Nestled between springs and cow pastures in the heart of the Florida High Tech Corridor, lies a nationally recognized nonprofit that is changing the way Floridians study and celebrate aerospace and aviation.
As the global demand for pilots soars, Lakeland’s Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE), based at the Lakeland Linder International Airport, is on a mission to educate and encourage the next generation of aerospace professionals.
When ACE shifted its focus to expand opportunities for students to receive education and exposure to the aerospace industry, it turned to aviation educator, Ed Young, who in 2018 packed his bags and left Kansas – a globally recognized hub for aviation industry – to become ACE’s executive director.
“I still can’t believe I’ve left Kansas,” Young said. “What really led me here was the commitment by ACE to actually make a difference and anticipate industry needs.”
Today, ACE is a world leader in producing licensed teenage private pilots and its staff of 25 delivers programming to more than 50,000 students annually, from summer camps to mentorship sessions with aerospace professionals to classes conducted in a fully functioning, retrofitted Boeing 727.
The success of ACE’s partnerships and programs since its formation in 2014 has generated such great demand among students and families that the nonprofit broke ground on a new expansion facility in January 2020. Scheduled to open in 2021, Project Skylab is a $4.6 million, 22,000-square-foot facility offering additional room to grow its existing educational programs and to provide STEM laboratory training environments, from which Young and the team at ACE hope to combat anticipated shortages in aerospace talent.
As ACE’s footprint continues growing, so does its economic impact as a key producer of aerospace talent. The students who receive training at ACE become pilots, engineers and other industry professionals who are essential not only for growing Florida’s high tech industry, but also for sustaining Florida’s tourism industry, marked by the 98 million visitors who traveled through major airports in Tampa and Orlando last year alone.
Young points to cost of living, available workforce and a culture of professional development and volunteerism as the ingredients for ACE’s success in Lakeland, where mechanics have been known to volunteer thousands of hours of their time to impart knowledge upon younger generations.
This community support isn’t driven just by the organization’s recent boom, however, but by its ability to impact students in a way that is truly life-changing.
“I used to play baseball across the street from [an airport] and every time one of those planes would take off and fly over the top I was thinking, ‘I wonder where that person is going and I wish I could go with them,’” Young reminisced.
Through ACE’s various initiatives, Young is determined to inspire the same love of aerospace in others that he experienced as a child who desperately wanted to learn how to fly.