It’s a simple idea, really: Put airplane projects in the hands of high school kids.
The initial mission of Build A Plane is to help kids learn how to be mechanics, as well as the skills needed to build a plane — skills they can then use in the workplace.
But the program does so much more. Besides helping kids in their studies, especially math and science, the projects boost kids’ self-esteem and show them what they can accomplish with a little elbow grease.
Some of those kids also will take to the skies, fulfilling their dreams of becoming pilots in airplanes they helped to make airworthy.
That’s what’s happening in Hooper Bay, Alaska, where students began work on a Thorp T-211 in April. During the building process, the students also will complete Sport Pilot ground school. “As soon as the airplane is certified and ready to roll, we’ll teach them to fly it,” said teacher Grant Funk, who is a CFI.
It make sense for the students of this remote Alaskan village to learn all about airplanes. The village, which is more than 90% Yu’pik Eskimo, is 500 miles from the nearest road. “Almost everything we do here involves aviation,” Funk said.
The Build A Plane program reaches far beyond Alaska, to young people across the United States from California to North Carolina and a lot of places in between. While high schools are the primary targets, Build A Plane also helps find airplanes for EAA chapters, Boy Scout Explorer troops and technical colleges.
Founded in 2003 and led by Lyn Freeman, the program has placed more than $1 million worth of airplanes in the hands of kids.
Besides helping the kids, the program is a boon to GA, laying the foundation for the next generation of pilots, airplane owners, mechanics, avionics technicians and others who will take over the reins of GA in the not-too-distant future.
Bringing airplanes to the kids helps overcome one of the biggest problems facing our next generation: Access to airplanes and airports. It isn’t like the good old days. With new security measures, kids just can’t get close to airplanes, anymore.
It’s a concern that’s voiced by many, including Anna Pennington, 85, the grand dame of aviation in Wilmington, N.C., whom we profile on page 32 of this issue.
“In the old days kids rode their bicycles out to the airport and hung around,” she said. “They went out and touched the airplanes. They became enthused that way. Today a kid can’t get within a block of an airplane. If the younger generation doesn’t learn to fly, what’s going to happen?”
That question obviously is one that many have been asking — and one that many are working to answer. Build A Plane not only partners with the FAA, but a quick look at the organization’s advisory board reveals that it’s packed with the movers and shakers of GA, including Cessna’s Jack Pelton, Cirrus’s Alan Klapmeier, Burt Rutan, Patty Wagstaff, CNN’s Miles O’Brien and Ron Kaplan, director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Also on the board is Lauretta Godbey of Avemco Insurance Co. But, according to her boss, the insurance company just didn’t get the idea at first. “When Lyn first described what he wanted to do, I thought he was insane,” said Jim Lauerman, executive vice president and chief underwriter.
Then Hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew through the Gulf states and Avemco found itself with $1.25 million worth of hulls that had been inundated with salt water. “They were not damaged, but we couldn’t salvage them,” Lauerman said.
The insurance company gave all of them to Build A Plane, putting about 15 planes into the hands of students.
“It was a joy to take that tragedy and redeem the situation,” Lauerman said.
Joy is central to Build A Plane’s success. You see it on the faces of the kids in photos taken as they receive their project airplanes, such as a Cessna 150 or a Beech Baron, or a box with all the components for a Star Duster biplane or a Thorp T-211.
That joy also can change lives. A Build A Plane project in Aba, Nigeria, did just that.
Two years ago, the organization was contacted by 17-year-old Kasarachi “Kasa” Ejimofor, who had designed his own airplane. Build A Plane hooked him up with Alan and Dale Klapmeier, co-founders of Cirrus Design, who are airplane designers — and dreamers — themselves. They became mentors for the young airplane designer, as did friends who helped him build his plane.
The boys learned to weld the airframe components and work with fiberglass, while they scavenged for parts and materials. When problems stopped them, they had to figure out solutions. When it came time to cover the wings and fuselage in fabric, they got help via the Internet from Jon Goldenbaum, owner of Poly Fiber at Flabob Airport in Southern California. Two years after Kasa sketched his design, he and his friends had completed the airplane — something many had told them was impossible.
“Building this airplane changed the lives of all the participants,” said C. G. Onuoha, the principal at the boys’ school.
Some will go on to study engineering, including Kasa, who hopes to study in the United States.
As Build A Plane builds on its success, everyone in GA needs to take a moment to figure out what they can do to grow the next generation. If we don’t, who will?
Janice Wood is editor of General Aviation News.