Sun 'n Fun exec targets youth to grow pilot population

July 20, 2012

Sun ’n Fun is converting to a year-round aviation-training machine, aiming its efforts at children and adults, but getting kids into aviation is the priority. Initiatives include redirecting the Florida Air Museum toward teens and putting qualified youngsters into flight training.

Sun ’n Fun CEO and President John R. “Lites” Leenhouts said the all-encompassing goal is to grow the pilot population, something that has the attention of a number of organizations including AOPA. Leenhouts said his organization’s Lakeland Aero Club now has 45 kids in flight training at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland, Fla. “I have more money for the program than I have kids,” he said. Money comes from a lease agreement with the county.

High school youth with a 2.5 grade-point average have the chance to be selected by a board of aviation professionals for flight training that oversee the club. If chosen, 75 percent of their flight training will be paid by the Lakeland Aero Club. Leenhouts said he has about $500,000 for the program. There are four schools on the airport, and the candidate may choose any one of them. The schools retain responsibility and liability for the training.

Leenhouts is also recasting the Florida Air Museum at the Lakeland airport as a youth training center. He plans soon to hire an education director and a curator. “Right now it is an eclectic collection of aircraft,” he said. Learning programs and exhibits will explain how innovations and breakthroughs in aviation evolved, regardless of whether they resulted in a new type of aircraft. Part of the program will have visitors designing an airplane.

Polk State College, to be established on the north side of the airport, will offer a degree in aviation management as well as FAA ratings needed for a career. Resources for the aviation education program include all the training schools within 70 miles of Lakeland, including seaplane bases.

Leenhouts said summer aviation camps for youth are doing well, but there are adult classes planned as well.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | "AOPA Pilot" Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.