Sun n Fun Highlights Flight Training Trends

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Sun ‘n Fun has come and gone once again, leaving me a little sunburned, a bit tired and quite content after a week spent surrounded by airplanes and the folks who hang around them. This was my third year dropping by Lakeland and it’s becoming clear that the more things change at these big airshows, the more they stay the same—for the most part, anyway.

For anyone who hasn’t been to a show like Sun ‘n Fun, it’s generally big news when a longtime vendor moves spots on the show grounds. Ask for directions to a company’s booth and you’ll get responses like “Them? They’re in Bose’s old spot. You know, right by Sporty’s.” Three years in and I’m beginning to get a handle on where everybody used to be. By 2020, maybe I’ll even have where they are now sorted out.

This year started out much like the last two. As is Sun ‘n Fun tradition, I got thoroughly rained on as I was dashing to my first video shoot, raincoat sacrificed to protect the camera bag. (Next year, for sure, I’ll remember that the umbrella doesn’t get discarded the moment the suitcase starts to get full.) That shoot was the first lead on what was different about this year’s event. Talking with Sun ‘n Fun president Lites Leenhouts before things officially got underway, he framed the event as being a fundraiser for something much larger—a movement aimed at mentoring and training the next generation of aviators.

Beginning five years ago, the Sun ‘n Fun organization shifted its focus from the weeklong fly-in and expo to becoming an educational institution with an eye on the future of the aerospace industry. They’re now teaching STEM to thousands of students—starting at the elementary school level—each year in the region between Tampa and Orlando. In addition to using aviation as a vehicle for lessons in science, technology, engineering, math and even art, Sun ‘n Fun is training local teachers to do the same.

The Aerospace Center For Excellence, which handles the scholarship aspect of Sun ‘n Fun, is handing out about $450,000 a year in flight training scholarships for young people at this point. Numbers-wise, Lites said they’re typically giving two or three students a month $12,000 to learn to fly. Some 91 students have gotten their private pilot certificate so far through the program and another 50 are currently in training. So that’s not nothing.

The focus on training continued to crop up this week, and I don’t just mean Piper’s new Pilot 100 trainer or their next giant Archer/Seminole fleet sale. Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were talking about how to provide more effective training, how to make it efficient and bring cost down, and, perhaps most interestingly, how to develop the kinds of communities that are capable of welcoming and supporting young pilots. The discussion ranged from aircraft and scholarships to flight gear and teaching methods.

EAA’s Ray Aviation Scholarship is an interesting example. It launched in February, in part, I’m told, as a follow-on and bridge for programs like Young Eagles. The scholarships are administered through EAA’s chapter network, with individual chapters first having to qualify and then nominating students. Scholarship recipients are also required to do two hours a month of volunteer work with their local chapter. As I understand it, the hope is that working with the chapters this way will give students a closer connection to the aviation community in addition to providing local mentorship and support. A few scholarships have already been given out and about 240 chapters have applied for nomination rights. EAA is expecting to distribute about 90 $10,000 scholarships over the first year.

Circling back around to Piper’s show announcements, I find their latest move to be an interesting concurrent indicator of the training expansion trend. Big flight schools are substantially growing their fleets and I doubt Piper will be the last manufacturer to start once again testing the waters to see if there’s a market for a slightly cheaper trainer for the smaller schools. I know “cheap” is something of a joke at this point, but still, the Pilot 100 does knock about $130,000 off of the Archer’s 2019 list price.

Looking back, the seeds of most of these programs have been around for a while. The difference I saw at Sun ‘n Fun this year was one of attitude. In the past, discussions of training generally dead-ended into the expense and poor retention rates for new flight students. This year, not only were folks hopeful that they were seeing an upsurge in the number of young people learning to fly, they’re also starting to have the numbers to prove that some of these initiatives are working.

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