Aerospace Center for Excellence

A hub for aviation education and inspiration.


It’s no secret that Central Florida is growing and expanding in multiple directions. One of those directions, for a long time now, is the love for aviation. The Aerospace Center for Excellence, also known as ACE, is a nonprofit organization that lives by its mission to engage, educate and accelerate the next generation of aerospace professionals.

Located in Lakeland, Florida, the ACE campus is filled with world-class facilities sought by students and aerospace enthusiasts from all over the world. The campus includes the Florida Air Museum, Central Florida Aerospace Academy High School, the 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 that’s been converted into a classroom. These are just some of the many facilities located on the huge campus.

An important part of the Skylab Innovation Center is the Redbird Flight Simulation Laboratory. Equipped with 22 Jay Velocity simulators from Redbird, the lab allows students to gain hands-on experience performing straight-and-level flight, turns, climbs and descents. They can even learn takeoffs and landings. From personal experience, don’t attempt a barrel roll on your first simulation run—it will end badly.

My favorite part of the Ramus Skylab was the NOAA “Science on a Sphere” system. In an instant, this 6-foot-diameter global display can show galaxies, planets, weather patterns, the sun and more! This powerful tool is used to teach students how hurricanes develop and shows how climate change is impacting severe weather formation and the planet.

Yes, it’s a Boeing 727, but it now serves as a state-of-the-art classroom on the ACE campus.

ACE does a great job of attracting people of all ages to Central Florida. Weekly free story-time readings, summer camps, field trips to the Aerospace Center and generous scholarship opportunities are just some of the things they offer to inspire new pilots. So far, 159 people have participated in the scholarship program and received their private pilot certificate. ACE is truly here to help young people interested in aviation.

I interviewed several ACE employees, including Liz Jilbert, the museum technology specialist. She is also a James C. Ray scholarship candidate who attended Central Florida Aerospace Academy, the high school that’s located on the ACE campus. I gained insight into how someone who attended the program’s flight school eventually ended up working for the people who granted the scholarship that helped her become a pilot.

I asked Liz what it’s like to be part of the ACE program and how it has affected her life. She responded, “I was afraid of flying, but a lot of people here helped me get over that. ACE changed my life for the better and I think that’s what we represent. There is going to be a strong need for pilots, and ACE is helping to meet that need. Even if it’s not aviation related, we’re here to offer possibilities to future generations.”

Liz is tasked with helping out at events and engaging young people. One way she does this is by making presentations using the ACE portable planetarium. It’s a blow-up dome that is easily transported via trailer to school events, home schools and churches. According to Liz, it’s a great way to inspire kids who might not have a chance to visit the ACE campus. The planetarium helps them learn about the Milky Way galaxy, the solar system and the planets by projecting them onto the portable dome.

Another learning program I thought was cool is “Cookies ’n Convos.” Each month a new speaker talks briefly about what they do in aviation/aerospace and why they love it. The speaker then leads a Q&A session so that young people and their parents can learn more about each career field. The content is geared for school-aged kids, but the whole family is welcome to attend and participate in hands-on activities.

ACE also offers programs for adults. One monthly event is called “Wings ’n Waffles,” which is aimed toward people who want to get inspired or learn more about the aviation industry. Speakers include aviation professionals, veterans, pilots and more. Members of the Florida Air Museum receive free admission and enjoy breakfast (chicken and waffles, thus the event name). For nonmembers there is a small fee, but it also grants you access to the Air Museum for the day.

The Florida Air Museum is located on the ACE campus.

Advocates for Aviation Education

Every great organization has great leadership, and one of the most passionate advocates for aviation education is ACE Executive Director Eric Crump. He’s one of the many people at ACE who share a love for aviation and inspiring young people. Eric has over 20 years of experience in aviation. As a flight instructor and founder and director of Polk State College’s aerospace program, he strongly believes in the power of education to change lives. He feels that everyone has the potential to achieve their dreams, and he is committed to providing students with the resources they need to succeed.

Under Eric’s leadership, ACE has become a leading provider of aviation education. But he hasn’t done it alone. With support from Gene Conrad, CEO of Sun ’n Fun and ACE, the entire staff excels in their ability to inspire students. “If they leave motivated, I think we’ve done our mission,” said Eric.

What About Sun ’n Fun?

One can hardly talk about about ACE without mentioning Sun ’n Fun. Besides being a major fly-in and expo that many Experimental aircraft builders have experienced firsthand, it is also one of the largest aviation events in the world. My first year attending was 2023, and I couldn’t stop looking at the sky. I was in total awe! I saw plenty of amazing aircraft and witnessed some outstanding flying. At the end of this perfect day I saw the Blue Angels do what they do best—perform insane maneuvers while captivating the entire audience.

I asked Eric for his take on Sun ’n Fun 2023 and the activity he saw at the Aerospace exhibit. He noted they had over 15,000 youth admissions at the ACE campus. In 2022 they had about 9500, so I’d say that is a very impressive increase.

What about this year? Well, 2024 will  be Sun ’n Fun’s 50th anniversary, so it’s sure to be quite a show. I asked Eric for the inside scoop and of course he said, “I guess you will have to come and see.” If you’ll be attending Sun ’n Fun (to be held April 9–14) and would like a glimpse of the future of aviation, be sure to visit ACE.

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Austin Tharp
Austin Tharp is vice president of Aventail Wealth Management. When he is not helping his clients, he is busy getting involved with his local community by volunteering and helping nonprofits. He is passionate about writing and taking on any new adventure life throws at him.


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