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Lakeland Aero Club: This Is One Amazing Way To Learn How To Fly

Flying clubs are amazing things. The concept's been around as long as aviation, and they're a great way to keep the cost of flying down. They're all unique; but each has its own character and direction.

Lakeland Aero Club - Truly Unique

Lakeland Aero Club

Lakeland Aero Club is a piece apart. First, everyone who's involved is in... High school - or just graduated. From the president on down, this is a member managed organization. And they're all teenagers.

Second, they spend far more time on the ground than they do in the air. They meet two hours a day, Monday through Friday - to rebuild airplanes. So, you've got a flying club of 25 teenagers, rebuilding and operating their own aircraft.

If it sounds like a story out of a book - it is. Mike Ziedziunas, the CFI and A&P IA behind this idea, found his inspiration in Richard Bach's "A Gift of Wings." (Check it out at Amazon and maybe you'll follow in pursuit...)

Mike found support from Sun 'n Fun and James C. Ray, an aviation entrepreneur and philanthropist. With their help, Mike fostered a flying club where teenagers not only learn how to fly, but discover the ins-and-outs of what makes an airplane fly - and how to fix it.

Building and Flying Vintage Aircraft

The club operates three aircraft, a 1939 Taylorcraft BC-65, an L-18 Piper Cub and a Schweitzer 2-22 glider. How the club came to own these aircraft is a story of its own...


The L-18 Piper Cub was a donation from Mr. James Ray. The aircraft was manufactured in 1953, but Piper shipped it off to Turkey as a custom build; it never received a standard US airworthiness certificate. When it arrived at the club, it held a collection of parts never FAA approved for the L-18.

For a little over a year, the students have been working to restore the aircraft. It's nearly done. But, instead of using an "experimental" airworthiness certificate on the plane, they're trying for an original issuance of a US standard airworthiness certificate.

That means the students research every part, pulley and cable that would have been on a standard 1953 L-18. And, while teenagers are disparaged for fixating on their phones, in this case - it helps. They research, document and procure nearly any part they need, often right through the phone.


Working on the L-18.

So how do you manage 25 teenagers, who aren't mechanics, rebuilding a plane? Mike picks out a quote from General Lloyd "Fig" Newton. "With young people, you tell them what you want done, when you want it done, and what you don't want broken - and you get out of the way."

"We break some stuff - we're in a training environment," says Mike. The Cub's been in development for a little over a year, and it's nearly complete. That may sound like a long time, but in homebuilt terms - that's overnight.


Learning how to use an English Wheel.

The 1939 Taylorcraft has nearly as unique of a story. When Cody Welch, captaining one of EAA's Ford Tri-Motors, needed a ground crew for crowd control, he called the Lakeland Aero Club. Their work impressed him so much that he donated the Taylorcraft - which Cody's mother flew on her first solo in 1942.

Learning To Fly

A flying club's not a flying club if you're always on the ground, and the members do get their fair share of flying. Many, like the club's first president, Angel Castellanos, have already earned their private pilot certificate. In Angel's case, he's added airplane single engine sea and glider ratings to his certificate.


Many of the members solo in a Breezer LSA.

Luke McCurdy is working towards his A&P mechanic certificate. And, after doing the math, he found it was cheaper to restore and maintain a Cessna 140 than to pay for a commercial flight school. His aircraft is pristine - it's clear the club members know how to take care of an airplane.


Luke's Cessna 140

Skyler Burnam, Donovan Richards and Liam Clancy will take over club leadership this fall as they enter their senior year in high school. Each has soloed, and soon all three will hold their private pilot certificates.

Mr. James Ray provides scholarships for many of the club members to earn their certificates. And, by keeping flying costs down, Lakeland Aero Club makes it possible to keep those certificates current.

Traveling To Oshkosh - Open Cockpit

Eight of the club members traveled to EAA AirVenture this year. And, once more, how they got there made them unique.


Flying to OSH open-cockpit style...

Seven flew up from Florida in Luke's Cessna 140, a Cessna 182, a couple of Stearman, and a 1939 Taylorcraft. They all rotated seats in the planes, and a 12-passenger van carried their luggage and a couple of the members on non-flying rotations. An eighth, Phillip Harrington, had to meet them at Oshkosh - he was interning with JetBlue.

The trip from Lakeland to Oshkosh was long, covering three days. Vintage aircraft may not have speed, but they make a trip to AirVenture authentic. And, camping on the south forty of Wittman airport is about as rich of an AirVenture experience as you can get.


It's An Idea Worth Spreading

Lakeland Aero Club is clearly unique - and without support from Sun 'n Fun, James Ray and other benefactors, it wouldn't be nearly as big. But the heart of the club is clearly in its members and in Mike.

With the guidance of an experienced flight instructor and A&P IA mechanic, the members have the opportunity to learn. Mike's impressed as he inspects their work. "They're trustworthy; they're 'OCD' about making sure a tape's on straight and rib stitches are tight."

How do you safely inspire someone to build a plane who's just learned to drive a car? "Listen to what they're really asking," says Mike, "make sure they're getting it and can see it. Success begets success; start small and build from it."


MX Selfie

While operating three aircraft is an amazing feat, one is a great number to start out with. It doesn't have to be big - long before we started training in 172's and Cherokees, pilots learned in Cubs and Taylorcraft. They became great pilots, even without a glass panel.

Aleks Udris

Aleks is a Boldmethod co-founder and technical director. He's worked in safety and operations in the airline industry, and was a flight instructor and course manager for the University of North Dakota. You can reach him at

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