to create opportunities for education and commerce through aviation and aerospace. They’re having a positive effect.
Join them. Become a part of the solution. Lend a helping hand and share whatever expertise you have with others who would welcome your participation.
We’re turning a corner in this industry. Why not pitch in and help? You’ll be in good company if you do.