LAKELAND, Florida — A milestone was recently reached at the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE): Its 100th teenage private pilot.
Supported by the James C. Ray Foundation and the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo, the flight scholarship initiative began in 2012. When Blaise Kessler passed his final checkride on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, he marked not only a major personal accomplishment, but a landmark event for the program.
“We wanted to create a special opportunity for young men and women to learn to fly that otherwise might not have been affordable,” said John “Lites” Leenhouts, ACE President and CEO.
“When we rolled out the program, we were optimistic about the incredible initial response, but we soon realized that we had a more meaningful opportunity – we could be an example for other organizations to follow,” he continued. “We knew we couldn’t really make a significant impact on the looming pilot shortage by ourselves. By creating a successful process for awarding scholarships, then mentoring deserving young people through their private pilot training, we defined a groundbreaking path that was not only innovative but could be easily replicated.”
The ACE program, which has more than 40 pilots in training, awards up to four new scholarships each month. Recently, under a new extension called “Florida Takes Flight,” the program expanded outside its normal boundaries of Polk County. Students in six other Florida counties have received scholarships, and the critical mentoring roles were assumed by local sponsors who recommended each recipient. The sponsors are chapters from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and The 99’s.
Richele Floyd, Director of Scholarships for ACE, oversees the administration and guidance of each student’s journey under the program.
“This is a huge milestone in the aerospace industry,” she said. “These young adults have not only met the expectations but surpassed them in many ways. They have become active duty military, airline captains, aircraft maintenance technicians, mentors, students, and boundless aviation enthusiasts. Our programs are not defined by numbers, but by the opportunities that are seized. Blaise Kessler not only accomplished a major life goal, but was a great example of the type of young adult we are trying to foster by overcoming personal challenges. I am honored to be a part of this wonderful program and afforded the opportunity to work with these future leaders.”
“These 100 young men and women are now not only aviators, but more importantly they have evolved into productive citizens that can responsibly manage themselves in the complex landscape of today’s society.” Leenhouts added.
The Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE), a 501(c)(3) non-profit, has emerged as a nationally recognized leader in STEM-related and aerospace education through its various learning centers, outreach programs, summer camps and scholarships aimed at preparing students for tomorrow’s aerospace challenges. Located on the SUN ‘n FUN Expo Campus in Lakeland, Florida, the organization is known for its annual SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo fundraising event, as well as the Florida Air Museum, which is Florida’s Official Aviation Museum and Education Center.