Sometimes, brilliant ideas that change our aviation world come from places you least expect them. You might be walking out of a meeting when someone else plants the seed for you with a small comment, one that gets embedded into your subconscious and grows until it can no longer be ignored.
That's precisely how one big idea in Florida was developed into a successful alliance of several aviation, education, government and business interests in Polk County, home to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (KLAL) and the popular Sun 'n Fun International Fly-in and Expo.
The viability of the Polk Aviation Alliance as a vehicle to bring many interests together to promote aviation collaboratively is proof that one person can take a small morsel of a good idea, nourish it with hard work, enthusiasm and passion, gather together a team with sufficient forward vision and watch it grow into a strong, stable and completely ingenious entity.
"The Polk Aviation Alliance began when I was a city commissioner in Winter Haven," said Jamie Beckett, the president and CEO of the Alliance. "The basic concept came from Bob English, a Polk County commissioner.
"We were both leaving a meeting, and he asked me if I thought it would be a good idea for there to be a countywide authority that pertained to aviation. That idea intrigued me, so I sent out a lunch invitation to the managers of the municipal airports in the county, and the management of Sun 'n Fun.
"I laid out the idea over sandwiches and sodas, and two years later, we are incorporated as a nonprofit. We've been growing ever since."
Specifically, the Alliance is designed to use aviation as a tool to provide educational resources and economic development opportunities that benefit the cities, the businesses and the people of the entire county, explains Beckett, a CFI/A&P with single- and multi-engine ratings (land and sea).
"The long-term goal of the Alliance is to brand Polk County, Florida as the most aviation-friendly destination in North America. We've gotten proclamations of support from several cities, even cities that don't have airports," explains Beckett.
"When you can convince a city commission in a city with no airport that aviation is important to their educational system, their bottom line, and their economic development opportunities—you've really got something."
While Beckett's work building the Alliance has been a major source of positive energy, he quickly gives plenty of credit to the team he has developed. Others helping to push this brilliant concept forward include chairwoman Stacie Rine, a retired Navy P-3 pilot and current director of business development at Sun 'n Fun; vice-chair Eric Crump, Polk State College's Aerospace Program director; treasurer Gene Conrad, Lakeland Linder Regional Airport director; secretary Debbie Murphy, Winter Haven Municipal Airport (Gilbert Field) director; and Keith Smith, the vice-principal at Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA).
The concept of the Alliance is attractive to many of the entities that are positioned to benefit from its success. And it is an attitude of inclusion which Beckett and his team have developed that is fostering an environment of growth. "Since the very beginning," Beckett explains, "I've believed this is a concept that's long overdue and has the potential to pay off in a major way.
"We don't focus on aviation as a vocation or a hobby. Frankly, we're not exclusive to pilots or mechanics or aviation enthusiasts at all. I enjoy the challenge of showing non-aviation businesses, or governmental entities that have previously been cool toward aviation in the past, that it's possible to connect them to aviation in a way that fosters success on both sides of the equation."
In reaching out to the non-aviation public, Beckett is doing precisely what many GA advocates have always said needs to be done to grow the industry. "I spoke to a Rotary club meeting just today, and there was only one pilot in the room," he explains. "But they were really interested when they heard about the potential economic impact of the work we're doing with the Alliance. That's success to me. Getting new faces—and young faces—into the mix, that's where our future is going to lie."
For the Alliance concept to succeed, Beckett and his team know that building strong corporate relationships is vital. In December 2013, the Alliance helped earn major support from JetBlue when the airline's foundation awarded a $25,000 grant to Sun 'n Fun to develop an educational partnership that benefits students at CFAA, Polk State College and Traviss Career Center. The grant money will be used to buy specialized tools and equipment for the student members of the Alliance to use.
"JetBlue has been so open and supportive," Beckett said. "Part of the agreement allows our students to visit the JetBlue training facility in Orlando on a recurring basis. Our students get to fly the Airbus and Embraer simulators with JetBlue pilots, do classroom work that's pertinent to pilots and mechanics, and see aircraft in the maintenance environment to help them understand modern fly-by-wire transport category aircraft."
If you need proof that the Alliance works, listen to the impact they had on JetBlue executives. "Rob Maruster, JetBlue's chief operating officer, took a tour of CFAA during Sun 'n Fun 2013," Beckett said. "Several months later, he scheduled a meeting to come back with his boss, David Barger, JetBlue's CEO, to see what opportunities there might be for the airline to work with the high school.
"They came expecting a chat with a small group of people, but we swung the Alliance into action and really impressed them. They found themselves in a large meeting room filled with representatives from education, Sun 'n Fun's management team, Polk State College's aerospace program director and the college's Dean of Academic and Student Services, along with representatives of PolkWorks [the county's workforce development team], and of course our Alliance staff.
"Because we mobilized an entire community, within two months, we had a working agreement with JetBlue, which ultimately led to this Foundation funding award."
Beckett and the Alliance team are not keeping anything they do a secret, so that the concept can hopefully be adopted in other counties and regions. "We've actually designed this Alliance to be something that others can replicate in a way that makes sense in their corner of the world," Beckett said. "I've taken calls from airport managers around the country asking how they might do what we're doing, and I tell them everything. If somebody can learn from what we're doing and grow aviation in their area, we're happy to help.
"This industry has spent the last 50 years arguing over who has a bigger slice of the pie. Let's stop all that and just grow the darned pie. If we can do that, everybody's slice gets bigger automatically."
The Alliance is always seeking additional funding to further its mission. Visit polkaviationalliance.org, or "like" its Facebook page (facebook.com/PolkAviationAlliance) to help; reach Beckett by phone at 863-224-2133863-224-2133 or on Twitter at twitter.com/jamiebeckett.
Dan Pimentel has worked in journalism and graphic design since 1979, and is the president and creative director of Celeste/Daniels Advertising and Design (celestedaniels.com). He's an instrument-rated private pilot and has been writing the Airplanista Aviation Blog (airplanista.com) since 2005. You can find him on Twitter as @Av8rdan. Send questions or comments to .