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  • Austin Tharp

Aerospace Center for Excellence

The man, the myth, the Eric Crump. Who is he? What is going on at the Aerospace Center for Excellence in Lakeland? Are there aliens hidden away at the Lakeland Airport? Eric Crump, the Director of the Aerospace Center for Excellence in Lakeland, gave us an exclusive tour and behind-the-scenes look at what’s going on there. I left inspired, and after you read this, I hope you are encouraged to venture out there as well.


A licensed pilot with years in the aviation field and previous director of the Polk State College aviation program, I’d say Eric Crump is the right person for the job. “Kids and inspiration, it’s why I do this. I used to be that kid,” Crump said. Eric is fueled by the inspiration he creates for anyone who walks through that door. His goal is not only to provide a fun learning experience for kids but to leave them motivated and continue learning about the aviation field. “If they leave motivated, I think we’ve done our mission,” he said.


The Aerospace Center for Excellence, also referred to as ACE, is remarkable — a campus filled with world-class facilities sought by students and people worldwide. The ACE Campus includes the Florida Air Museum, the Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA) High School, Elevate Aerospace & Logistics Incubator, The Lakeland Aero Club – a high school flying club, the Ramus Skylab Innovation Center, and even a full-size Boeing 727 classroom. These are just some of the many facilities they house on their vast campus. 



“We live our mission,” said Crump. ‘Engage, educate, and accelerate the next generation of aerospace professionals’ are the words that every staff member lives by on the ACE campus, and it’s why they exist. The center has tons of programs that educate and inspire new pilots. Weekly free storytime readings, summer camps, and multiple scholarships are just some of the things they have to offer new pilots. They’ve had 159 people attend the scholarship program and receive their private pilot’s certificate.


RAMUS SKYLAB LABORATORY


One of the many unique things housed in the Ramus Skylab Innovation Center is the Redbird Flight Simulation Lab, where people have the opportunity to fly a simulation plane. With this simulation plane, students have a chance to learn how to make an airplane take off and land. They are even introduced to four fundamentals through the simulation: straight-and-level, flight turns, climbs, and descents. From personal experience, don’t attempt a barrel roll on your first simulation run. It will end badly.


The Drone Lab is another part of the Ramus Skylab, where students can learn basic aviation terminology and practice simple controls using a mock flight simulator. Other drone opportunities include drone search, where students are taught how drones can be helpful in disaster situations by practicing aerial photography and conducting a simulated disaster relief mission.


My favorite part in the Ramus Skylab was the NOAA Science on a Sphere Lab which I was told there are not many of these in the world. Such a powerful sphere, in an instant, it can show galaxies, planets, weather patterns, the sun, and more. Such a powerful tool to teach how hurricanes are formed and how climate change impacts severe weather formation and the planet.



SUN ‘N FUN


While this is all going on 51 weeks out of the year, there is one week you may have heard about it’s the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo. If you plan on going for the first time, you’re in for a loud treat. It’s one of the biggest aviation fly-ins in the world that welcomes over 200,000 people annually. It’s also the biggest fundraiser for the Aerospace Center for Excellence and its programs.  


“That one week of the year helps fund what we do 51 weeks of the year, which is our mission,” said Crump. The Aerospace Expo runs from March 28 through April 2 this year, and you don’t want to miss the excitement. The week-long event contains hot air balloons, Warbirds, fireworks, vintage aircraft, and a 5K race where the proceeds benefit the Lakeland AeroClub (a high school flying club that teaches high school and college-age students how to build, restore and fly airplanes, as well as the Women in Aviation, Heart of Florida Chapter). Catch the United States Navy Blue Angels performing stunts and demonstrating amazing teamwork in the air. The Expo is packed with talent and loud entertainment.


THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT


Does the ACE campus have any UFO aircraft stored away in one of their secret warehouses? Of course, I had to ask. “That’s classified,” said Crump as he laughed. What I did find out is that new events and projects are on their way to the ACE campus. A new speaker series will be introduced, inviting people like NOAA hurricane hunters, so kids can learn and ask questions about what it’s like to fly through a hurricane. Wings and Waffles, a Saturday program, is geared toward the adult audience in which you can listen to various people and hear about their impact on the aviation industry. 


The future for the ACE campus is bright, and the leadership there is just a part of the reason. The volunteers, staff, and mission all come together to help keep the operation going in the right direction. “Our goal here is to increase opportunities in aviation for everybody,” Crump said. They want to share this campus with everyone and introduce students and kids to a new career they have yet to learn about or maybe even a new hobby. Inspiring and creating possibilities is what the Aerospace Center for Excellence is all about, and I hope you go check them out.


Photography by Nate Schaller

 

Aerospace Center for Excellence

4075 James C. Ray Dr., Lakeland

FB @AerospaceCenterForExcellence

IG @aerospacecenterforexcellence

 

SUN ‘n FUN

FB @FlySNF

IG @flysnf

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