LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) — For many pilots, the moment that sparked their passion for flying happened at an air show.
“I got the bug, little kid going to an air show,” said Mike Zidziunas, president of the Lakeland Aero Club, which he calls the world’s largest high school flying club.
This week, hundreds of thousands of aviation enthusiasts, including many children, are attending the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland.
It’s one of the nation’s largest aerospace expos. Children 10 years of age and younger can get free admission this year.
“We didn’t have any of this where I grew up in California,” said Jaiden Liam Clements, who now lives in Ocala.
Clements is involved in the Air Force Junior ROTC and has goals of becoming a pilot in the Air Force.
He has already completed a few discovery flights.
“Knowing that a job’s in demand, absolutely. That it’s not going to be hard once I get my pilot’s license to go down that path, yea it’s very inspirational,” said Clements.
The aviation industry is in need of pilots, mechanics, dispatchers and air traffic controllers, experts say.
“The numbers are staggering, how many people we need and the industry is struggling to keep up. Really, we’ve recognized that the only way that we can expand the pilot, mechanic, controller, flight attendant, everything in aviation is to start earlier,” said Zidziunas.
Steven Tellmann, 17, started flying gliders when he was 13 years old.
He now has 270 flying hours on both gliders and planes with engines.
His father is an airline pilot, so Tellmann said he knows firsthand about the need for pilots.
“There’s a big shortage. I know a lot of the larger companies like United and I think American are doing it. They’re starting the academy. So they’re trying to take college students and pump them through to get all their ratings to get them back in the airlines,” he said.
Polk State College’s Blake Golden served in the Army and fell in love with aviation while watching planes in the sky while serving.
“I’d like to be an airline pilot, fly for FedEx or UPS or something like that,” said Golden.
On Tuesday, he was helping children and young adults use the Redbird flight simulator.
Children can participate in the Junior Aces program at this year’s Sun ‘n Fun. They collect stickers in a passport after completing ands-on activities.
“For the young kids as well, getting to see them come through and get on the flight sims and a lot of them are doing better than I did when I first started flying planes,” he said.
Jensen Dix, a member of the Lakeland Aero Club, 17, says she stands out as a female aspiring pilot, which she does not mind.
While she wants to be a pilot, she is also working on her airframe and power plant license to become a mechanic.
“We still always need mechanics. We always need pilots. Ther’es always gonna be someone that we need in the aerospace community,” said Dix.
To learn more about the Lakeland Aero Club, visit https://www.lakelandaeroclub.org/.
Sun ‘n Fun runs from Tuesday, March 28 to Sunday, April 2.
For more information on tickets and events, visit flysnf.org.