When it comes to training private teenage pilots, Sun ‘n Fun says it has no competition — worldwide.
Fueled by a boom in the airline industry, retirements and reduced enrollments in some aviation schools, there’s a serious shortage of pilots that’s expected to grow to 500,000 in the next 15 years. Sun ‘n Fun is doing its part to help.
Since 2013, Sun ‘n Fun has produced 41 teenage pilots and expects to graduate four or five more by the end of the year.
Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a high school on Sun ‘n Fun’s grounds, now has 325 students, with room for 499. The eager-to-learn kids at the academy are different from “a culture that has babied kids for the last 30 years,” said Lites Leenhouts, Sun ‘n Fun president.
“Young people will act like adults when treated like one.”
The academy is county-run and teaches the usual basics that students can learn at other high schools — plus aviation classes and voluntary workshops.
There’s more of a shortage of pilots in other parts of the world but there are warning signs in the United States. Gene Conrad, director at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, said big, domestic airlines are snapping pilots up at a more aggressive rate than ever before.
Conrad agrees that Sun ‘n Fun is the biggest producer of teen pilots in the world.
“I talk to people everywhere and there is nobody close to Sun ‘n Fun. They do a great job with kids. What they’re doing is unique. It’s a blueprint.”
Conrad said what’s happening at Sun ‘n Fun needs to be duplicated in five locations in every state if the country is serious about doing something about the looming pilot shortage.
Katie Pribyl, the vice president for flight training at the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, is working to combat the pilot shortage. She says the work done with high school students at Sun ‘n Fun is “incredible.”
The academy is “a huge contributor” in trying to combat the shortage, Pribyl said. “It’s a brilliant college prep program.”
Jack Pelton, chairman of the national Experimental Aircraft Association, says the academy does a great job and has given students tremendous opportunities.
The academy helps the shortage, Pelton said, but more importantly “it keeps kids focused and motivated.”
Students take the controls and learn to fly in small planes seated next to highly qualified volunteer Sun ‘n Fun pilots. But Sun ‘n Fun doesn’t provide the final training needed for students to achieve their licenses. That’s done at flight schools like Tailwheels Etc. Flight School.
Leenhouts said the reason is legal liability.
Johnathan Amundsen, who has a variety of duties at Tailwheels including general manager, said Sun ‘n Fun does a great job preparing kids for getting their pilots licenses at his flight school.
Kids from the academy are far more prepared than others, Amundsen said. “It’s hands down.”
The aerospace academy was built as an $8 million gift from James Ray, a World War II pilot from Naples. It opened in 2011.
Sun ‘n Fun leases the building to the Polk County School Board and uses that money to fund scholarships for academy students.
Students can earn as much as a one-time $12,000 in scholarship money to pay for flight school and $5,000 per year for an aviation-related education in college. Leenhouts said most of the students pick Polk State College because of the quality — and cost — of instruction.
Students at Sun ‘ Fun get the advantage of the Aerospace Discovery Air Museum, which is becoming increasingly hands on instead of off. It has a variety of simulators, including a flight simulator and a weight and balance simulator. And it has a display of airplane engines from the past 110 years.
The campus also features a fully functional Boeing 727 jumbo jet that will be used as a classroom for up to 30 students next month.
What students also get at the academy that they won’t get elsewhere is the same strong spirit of volunteerism that fuels the yearly Fly-In.
They get the knowledge of people like Al Herum, 58, a retired American Airlines pilot who is volunteer instructor at Sun ‘n Fun. He holds after-school classes at the Buehler Restoration Center near the academy.
The kids, part of the 45-student Lakeland AeroClub, can, as Herum says, “take my advice or leave it.” But on a recent day, Herum basically told a group of eight boys to wake up and pay attention. They did.
Among other skills, Herum has taught the students how to put together a plane from hundreds of parts in a basket.
The group spends plenty of time flying and has flown twice to Oshkosh, Wis., to the annual air show.
Airic Perez, 17, who said his life was without direction until a year ago, began attending the Sun’ n Fun campus in August.
He lives near the airport and the planes that flew overhead drew him to where he is now. He is considering joining the Air Force.
Anthony Perez, 16 and no relation to Airic, said he loves learning at the academy, but doesn’t want to fly for a living. He said being an airplane mechanic or an aerospace engineer does appeal to him big time.