Lakeland Linder Regional (LAL) in central Florida has all the markings of a typical general aviation/small commercial airport: repair shops, refurbishment centers and shuttle flights in Cessna 172s that load directly on the tarmac. But it also has two other elements that make it unique: the year-round headquarters for Sun 'n Fun, the industry's second largest fly-in, and Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a satellite high school for students interested in aviation and aerospace.
Both enterprises have helped entice business to the airport, including two new flight schools, reports Airport Director Gene Conrad. "It is hard to even imagine how the existence of (Central Florida Aerospace Academy) will transform our airport community in the future, but what I do know is that the future of this airport and the future of the kids attending this school is extremely bright because of the dedication of the people that made it a reality!"
With tracks including pre-engineering, avionics and aerospace technologies, the academy offers students the opportunity to graduate high school with an Auto CAD certificate, private pilot's license or avionics certificate. Its Air Force Jr. Reserve Officers' Training Corps program ranks as one of the country's best and earns graduates who enlist an advanced pay grade.
Some students hope a diploma from the aerospace academy will help them secure a coveted spot at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado; others see it as the ideal steppingstone to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Florida Institute of Technology or Polk State College, which recently added an aerospace program. Still others aspire for local careers sooner after high school.
Businesses deciding whether to locate on or off airport property appreciate the ready pool of skilled and enthusiastic graduates the school produces, notes Conrad. In turn, the academy enjoys the halo effect of local businesses recruiting employees directly from the school.
Gulf Coast Avionics President Rick Garcia proposed the idea for Central Florida Aerospace Academy to the Polk County School System back in 2008. As a former student of George T. Baker Aviation School in Miami, Garcia personally knew how inspiring such high school programs can be to young teens. By volunteering the use of Gulf Coast facilities at LAL for classroom space, Garcia helped convince the school system to launch the academy within a year of making the proposal. With an initial enrollment of 50 students and excitement spreading about the curriculum, the program quickly outgrew its original home. In late March 2011, the academy moved into a new 58,000-square-foot, three-story facility that was built on the southwest side of the airport with a $7.5 million grant from the James C. Ray Foundation. The larger facilities expand the school's capacity to 500 students.
In a generous show of support, Sun 'n Fun leases a portion of its property to Central Florida Aerospace Academy under highly unusual terms: Fully 90% of the school's $400,000/year lease payments is deposited directly into a special non-profit account used to subsidize student flight fees. The additional 10% is used by Sun 'n Fun for general operations. Fully 75% of every student's flight fees is paid for with money from the lease payment fund, explains Sun 'n Fun CEO John Leenhouts. Students demonstrating financial need can apply for additional aid to cover the remaining 25%.
We Have Liftoff
With the academy recently graduating the first class of students who had completed its full four-year cycle, school system officials express confidence in the school's niche. "We know that many areas in the aviation workforce will be retiring over the next several years," explains John Small, senior director of Workforce Education for the Polk County School System. "Central Florida Aerospace Academy not only offers academics, but hands-on training and assists in giving our area airport businesses highly trained workers."
The U.S. Census Bureau categorizes aerospace and transportation as "high-growth sectors" in need of highly skilled employees to replace workers nearing retirement. According to its 2008 Taskforce on the Aging of the American Workforce Report, 55% of aerospace workers are 45 and older, and 46% of transportation workers are of similar age. For some, the shrinking workforce in such sectors is a matter of national security.
Although still in its infancy, the academy is already posting impressive results, including a 100% graduation rate (vs. a national average of about 75%). It's also helping the airport by attracting new tenants, including Civil Air Patrol, which officially opened a Composite Squadron at the academy last April.
"I believe that having the academy at the airport, integrated with the businesses, positions our airport positively for recruiting new businesses and industry, helping promote economic development," says Small. "This model involves the whole airport community strategically planning to meet current and future workforce needs, while providing high level academics for our students."
The development of the program is reminiscent of the airport's evolution during World War II, when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers constructed training buildings and expanded LAL's runways on behalf of the War Department. Today, however, the airport is expanding more than its physical structures; it's expanding young minds and readying them for the next generation of aerospace and aviation careers.