High school students can fire up the engines of a Boeing 727, work the controls, and launch aviation careers—if not the aircraft itself—in their new classroom at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy. That classroom previously hauled cargo for FedEx, and was diverted from the boneyard in 2012 to help build the next generation of pilots and other aerospace professionals, giving hands-on lessons in science, technology, engineering, and math at the academy in Lakeland, Florida.
On March 8, a crowd gathered for the unveiling, and it was time to start those engines.
Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In and Expo has transformed in recent years into a year-round education center, supporting a variety of programs. The annual event once known as “spring break for pilots” still draws tens of thousands, but the primary mission today is to engage young people with real-world aviation experiences, lighting the spark and building aviation’s future.
Sun 'n Fun President and CEO John R. “Lites” Leenhouts, a former U.S. Navy pilot, took his post in 2011 and set to work transforming the organization, with much of his attention and effort focused on putting students in airplanes.
The Boeing made its final landing in 2013 wearing the iconic FedEx livery and bearing a nickname, Paul, which has stuck even as the FedEx colors were replaced by Piedmont Airlines colors. The three-year transformation was a huge effort, going far beyond new paint, with many hands and many donations needed, about $700,000 in all. Supporters include the family of Piedmont Airlines founder Tom Davis. The Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust donated $225,000 in March 2015 to help Leenhouts and his crew complete the conversion of the old three-engine workhorse into a modern classroom that includes a cockpit with functional controls.
“People don’t give you that kind of money unless you’re doing good things,” Leenhouts told a local newspaper in 2015.
Paul was unveiled March 8 to a throng of students, officials, and the media on the aerospace academy’s campus at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.
The Piedmont Aerospace Experience, as Paul is more formally known, also will be shared with other nearby schools and programs.
In the former cargo hold, students sit two-abreast in airline seats divided by a center aisle as teachers teach aviation, technology, and science. From these seats, students can watch closed-circuit camera feeds on interactive tablets as their peers work controls and systems in the cockpit.
“Nowhere else in the world will students be able to receive the hands on learning offered by the Piedmont Aerospace Experience,” said the school’s director, Robb Williams, in a news release. “Not even in a commercial airline pilot ground school do you have this much interaction with a live airplane.”
School officials hope the new learning environment will “positively impact thousands of future pilots, mechanics, engineers, and aerospace professionals,” the news release said.
Educators thanked the city of Lakeland and its airport, Florida Modification Specialists, Traviss Career Center, community members, and donors for helping to bring the four-year project to fruition.