Aviation Careers Taking Flight in Lakeland’s Skies

By Adam Spafford
Photography provided by SUN ‘n FUN


hat could be more fun than cheating gravity?” asks Eric Crump, revealing an inexhaustible enthusiasm for aviation. Crump is VP/COO of the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE)–located at the Lakeland Linder International Airport–whose campus boasts an amalgam of all things aerospace: the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, flight simulators, aircraft restoration, and maintenance training facilities, as well as a museum, a hangar, a fully functional 727, and more. It all exists to spark that same enthusiasm in young people and provide the instruction and opportunities needed to bring about a lifetime of flying, whether personal or professional.

“A lot of people think we are SUN ‘n FUN–,” says Crump, “that once a year for a week we get really loud when lots of planes arrive.” Even Lakelanders who don’t attend the annual Aerospace Expo each spring know what’s happening when a monstrous aircraft briefly casts a shadow over their homes or a jet creates something of a thunderclap–but that’s often as far as it goes. “But,” Crump continues, “what many people don’t know is that it’s one giant fundraiser which empowers everything ACE does the other 51 weeks a year, making the door to aviation as wide and as welcoming as possible through mentorship, education, and scholarships.”

Those things, particularly the scholarships–open to anyone who lives or goes to school in Polk County, be it public or home school–are critical for aspiring pilots because the costs of training are sky-high. As alumnus Layton Bracey explains, “Becoming a pilot can cost upward of $100,000 so it scares a lot of people away.” Without ACE’s flagship James C. Ray scholarship, he likely would not have been able to have what is already a remarkable career at just age 24.

“I got the bug for flying at age 11 when my uncle, a private pilot, took me to SUN ‘n FUN.” – Pilot Layton Bracey

“I got the bug for flying at age 11 when my uncle, a private pilot, took me to SUN ’n FUN,” says Bracey. “At 14, I received the James C. Ray scholarship. I joined the Lakeland Aero Club at ACE and gained a lot of experience building, restoring, and flying aircraft. I’d show up after school and help rebuild an engine or change a plane’s tire. I also attended ACE’s summer camps…until I was old enough to get my private pilot’s license just after my 17th birthday.”

Since then, Layton has been an instructor, a seaplane pilot, and is currently a first officer for Frontier Airlines. Along the way he even had a stint flying a Cessna 207 in Alaska, bringing groceries, birthday cakes, and pizza to remote villages. He jokes that there’s no such thing as “30 minutes or it’s free” guarantees there.

“We really believe aviation is for everyone,” Crump says, “and ACE exists because a lot of people think they can’t do it.”

Indeed, there’s a shortage of professionals throughout the industry, whether it be for financial or temporal reasons.

“I mowed a lot of grass and washed a lot of cars to log 100 hours of flying time,” recalls Crump of his teenage pursuit of higher altitudes.

Bracey, for his part, laughs as he recalls he was known as the lame friend throughout middle and high school because he spent so much time studying. But for those who get the bug, the effort to become part of the tight-knit enthusiasts is well worth it.

“I love the aviation community,” says Cathy Dal Colletto, Digital Marketing Coordinator for ACE and SUN ‘n FUN, who was also a James C. Ray scholarship recipient and ACE alumna. Dal Colletto, whose training through ACE has afforded her opportunities in several aviation roles, returned to the organization in a most interesting way. “I started the @classcairspace TikTok during the COVID shutdown at Winter Haven airport to talk about my Airport Operations job. Eventually, ACE thought it would be cool to bring me on since I could now combine social media experience with my aviation training.”

Dal Colletto, who also serves as President of the local Women in Aviation chapter (www.lakelandwai.com), now uses social media to showcase all the inspirational and educational opportunities ACE has available for all ages. “I want people to see everything ACE has to offer: the Redbird Flight Simulation Laboratory, the annual Wings ‘n Things event, STEM programs, summer camps, the museum, a free story time for children, Classroom to the Sky event for teachers, after school enrichment programs, and even camping. No matter your age, ACE has an aerospace program for you. We often use the phrase ‘from carseat to cockpit’ because aviation is for everyone.”

Crump, who spent a decade building Polk State College’s aerospace program, explains it is ACE’s industry partnerships which keep the organization on the leading edge of the skills young people need to excel in aviation.

“We are fortunate to have several partners who believe in what we do and offer assistance. Polk State College, the two Central Florida aerospace programs, and Traviss Technical College all share a common advisory board on which ACE is an executive committee member. This results in excellent connections all over the industry, people who can tell us what they are seeing, what they’ve identified as skills employees need when they begin in aviation–then we can focus on the things the industry tells us are critical. For instance, to have the chief standards pilot of a major airline guide us to teach the most needed skills is invaluable.”

“Most of the time, kids just need someone to tell them they can,” says Crump, who describes his own preadolescence as wayward with a deep aversion to school–a vector that was drastically changed by aviation. “I was very fortunate to find people who wanted to mentor a kid who loved airplanes. Now, I love seeing kids’ eyes light up when they see how cool airplanes are, too.”

And ACE alums often give back hundreds of volunteer hours to the organization that made their aviation dreams possible. “We’re not just adding great pilots to aviation,” Crump says, “but we’re adding good people to the workforce.”

After all, aviation is for everyone.