The skies may have been gray on opening day of SUN ’n FUN, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm as a crowd of local dignitaries, school officials, and students gathered for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the new Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA).
The ribbon-cutting was preceded by a parade that started at the FAA Building featuring the Kathleen High School Marching Band and the CFAA JROTC Color Guard, while the Kathleen High School Choir sang the national anthem before the speeches began.
The new $7.5 million building, which sits directly across from the Florida Air Museum, was made possible by a donation from the Aviation Education Foundation, a Naples, Fla.-based non-profit organization founded by James Ray, a pilot with 70 years of flying experience, and a successful businessman with interests in ranching, oil and gas exploration, real estate development, and investing. A B-17 pilot during World War II, Ray has provided the start-up funding for more than 300 businesses, including Eclipse Aviation and Cirrus Design. He’s also made significant donations to the University of North Dakota, EAA, and the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
While plenty of speeches were made at Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting, Ray appeared a bit uncomfortable speaking to the large crowd. The first thing he did was ask if the ROTC cadets, who had been standing at attention during the ceremony, could stand at ease. Then looking over the crowd of adults, he spoke directly to the students: “I remember last year when we put the first shovel in the ground,” he said. “When we did that I looked at the future students and told them we were passing the baton to them.” He then asked all the kids to raise their hands to catch a “metaphorical” baton: “Here you go!” he said.
Besides the money for the building, Ray also donated another $500,000 to the local school district for furniture, fixtures and equipment. And what many people don’t know is that he is also providing scholarships for a few of the academy’s students to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said Cecil McClellan, Kathleen High School and CFAA principal.
“It is my belief that teaching young people the discipline required to learn the science of flight builds character and confidence,” Ray said in a prepared statement handed out by SUN ’n FUN officials. “The experience of solo flight teaches them that they are independent and free-thinking individuals who are fully capable of being in control of their own life. I hope this building serves as a launching pad for CFAA students to become more actively involved in aviation and, in doing so, build a pathway for successful careers and successful lives.”
The new 58,000-square-foot facility, which will house up to 500 high school students when it reaches full enrollment, broke ground during last year’s SUN ’n FUN Fly-In, with actual construction beginning in August. The CFAA, which was formerly housed in existing Florida Air Museum facilities on the SUN ’n FUN campus, included a renovated building and several portable classrooms and was approaching its maximum capacity of 175 students.
“SUN ’n FUN is ecstatic to have such significant and inspirational support for an educational facility of this magnitude that underscores our organization’s core values and is in lock step with our educational focus and mission,” said SUN ’n FUN Board Chairman Bill Eickhoff. “We sincerely appreciate Mr. Ray’s generosity as much as we admire his vision for our nation’s young people and his commitment to building and supporting aviation-oriented youth education programs like those that we offer here at SUN ’n FUN and at the CFAA.”
Eickhoff also recognized the efforts of the SUN ’n FUN team who helped coordinate the details of the grant, including Board Treasurer Rick Garcia, Executive Committee member Gene Strickland, General Counsel John Wendel and President John Burton. He also expressed thanks to SUN ’n FUN’s “partners in education,” especially the Polk County School District, former Superintendent Dr. Gail McKinzie, current Superintendent Dr. Sherrie Nickell, Senior Director of Workforce Education John Small, Assistant Principal of Kathleen High School and CFAA Headmaster Chad Smith, McClellan, and administration and members of the CFAA staff.
The idea for the CFAA was formulated three years ago by Small and Gulf Coast Avionics owner and President Rick Garcia, who attended a similar school in Miami.
“This is a long-time dream for me,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for all the students.”
All those who spoke at the event noted that the school would not have become a reality without the incredible working relationship between officials with the city, school board, SUN ’n FUN, local businesses and others.
“When I was riding with Mr. Ray during the parade, he noted that this kind of collaboration is unique,” Nickell said. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen just anywhere. This is a place where we can make miracles happen.”
In thanking Ray for his donation, School Board Chairman Kay Fields noted that it “says a lot for someone to invest $7.5 million.”
“We promise you that we will make you proud,” she said to Ray. “We promise you that our students will be better when they leave here and that our students will take advantage of these opportunities. The best is yet to come — the sky is the limit.”