The Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE), the educational component of the SUN ’n FUN Aerospace Expo, is partnering with Able Flight, which provides scholarships to disabled people so they can learn to fly. As part of the new partnership, the Lakeland Aero Club will begin building a specially modified Zenith 750 after the fly-in.
Once complete, the homebuilt will be used for flight training for Able Flight scholarship winners.
“Our mission at ACE is to engage, educate, and accelerate the next generation of aerospace professionals,” said Ed Young, executive director. “Able Flight’s success in engaging and educating individuals with disabilities in flight training is unparalleled. We have the opportunity to truly change lives by combining our core competencies.”
The aircraft, which will be named the “Spirit of Lakeland,” will be built entirely by high school students, under the watchful eyes of adult mentors, says Mike Zidziunas, president of the aero club.
“We’re going to start immediately after the fly-in,” he said during this year’s fly-in. “All of the Central Florida Aerospace Academy students, as well as our Summer Camp kids, will work on the plane. So instead of building mock-up ribs and stuff like that, they’re going to work on a plane that’s going to fly.”
He estimates build time at 100 days.
If this project proves successful, Zidziunas anticipates the club building a fleet of Zenith 750s. This will make planes available not just for the Able Flight pilots, but also the kids who built them.
“Able Flight is a great program, but then you get your pilot’s license and then what?” he asks.
Finding specially modified airplanes for the disabled to fly is next to impossible. But with the new plane at Lakeland, disabled pilots will be able to fly for a $100 hamburger and more.
“The Zenith 750 is a really good machine for the disabled,” Zidziunas notes. “The height is good for getting in and out with wheelchairs, it’s a center stick. They even have modified them for hand controls for people who don’t have the use of their feet.”
Those modifications don’t preclude able-bodied people from flying the airplane, he notes. That means students, SUN ’n FUN volunteers, and others can fly the plane when it is available.
The plan is to create a flying club around the plane, he added.
“The airplane is a great sturdy airplane, it’s good for flight training, and it’s good for low time pilots to fly,” he notes, adding the plan is to also do Young Eagles flights in the plane.
For Able Flight’s founder Charles Stites, the new plane opens new opportunities.
“This is an exciting development because there aren’t enough accessible airplanes out there,” he says. “It puts another trainer aircraft in play, at a new location, and it creates an opportunity for people to have an airplane they can come back and fly, and that’s something we don’t have anywhere else.”
The Lakeland location joins Purdue University and The Ohio State University as training grounds for Able Flight scholarship winners. Lakeland also gives Able Flight a place where it can train people year-round, he notes.
Since its inception, Able Flight has awarded 100 scholarships. This year, 10 new pilots will train at Purdue and Ohio State and receive their wings in a special ceremony at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.
Lakeland’s proximity to the VA rehabilitation center in Tampa — one of the nation’s largest — creates an opportunity to train more veterans to fly, notes John “Lites” Leenhouts, SUN ’n FUN’s president.
“We hope the disabled veterans in our area will apply for an Able Flight scholarship,” he says. “While anyone with a disability is eligible for the opportunities Able Flight gives, we are keenly aware of the needs of the nearby former and current service members.”
Able Flight Scholarship students will be housed in the Tom Davis Educational Center on the ACE Campus during training and instructed by volunteer certified flight instructors.