LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – The 48th annual Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo is cleared for takeoff in Lakeland.

The weekend of events is one of the largest airshows in the United States. It brings nearly a quarter million aviation fans to the Lakeland Linder Airport.

“It brings about $200 million to the local economy every single year, so it’s a big event,” Sun ‘n Fun’s incoming CEO Gene Conrad said.

According to Conrad, there’s a bigger reason behind the event.

“This is our fundraiser for our year-round effort to teach and engage and educate and accelerate the next generation of aerospace professionals,” he explained.

This year’s show benefits the Aerospace Center of Excellence. The nonprofit educates in science, technology, engineering and math related to aerospace.

“We have a lot of visitors that fly here from all over the country and all over the world. Aviation is an industry where we need pilots, we need mechanics, we need air traffic controllers,” Conrad said. “Our industry as a whole, we need talented folks to engage and be part of what we do.”

A big draw to this year’s Sun ‘n Fun is the return of the Thunderbirds. They’ll be flying F-16s at the event for the first time in 6 years.

Conrad hopes kids who come to the show leave as aspiring aviators.

“There are so many opportunities for kids. I think the biggest thing is that kids don’t know it’s available to them. They don’t know it’s within reach,” he said. “Our job is to go out there and reach them and tell them it is available to you.”

Sun ‘n Fun is open daily now through Sunday, April 10.

Tickets are available online.