As we were walking out of the Sebring Regional Airport administrative building on our way to the EAA Chapter 1240 Aviation Development Center, Sam Harris from the Gaetz Aerospace Institute of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University said, “Your program is a bit unusual and isn’t what we normally work with.” I have heard this before, and I feel it is a compliment.

Sam is the assistant director of the Gaetz Aerospace Institute (GAI) and was accompanied by Gustavo Junco, the southern Florida representative for the GAI. I was giving them a tour of our program as we finalized the details of our partnership with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) for next school year. It had been a goal of mine, and it is finally happening.

The GAI usually works with individual high schools to introduce their aviation curriculum. Normally there is a teacher at a high school that will present the ERAU courses. The courses provide advanced college credit for the high school students. The high school teacher must have a master’s degree and other qualifications to be able to teach the courses for advanced college credit. It is a big deal to be able to offer the ERAU courses in a high school.

What makes our program a bit different than what ERAU normally works with, is that our program involves three high schools, four to five teachers, a host of community volunteers helping teach and build aircraft, and a community partnership with the Sebring Regional Airport, The School Board of Highlands County, EAA Chapter 1240, and corporate partners such as Lockwood Aviation. It all means there were a few more details to work out than ERAU usually works with.

The meeting went very well and ERAU and our Aviation Academy will be bringing some incredible resources to our students next year. One of our special features that is different from many other high school aviation programs is that we are building aircraft as a part of the program. Next year we are building two at the same time. Another feature is we can fly students with the parent or guardian permission through the EAA Young Eagles Flight Program. We feel if you are going to study aviation and build an aircraft, you should at least have the opportunity to fly in one.

Our Aviation Academy staff meet the standards to provide advanced college credit. When students enroll in our program next August, they will be considered a “freshman” at ERAU and will be issued an ERAU freshman ID card with all the rights and privileges of any ERAU freshman student on campus. The advanced college credit applies to ERAU and many of the other colleges and universities, such as the University of Florida, Florida State University and Polk State College, to name a few with strong aeronautical programs.

Besides the curriculum resources, our partnership with the GAI will provide us with flight simulators, drones, textbooks and other resource material. When you combine these resources with what we already have developed, Sam Harris said we have one of the best high school aviation programs anywhere in the country.

It is a powerful force when people and programs come together to form a partnership with a common goal. Each partner would be hard-pressed to accomplish something on their own, but coming together with others, each bringing something special that is needed, develops great results. It is awesome to be a part of something like that.

There are two special partners in our Aviation Academy. First is the Sebring Regional Airport. The “airport” has been a strong supporter of our efforts from the very beginning in 1998. The Aviation Academy is based at the Sebring Regional Airport administrative offices. It is our home near the sounds of aircraft taking off and landing. What better place to be and be immersed in aviation other than an airport?

The second and really one of the very special partners is The School Board of Highlands County and the administration, staff and teachers who came forward to help make the Aviation Academy a real thing and not just an idea that could happen someday. Historically, school districts are conservative and like to stay in their comfortable box of routines and procedures. When you add aviation, airplanes and kids, that causes some school districts’ risk analysis folks to go into cardiac arrest. I know this from consulting with many school districts around the country that have come to us and asked how we did it and how to start an aviation program. I will never take for granted the proactive thinking and trust that has been given to us from our school board. Thank you.

John Rousch is the director of the Highlands Aviation and Aerospace Academy, a community partnership supporting youth aviation education. He holds FAA Pilot and Remote Pilot certifications He can be reached at, call or text 863-273-0522.

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