If you’re involved in aviation in any way or happen to live in Central Florida, then you probably know the SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-In and Expo. Historically recognized around the world with monikers like “Aviation’s Season Opener” and “Spring Break for Pilots”, SUN ‘n FUN is well known for being the first must-do show of the year for pilots and aviation enthusiasts. Over 200,000 gather annually at the Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport (KLAL) for incredible flight displays, shopping overload at over 500 exhibitors and vendors, plus forums, workshops, famous food and evening entertainment all served up with a generous helping of good old-fashioned Southern hospitality.
As Florida’s largest convention with such a wide variety of offerings, the people that share this event are its most cherished element. It is not uncommon to see three or even four generations in a single family come to the event, and in a flying family, a young pilot’s first SUN ‘n FUN arrival is an exciting rite of passage.
With a solid 43 years of this storied event to build on, it’s this next generation of pilots to which SUN ‘n FUN has now turned its full-time attention. In 2014, the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) was unveiled to the Fly-In population for the first time, and in the two years since has rapidly become the standard for providing young men and women with both inspiration and an affordable start to a career in the aerospace industry.
“The annual SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In has always supported aviation education, but we’ve taken it to a whole new level”, said John “Lites” Leenhouts, President and CEO of SUN ‘n FUN. “We will always be “Spring Break for Pilots”, but now we operate year round with a myriad of events to generate revenue supporting ACE. Because of all these efforts our effectiveness at regenerating the aerospace industry workforce is growing exponentially and will hopefully be replicated by other organizations.”
ACE is located on the SUN ‘n FUN Expo Campus, and features 10 STEM learning and classroom extension facilities anchored by the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a Polk County Public High School. The campus also has another very unique element– a fully functional Boeing 727! Donated by FedEx and converted into a special learning laboratory, this one of a kind facility is complete with a Smartboard and cameras on every system so that students in the onboard classroom can monitor each element as it operates while an instructor guides the discussion. Aerospace Discovery at Florida Air Museum rounds out the campus, and is Florida’s official aviation museum and home of the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame. Available programs include flight training, airframe & powerplant training, aircraft restoration and educational activities year round for students of all ages.
Leenhouts is very animated when describing SUN ’n FUN’s cause. “It’s great to have the Fly-In and see it succeed year after year, but what about our future? The aviation community must address the pilot shortage right now, before the real impact hits and becomes a global crisis. That is exactly what ACE is aggressively working to prevent.”
Taking action is what ACE is all about, and thus far the scholarship programs have helped mint over 50 new teenage pilots with many more in the pipeline. Additional scholarships are available for college and technical training. The SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In is the major fundraiser for ACE, with dozens of other events year-round providing the local community with everything from 5k runs and auto fests to a Fly-In BBQ, and even a Zombie Fest for Halloween.
Debi Hobbes is the Events Logistics Manger for the organization, and she really has a tiger by the tail. “We’ve got something going on all the time,” she says. “If you live in this area you really want to keep an eye on our event calendar. It’s also a great $100 hamburger destination for pilots. How can you beat flying in to a car show?” With over 200 acres, 80,000+ square feet of covered hangar space, meeting rooms, a pavilion, and ample parking on the southwest corner of Lakeland Linder Airport, the home of the nation’s second largest aviation event is fast becoming home to much, much more all year long, “like the state fairgrounds on steroids”, Lites quipped in a recent interview.
In addition to community events, SUN ‘n FUN hosts its own series of educational programs. Aviation and STEM summer camps are held for students starting at age 7 all the way through middle and high school to learn the basics of aviation. In the fall, Aerospace Discovery Weekend provides a great family outing that introduces children to the wonder of aviation with activities including a flight in a real aircraft. Classroom to the Sky gives educators an in-depth seminar on presenting the science of flight to their students and lets them experience time in the cockpit themselves with SUN ‘n FUN staff and volunteers.
VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s official source for travel planning, has recognized SUN ‘n FUN’s indelible high-value impact on tourism, and has been the presenting sponsor along with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association for the past four years. With the tagline “Start Your Florida Adventure at SUN ‘n FUN”, thousands of people now see the Lakeland venue as their jump point to a larger vacation experience in Central Florida. In fact, right now SUN ‘n FUN is holding a raffle for one lucky winner and their family to win “The Ultimate Aviation Vacation” in the AceMaker Raffle. This incredible package will include week-long VIP admission for four to SUN ‘n FUN 2017, including airfare, lodging, a rental car voucher and area attraction tickets to Fun Spot America and Boggy Creek Airboat Tours provided by partner Experience Kissimmee. To top off this incredible week, the winner will get to take an Orientation Flight in Stallion 51’s Dual Cockpit-Dual Control P-51 Mustang with Mr. Mustang himself, Lee Lauderback! The winner will be announced during EAA AirVenture on July 30. Information on entering the raffle can be found at www.sun-n-fun.org/acemaker-raffle/.
Greg Gibson, Director of Business Development and Air Operations is very enthused over this partnership, which is one of several such experience-based marketing projects SUN ‘n FUN has underway. “This is just one example of how the State of Florida and our partners have come together to not only promote their businesses using SUN ‘n FUN as the vehicle, but also support our important task of rejuvenating critical roles in the aviation industry. Having this type of support from top organizations like Experience Kissimmee and Stallion 51 really validates our efforts and shows how important they feel ACE’s mission is to their own futures.”
Gibson noted that major supporter Visit Central Florida also partnered with SUN ‘n FUN and VISIT FLORIDA for a similar and very successful sweepstakes during 2016’s Fly-In, and that attendees could expect more of these types of opportunities in the future. “We have so many great experiences and partners, it just makes sense to put those together and have some fun with it for our audience to enjoy.”
SUN ‘n FUN’s legacy is one to be very proud of, and Leenhouts is its premiere advocate. He’s always ready to tell anyone he meets about the value of ACE. “Our history is what got us here, now we’re going to use that foundation to help funnel more talent into aerospace careers. Not only does the industry gain qualified entrants, but children participating in these programs will learn the basic tools they need to ultimately become better citizens.”
You can learn more about SUN ‘n FUN, the Aerospace Center for Excellence, and how you can contribute at www.sun-n-fun.org.
Article written by Greg Gibson