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Lifting Wings and Dreams in Lakeland, FL

By David Boegaard

Few things are more wonderful than mankind's newfound ability to fly. As aircraft have become increasingly complex, however, people have become increasingly alienated from flying. Certainly, we ride more than ever as passengers in commercial airliners. But few people consider becoming a pilot, aircraft mechanic or engineer. SUN 'n FUN, located in Lakeland, FL, set out to bring the experience of flying to the people, and they have had tremendous success.

SUN 'n FUN was founded in 1974 by the Lakeland chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a group of aircraft enthusiasts who actually built their own airplanes. The organization wanted to create a "fly-in" where enthusiasts from across the country could fly down and spend time with other enthusiasts, while presenting a vivid spectacle for the public.

In the 40 years since they started, SUN 'n FUN has gained non-profit status, and dropped its association with the Experimental Aircraft Association. Rather than a meeting of enthusiasts, the the organization now seeks to educate people about aviation. Today, "SUN 'n FUN's mission is to preserve and enhance the future of flight through world-class events, inspiring and educating people of all ages," says Robin Mcfarland, SUN 'n FUN's Volunteer Director.

While they still have a giant fly-in and expo each year, today "the focus on the grounds is aviation-based STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs, activities and maintenance on the facilities in which they are housed," notes Mcfarland.

SUN 'n FUN has been doing great work educating the public for many years now, but their educational mission is more important than ever. Mcfarland cites numerous studies by the aerospace industry that have shown a "projected shortage of pilots, mechanics, administrators, designers, engineers and other careers that affects the entire world." That's a big problem. Few people recognize the extent to which airplanes impact their lives, beyond just moving people across the country quickly. "Everyone needs aviation in their life," emphasizes Bridges, "emergency responders, medical transport, military, commercial and cargo aviation, mail, etc" are all dependent on aviation.

In order to support that educational mission, SUN 'n FUN has become a broad organization. They still host the annual fly-in and expo, of course. But they also created an aviation museum called the Aerospace Center for Excellence, and have partnered with Polk State College to support a B.S. in Aerospace Sciences, and Associates degrees in Professional Pilot Science and Aerospace Administration. And for aerospace lovers who want a deeper experience, SUN 'n FUN offers summer camps and aviation clubs. Mcfarland proudly notes the power these programs have had on local youths. "In the last 36 months, 38 high school pilots have been certificated."

The most exciting part of their educational experience is still the annual SUN 'n FUN Fly-in and Expo. This event is lasts a full week, in March or April of each year. It is so popular, says Mcfarland, that the Lakeland Regional Airport "becomes the busiest in the world for one week, more than 200,000 guests, volunteers, vendors, exhibitors, airshow performers and sponsors will be on the grounds from 80 different countries."

The event is so popular that it has become "Florida's largest annual convention," says Mcfarland, and is known among pilots as "Spring Break for Pilots." The 2015 SUN 'n FUN Fly-in and Expo had two groups of fighter jet performers, more than 500 commercial aircraft participants, a BBQ cook-off, fireworks, and great fun all around. All proceeds are used to support SUN 'n FUN's many educational efforts.

As exciting as the Expo might be, the summer camps might be even better. Each year, SUN 'n FUN puts together "summer camps for 7-18 year olds where 11-18 year old students fly a plane on the 4th day of camp." That's right, kids 11 and up get to fly the plane themselves!

It takes a lot of people a lot of time to make all these things happen. Luckily, SUN 'n FUN And has a lot of help! "With only 20 full-time staff, 4,000 volunteers work year round in many capacities to support special events," says Mcfarland, proudly. The volunteers are more than just helpers, though. Volunteering is a great way to learn the power of the aviation community. "There are very few places in the world where volunteers will acknowledge their co-workers as an extended family."

And SUN 'n FUN needs every kind of volunteer they can find. "All skill sets are needed," says Mcfarland. "If aviation is a passion it is a natural. If education is a passion, the door is wide open." But they also love volunteer business administrators and engineers, and everything else. "Pilots volunteer to fly youth year round. Landscapers keep the grounds in great shape. Construction skills from plumbing to drywall and everything in-between like electricians and painters are needed." And volunteering is not just a great way to learn and help out, it's also a great way to take part in the aviation community, suggests Mcfarland. "Several times a year there are volunteer recognition events that are unique and fun."

So if you love aviation, or just have kids who like cool things, check out SUN 'n FUN in Lakeland, FL. Whether you visit the Aerospace Center for Excellence, attend their world-class Expo, or send your kids to their mind-blowing summer-camp, you won't be disappointed. SUN 'n FUN offers incredible experiences and an unbeatable community.

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