The 12,500-square-foot facility has office space, restrooms, and will house six aircraft.
Mike Zidziunas, president of the Lakeland Aero Club, explained that the 50 members of the club, who range in age from 15 to 25, learn and solo in taildraggers owned by the club.
The members also restore aircraft, like the 1939 Taylorcraft they are currently working on. The club owns two Piper Cubs, two Taylorcrafts, a Cessna 150, a glider, and a two-seat Remos light-sport aircraft.
According to SUN ’n FUN President John “Lites” Leenhouts, the Lakeland Aero Club is “the largest high school flying club on the planet.”
Zidziunas said he is driven to bring young students into aviation because “there is a two-generation gap between students and instructors. Who’s going attract and teach high-school age pilots?”
“The secret to my success is that I never grew up,” he continued. “I tell them, ‘Don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Be persistent. Try until they throw you out. When you’re young you can ask for outrageous things. The worse that can happen is they’ll say no. Sometimes they’ll say yes.’”
“We have taken 23 students to Oshkosh over the last three years,” he noted. “Donovan Richards, for example, did his dual long cross-country to Oshkosh in 2013.”
Last year, club member Phillip Herrington produced a YouTube video of his demonstration flight at Oshkosh in the Super Cub that Zidziunas says made him a celebrity with young girls at Oshkosh. See the video on YouTube.
Herrington, who graduated from Central Florida Aerospace Academy in 2013, now flies a commuter Embraer for Via Airlines out of Maitland, Florida. He continues as a member of the Lakeland Aero Club.
In addition to flight training and aircraft restoration, the club participated in the April 16 airshow in Freeport, Bahamas, and a Young Eagles event in cooperation with Western Air.
“If you make it all about them, you get pulled along to new places,” Zidziunas said. “And you get to enjoy them discovering new places. On the way to Oshkosh they had to fly over mountains. They’ve never flown over mountains before.”
Zidziunas said he often wondered if they were really listening through their training. He knows now that they have.
On March 5 he led a caravan of three planes on a cross-country flight out to the west coast of Florida and back. Donovan Richards and Tyson Trentham were flying a 1939 Taylorcraft BL-65 over St. Petersburg, Florida, when Richards noticed power fluctuations. He put the plane down on the 12th fairway of the St. Petersburg Country Club’s golf course.
Zidziunas showed a Google Earth map of the golf course and pointed out that “with 900 feet of total green space, Donovan safely landed in 870.” The left wing clipped a tree.
He said he was very proud the 18-year-old pilot landed without injuries in the heavily populated area.
After the landing, the plane was inspected. Zidziunas showed a photograph of sheared bolts and said, “The 76-year-old engine had its head bolted on. The failure of the head bolt caused a chain reaction failure of the surrounding bolts that caused the head to nearly blow off.”
The Taylorcraft is now being repaired by members of the Lakeland Aero Club.
One of the club’s Piper Cubs (N32721) was named in honor of Zidziunas’s Aunt Betty. In 1946 at age 19, Aunt Betty learned to fly when women were discouraged from pursuing such activities. Zidziunas was 8 years old and his aunt inspired him to love aviation. Betty later married her flight instructor.
The club members registered the plane under the N-number of Aunt Betty’s favorite plane, her Piper Cub. They also painted AUNT BETTY on the fuselage.
Recently, a taxiway was built over the drainage ditch that runs between the 2,800-foot grass runway known as Paradise Field and the club’s new hangar. Paradise Field will be the primary landing strip for the club. Paradise Field is the runway used during SUN ‘n FUN for light sport and ultralight aircraft. It is located south of the end of runway 5.
The long-term plans are for the club to become a legacy club. The earliest members of the club are beginning to age out, Zidziunas noted. He added that past club members will always be welcome and “after age 25, they become mentor members.”