LAKELAND, Florida — Mayor Howard Wiggs addressed 250 guests at the third annual Mayor’s Breakfast, declaring March 8 as Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) Day.
The breakfast was held in the Florida Air Museum on the SUN ‘n FUN campus on Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport (KLAL) with tables and chairs placed under and between static aircraft on display.
John “Lites” Leenhouts, SUN ‘n FUN president, reminded those gathered that SUN ‘n FUN operates all year long to raise funds for aviation education, not just during the annual fly-in, which is slated for April 5-10 this year.
“We have given out $432,000 in scholarships and we are the number one world producer of teen pilots,” he said. “We have trained 46 private pilots between 17 and 18 years old. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association chose ACE as its benchmark high school education program.”
He told of the “carseat to cockpit” mentoring programs and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) classes that train the next generation of students to take on careers in aviation.
He also reported that the Lakeland Aero Club is about to move into its new 12,000-square-foot hangar with six aircraft. Members range in age from 15 to 25.
“This club is the largest high school flying club on the planet,” Leenhouts said.
“SUN ‘n FUN and its year-round activities contribute $137 million to the local economy and it has created 1,681 jobs in Polk County,” Leenhouts said.
As the meeting neared its close, Robb Williams, ACE executive director, introduced a group of cadets who would guide the crowd to tour the newest part of the ACE campus — a 727 donated by FedEx. The aircraft is now called the Piedmont Aerospace Experience Exhibit and is parked on the corner of Tom Mack Drive and Doolittle Road on the SUN ‘n FUN campus.
Four years in the making, the functioning 727 has been remodeled to house a conference room, a classroom, and to offer hands-on experience for training students in aviation.
Community partners that helped in the project are the City of Lakeland, Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, Florida Modification Specialists, Polk State College, Central Florida Aerospace Academy, and Traviss Career Center, with donations from the Tom Davis and Emil Buehler Foundations.
“Don Bruce, of Florida Modification Specialists, crafted the conference table from an aircraft wing,” said Williams as he led a tour of the aircraft.
The chairs in the conference room and classroom are refurbished passenger seats.
Inside the classroom, an electronic white board connects to student’s tablets. Cameras in the cockpit connect to the whiteboard as well, so students can learn the specific instruments and controls in the cockpit.
In a ceremony held alongside the 727, Wiggs and Jacqueline Byrd, the supervisor of the Polk County School Board, used giant scissors to cut a ribbon. In the background radio-controlled aircraft performed aerobatics in another event on the SUN ‘n FUN campus.
After the ribbon-cutting, Williams fired up the 727’s engines to demonstrate that the aircraft is more than a static display.
Among the dignitaries at the event was U.S. Congressman Dennis Ross. When asked what he thought of SUN ‘n FUN, he said, “I haven’t been out here in three years. I’m very impressed with all they’re doing out here.”