Flying Higher to Help Kids Soar

Written by Jordan Randall

Since 1974, SUN ‘n FUN has grown into one of the largest and most recognizable aviation events in the world. As the event approaches its 50th year, new President/CEO Gene Conrad is preparing to take it to even greater heights.

Each year, more than 200,000 visitors from around the world flock to central Florida to celebrate the world of aviation through the events of SUN ‘n FUN. You would be hard pressed to find someone more qualified than Conrad to take on the task of carrying this event toward its 50th year.

Conrad was born in and grew up in Oshkosh, Wisc., where his dad ran the airport, and he has volunteered at the EAA AirVenture fly-in convention for 34 years. Before becoming President/CEO of The Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) and SUN ‘n FUN earlier this year, he was the Director of Lakeland Linder International Airport for more than a decade.

“I’ve been around airports and air shows my entire life,” says Conrad. “That’s how I grew up. It’s part of my background, you know? And so I made the transition back in March and here we are now just six months later having really hit the ground running.”

Conrad is just six months out from overseeing his first expo, and the following year, in 2024, the air show will turn a whopping 50 years old. SUN ‘n FUN has curated a massive following over the course of that time and continues to deliver on a yearly basis, a feat Conrad credits directly to the people who freely give their time and effort, year after year.

“Sun ‘n Fun has always been great,” Conrad says. “Anything that we ever did when I was director of the airport, our first thought was, ‘How does this impact SUN ‘n FUN?’ because it’s a very important event. What has made it special is the people. So this event is really all about them and what they’ve accomplished over the last 50 years.”

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The event involves nearly 2,500 volunteers, some of whom have volunteered at the event for 40+ years.

Most people know SUN ‘n FUN is an aviation event, but did you know the event serves as the annual fundraiser for The Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE)? A general admission ticket to SUN ‘n FUN will run you $45. With that ticket, you’ll get to see incredible airplanes on display as well as exhilarating airshows and flying exhibitions, along with various seminars and workshops. Have you ever wanted to feel closer to the world of Top Gun? SUN ‘n FUN surrounds you with aviation exhibits and fellow aviation lovers, ensuring you an energized and invigorating experience. 

But when the event has come and gone, what difference has your attendance made, aside from some cool memories and photos on your phone? Once the costs of putting on the event are paid for, the proceeds go directly toward operating ACE’s youth educational programs. 

ACE has awarded 150 private pilot certificates to kids that have finished their program, and just this past spring they handed out $80,000 in scholarships for the kids at Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFA) to go to college. This summer, ACE put on three summer camps to help get young people involved in aviation. Next summer, they’re preparing to put on 18 summer camps. 

And it doesn’t stop there. CFA: Lakeland has more than 400 students this year, and Polk County schools are gearing up to cut the ribbon for CFA: Winter Haven, which plans to have 150 to 200 students in its program.

“Our goal is to make sure that kids in our community at all levels, including the kids that are underrepresented, know what’s available to them for a career,” says Conrad. “You may not want to be a pilot, but we need mechanics, we need airport managers, we need air traffic controllers and aircraft technicians. We just need people in the industry. We want to make sure that everyone knows that these opportunities are available to them.”


One of the more recent ways ACE is helping provide opportunities to the local community is through Elevate: Aerospace and Logistics Incubator. Having opened its doors in June 2022, Elevate exists to assist the community in developing their business concepts into fully functioning business ventures. At ACE, their mission has always been to engage, educate, and accelerate the next generation of aerospace professionals. By offering office space, mentorship opportunities, and multiple collaboration spaces to its members, Elevate enables ACE to deliver on the “accelerate” part of their mission. 

Every room in Elevate is meant to facilitate ideation. In fact, that’s why many of the walls are painted with dry-erase paint.

“At Elevate, we actually encourage people to write on the walls,” says Conrad. “We are excited about the positive impact Elevate can make in advancing innovative technologies and opportunities in the aerospace and logistics business sectors.”

Learn more about the SUN ‘n FUN Expo, as well as the future of aviation opportunities in Lakeland and Polk County at