As the largest teen flying club in the world, the Lakeland Aero Club has built a reputation for greatness.
The club started in 2011 with 16 teenagers restoring a Piper Cub in a rented hangar under the coaching of Mike Zidziunas and other volunteers. After Mike had volunteered 600 hours a year for three years, philanthropist James C. Ray approached him.
“Mr. Ray said, ‘I have this idea, and I think you’re the guy to run it. And this is the idea,” says Mike as he opens his arms in the Lakeland Aero Club’s hangar on the SUN ‘n FUN campus on Lakeland Linder International Airport (KLAL) in Florida. “All of this — the Cubs, the grass runway, the building.”
In 2016, the club moved into its 12,500-square-foot hangar, which has a meeting room, a briefing room, office, restrooms, and lounge area.
Today, the club has 60 members. Club members have flown to Wisconsin for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and South Carolina for the Triple Tree Fly-In. At any given time, the club has four or more airplane projects underway.
No Secret Formula
“I don’t think I’m that unique,” says Mike, known as “Mr. Z” to the kids and Mike Z to everyone else. “I just think outside the box. Everything we do is risk and rewards, and there’s a certain amount of risk in flying and in aviation and having teenagers in it. If you identify and manage the risk, we can mitigate it.”
He pointed to a message painted on the door leading into the hangar:
AVIATION IS INHERENTLY DANGEROUS
IT IS ONLY MADE SAFE BY THE
DISCIPLINE AND DEDICATION OF
AVIATION PROFESSIONALS ONLY
BEYOND THIS POINT
He demands professionalism and models the behaviors he wants club members to practice. For example, he’s anal about putting tools away and cleaning the floor.
“That’s what it means to be a professional,” Mike says. “If everything goes back in the toolbox, you didn’t leave it in the airplane where it could jam the controls and cause an accident.”
Mike Z understands the struggles of starting a flying club, so he builds relationships with other clubs to work with them.
During the 2022 SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo, leaders and members of three clubs worked with the Lakeland Aero Club on specific projects.
- The Aspiring Aviators Club of Winter Haven, Florida, which is building a Continental C-85 engine for its Aeronca Champ.
- The Infinity Aero Club of North Tampa, Florida, which plans to build a C-85 engine with the Lakeland Aero Club and Donald “Lee” Poe, the owner of Don’s Dream Machines of Bessmer, Alabama, in the coming weeks.
- The Tango Thirty One Aero Clube from McKinney, Texas, led by Kevin “Tombstone” Lacey from the show “Airplane Repo.”
Mike Z said that Tango Thirty One is “the only other club I know whose students fly their own Cubs to Oshkosh each year.” Members from both clubs met in 2014 and have built friendships.
Aspiring Aviators Club
“The Lakeland Aero Club will help the Aspiring Aviators Club put their engine on their plane after the show,” Mike explains. “We’re putting it on our plane just to have something to run it on. That’s so the kids can see what a week’s work is — that we built an engine. It happens that our Taylorcraft is ready for that engine to go on the front of it, so we’re bringing that project along so they can hang their engine, start it, run it, and give it back to them and then we’ll meet them over in Winter Haven to help them put it on.”
Donald “Lee” Poe, the owner of Don’s Dream Machines, has donated labor and sold parts at cost to train students during the C-85 engine build.
Lakeland Aero Club member Matt Diem did a summer internship at Don’s Dream Machines, so he assisted Lee during the build and helped teach the Aspiring Aviators members how to build their engine.
“The prep was all done ahead of time, so we could concentrate on the build,” Lee explains. “When I’m at my shop, it takes about one and a half days for me to do what we’re doing here four to five hours a day during SUN ‘n FUN.”
He adds he was teaching during the build to give the students a functional explanation of the engine’s parts.
Lee described the work they accomplished on the first day: “We checked the crankshaft to make sure all the diameters were correct, and then we applied lube on it. We verified part numbers for everything, installed the bearings, rod bolts, nuts, and the connecting rods, lubricated and assembled the rods on the crank, double-checked and safety. We prepared the crankcase sub-assembly, installed bearings, talked about and assembled the lifter assembly to the hydraulic units, sockets, lifters, and snap rings, and put those in. We lubricated all that with the appropriate lubrication, and I demonstrated how to thread the case for the case seal because there is no gasket. And we assembled the case halves together, torqued the appropriate nuts there, and did all the external case hardware. That’s it.”
They started the build on Tuesday, and on Saturday morning, they tested the engine, and it had no leaks.
“The members are truly excited about building the engine for the Champ,” adds Jamie Beckett, president of the Aspiring Aviators Club and the Politics for Pilots columnist for General Aviation News.
Infinity Aero Club
Led by Ricardo Foster, the Infinity Aero Club brought the stripped-down fuselage of its Zenith 650HD to display at the Lakeland Aero Club hangar. This year, in conjunction with AviNation Magazine, Ricardo will be touring high schools to speak on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs, emphasizing attracting minorities into aviation.
His club is working with the Lakeland Aero Club to build an engine for their plane this year.
Infinity has applied to become a Tuskegee Airman Chapter. Ricardo discussed ideas for a paint scheme for the Zenith aircraft, and Mike Z suggested using the Tuskegee Airmen’s Red Tail theme. Ricardo had an “a ha moment” and said, “That makes perfect sense. I’m overthinking it. Mike has the perfect suggestion.”
Besides its work with the other teen flying clubs, during this year’s SUN ‘n FUN, the Lakeland Aero Club also hosted a daily fabric covering workshop by Stewart Systems, worked on a Sonex kit build, fabric-covered one wing of a PA-12 owned by SUN ‘n FUN, and set up tables and chairs for luncheons in the club’s hangar for other groups.
Club members had the afternoons off to explore the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo, network, visit the job fair, and watch the airshows.