I had no idea…

October 17th, 2013 by Jamie Beckett

I’ve been hearing that rejoinder a lot lately. When I speak to groups or individuals about how aviation impacts high school students, providing direction, a sense of responsibility, a requirement for lifelong learning, and mentoring from the sort of impressive men and women who spend time at that airport, I often hear in response, “I had no idea.”

In September Polk State College, which operates two campuses here in central Florida, was approved to provide a four year degree in Aerospace Science. That opens the door to a Bachelor Degree program in pilot science for the students who are currently enrolled to earn an Associates Degree in that field. Similarly, students who were pursuing an A.S. in aerospace administration can also go on to earn their B.S. at Polk State, too. All at a fraction of the cost of a private instituion. That news also elicits a lot of, “I had no idea,” responses.

Here in my neck of the woods a high school student with a GPA of 2.75 or better is eligible for the James C. Ray Scholarship which can pay up to seventy-five percent of the cost of training for a sport or private pilot certificate. For those who cannot fill the twenty-five percent gap, there is a supplemental scholarship available through Sun ‘n Fun (the host organization for the second largest annual aviation event in the nation) that will trade sweat equity for the remainder of the cost. That means a high school student who has an itch to fly can earn a pilot certificate in this county for very low cost, or at no cost to them at all. To which people, including high school teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators often say, “I had no idea.”

Add to that news the Airframe and Powerplant courses offered at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy. This is a high school located on the grounds of the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport where students can begin their education and training to earn Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic certificates. As a magnet high school that falls under the purview of the Polk County public school system, the cost for that education and training is borne by the taxpayers in the community, not the students. This results in a program of study that leads to certification and employment in a high wage field – at little to no cost to the student. And again I hear from those who will listen, “I had no idea.”

Oh yes, and that high school has a graduation rate of one-hundred percent! You already know what people say when they hear that news. I won’t bore you with the phrase again.

These opportunities are not available to high school and college students in Polk County, Florida because there is something in the water or in the air that makes my neck of the woods appreciably different than yours, or any one else’s. These opportunities exist because of the dedicated efforts of people with vision, and drive, and a sincere belief that aviation can elevate our educational system and our economy. And they’re right. It can.

By taking a collaborative approach to doing business and sharing resources, the communities, businesses, and individuals in my county have begun to do something remarkable. We’re growing the pilot population, developing an aviation-centric culture that inspires students young and old to strive for success and achieve it, and tying our educational system to our economy in ways that will provide real growth and opportunity for generations to come.

We have banded together willingly to provide the mentoring necessary to reach these ambitious goals. We find the funding. We develop the programs. And perhaps most important of all, we work together to provide talent, resources, facilities, marketing, and sincere cooperation between our partners to do something that has never been done before. We’re creating the most aviation friendly destination in North America – and we’re just getting started.

So who is, “we?” We are the Polk Aviation Alliance, and we’re more than happy to share the blueprint for how we’re doing what we’re doing, so you can do it too.


Bluer skies are ahead. Believe it.

Jamie Beckett

Jamie Beckett is a passionate promoter of all things aviation who focuses his attention on the positive more often than not. He is the former president of the Polk Aviation Alliance in central Florida. He is committed to working to build a growing pilot population as well as a greater appreciation for general aviation nationwide.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

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