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.