What was once dubbed “spring break for pilots” is now a year-round educational enterprise, focused on educating the next generation of aviators. It just so happens that there’s still plenty of sun, and fun, in Lakeland, Florida, during the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo April 21 through 26.
Sun 'n Fun President and CEO John R. Leenhouts had a big smile on April 20, the eve of the annual airshow’s opening day, ticking off a list of encouraging numbers: pre-registration is up 30 percent over 2014, which was a record-setting year for attendance; and the number of vendors and exhibitors will hit a 10-year high. That, Leenhouts said, includes many exhibitors—about 15 percent of the total—making either a first-ever appearance, or their first visit to Lakeland, Florida, in many years. Leenhouts, who joined the nonprofit organization in 2012, said the numbers may be partly attributable to the draw of two jet teams headlining the week’s airshows: the Breitling Jet Team, which kicks off its first North American tour with three performances during Sun 'n Fun (April 21, 24, and 25), and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds (flying April 25 and 26).
It’s also an unusual year, in terms of schedule. April 21 through 26 is the latest Sun 'n Fun run in memory, a departure from recent years in which the show kicked off in late March. By avoiding Easter weekend, and pushing the show after Aero Friedrichshafen in Germany, organizers managed to “deconflict” the show schedule, though Leenhouts said in future years the show will not run beyond April 16.
Still, looking at the potential for record turnout, Leenhouts hopes there’s more to it than simply avoiding holidays and adding jet teams to the action-packed lineup.
“I would like to think we’ve given people a purpose to come,” Leenhouts said. The show supports an organization that has become “the world’s number one provider of pilots for free.”
He paused, leaning forward. “Did you get that?”
Here’s what he means: In the past year and a half, the organization has supported local high school programs, paying for teachers, scholarships, and aviation curriculum using proceeds generated by the show. That effort has in turn produced 28 new private pilots in the past year and a half.
“Our goal is 30 to 35 a year,” Leenhouts said, adding that Sun 'n Fun hopes to facilitate the education of that many aviation mechanics in a given year as well. The students are part of a high school program that gives them hands-on learning opportunities (including volunteer jobs during the show) and an aerospace-centric education. Leenhouts hopes the high school program, the Central Florida Aerospace Academy (and the associated Aerospace Center for Excellence), will reach its 500-student capacity in a few years.
“It’s all because people come to Sun 'n Fun,” Leenhouts said. “We build back the aviation community. You’re putting kids in cockpits.”
He rattled off another batch of statistics: 114 flight training scholarships awarded in the past 18 months, 57 student solos, another 46 flight training scholarship applications pending. Graduates from the high school program can receive still more scholarship support, up to $5,000 to attend a university aviation program. Leenhouts said students are encouraged to consider the Polk State College aerospace program, though they can use their college scholarships for any college aviation program they choose.
Sun 'n Fun also pays the salaries of two teachers who run science, technology, engineering, and math programs with an aviation focus in other area schools. There are summer programs as well. The official staff shirts carry the new motto: “A brighter future through aviation.”
Leenhouts said the traditional attractions of Sun 'n Fun, including an array of vendors, exhibits, food, afternoon and night airshows, and more are certainly part of what brings in people. The Breitling Jet Team assembled their aircraft (literally) in Lakeland, and having the aviation infrastructure available is part of what drew the team to make its first North American tour.
“We’re thrilled to death,” Leenhouts said of the pending performances by Breitling. “I’m sure that’s helped a lot with our early ticket sales.”
Still, don’t expect to talk to “Lites” for any length of time without hearing all about the teenagers getting set up for aerospace careers, and the next generation of pilots earning wings in Lakeland. You can pretty much count on that.
As for the weather, Leenhouts was optimistic, despite passing thunderstorms that provided brief downpours on Monday afternoon and sent exhibitors scurrying for cover. Starting with Tuesday, he said, the forecast would improve—he glanced at his phone, checking the forecast once again. Clear skies Tuesday, and a 30 percent chance of scattered storms Wednesday through Friday.
“It’s Florida,” Leenhouts said.
AOPA is once again deployed in force for the show, with a packed schedule of seminars in the big yellow tent, a host of activities, information, services, and merchandise available in the main AOPA tent (including flight simulators), and a pair of Cessnas out front including your “Reimagined” AOPA 2015 Sweepstakes 152.