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.

The same is true for ACE’s education director, Kimberly Brewer, who is a product of what these aerospace programs can achieve. ACE originated as a managerial effort for the SUN ‘n FUN Expo, which is an annual fly-in event that started in 1974, before evolving to its current parent company position. Throughout middle school and high school, Brewer was a regular attendee of SUN ‘n FUN’s educational programs, and later served as a volunteer. More than 10 years since starting her relationship with the organization, Brewer left her job as a teacher to head back to the SUN ‘n FUN campus and join the ACE team full time.

As Young explained, Brewer’s story shows the impact programs like ACE may have by capitalizing on an interest in aviation at a young age.

A great recent example is a new partnership with Able Flight, through which ACE is making the benefits of flight attainable for those who wouldn’t normally have the chance. Launched in March 2019, the joint program empowers disabled fliers to become licensed pilots by providing access to customized aircraft that meet their physical needs; training from experienced, licensed pilots; and, housing throughout the duration of their training. According to Young, the program is one of only a few worldwide.

“I’ve met a number of the Able Flight graduates. When they are in that airplane, they are not a paraplegic or a quadriplegic – they are a pilot.”

Reflecting on the impact of ACE, Young also shared the story of an 11th grade high school student, Stephen, who was struggling in his classes. Despite poor grades, Stephen was still admitted to the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a Polk County public school. As Young described, the program renewed Stephen’s sense of purpose and enthusiasm for education so much that his improved-grade point average enabled him to earn an ACE flight scholarship. Stephen is now preparing to graduate in May along with a private pilot certificate. Since 2014, ACE has given $2.1 million in scholarships to students enabling them to pursue aviation-related licenses and certificates as well as aerospace studies in college.

“Stephen had given up and the program was just so important to him that it turned his entire life around,” Young reflected.

Ten years ago, Young would have never imagined leaving his hometown for Florida, but stories like these solidify that it is a decision he will never regret. Through ACE, thousands of students are soaring to new heights here, in the Corridor.

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