Every Thursday evening in the fellowship hall of Evangelistic Center Church in Olathe, Kansas, Joel Beyer and a group of young men get together to build a plane.
Dubbed “The Bearhawk Build,” the project is a cornerstorne of EagleFlight Aviation Ministries, an aviation ministry begun by Beyer, a CFI and youth pastor.
EagleFlight has three main missions: A youth program, a missionary pilot training program, and a ministry transportation program. The Bearhawk Build, which is being chronicled at ExperCraft.com, combines the youth program and missions pilot program. Once the plane is built, those who helped build it will learn to fly in it, Beyer said, noting some of the participants are also interested in pursuing their A&P licenses.
“Our mission is to introduce kids to aviation, specifically mission aviation,” Beyer said.
The group began building the four-place Bearhawk in September. Beyer, who has been passionate about aviation since he was 6 years old, had spent the better part of five years trying to decide what airplane to build.
“Once EagleFlight began to take shape, the mission of the plane was much more clear,” he said. “We needed a plane that is tough and rugged, good at extremely short unimproved fields, and easy to build and maintain. The Bearhawk is constructed a lot like a Maule, with aluminum wings and tube and fabric fuselage. This gives the guys working towards their A&Ps exposure to just about every kind of fabrication and repair — as well as making it fairly easy to build, if a plane can be considered easy to build. The Bearhawk has a great mix of everything I was looking for: Good cruise speed (150-160 mph), great useful load, tailwheel (a major requirement), short field takeoff, and more.
“We went with plans built for one simple reason: Cost,” Beyer continued. “We are completely donation funded, so coming up with $42,000 for the kit would take a long time — not to mention that I wanted the kids to experience all aspects of building the plane, such as taking a sheet of metal and turning it into airplane parts.”
His enthusiasm is echoed by the kids. “How rewarding will it be after we complete our project to sit back and say, ‘we fashioned that hunk of metal in a way that allows it to zip through the air at 135 knots and carry around 1,200 lbs,” said Josh Gibbons, a 23-year-old college student studying science and aviation, who was the first to become a part of EagleFlight.
“The best thing about the project is that we get to learn every part of the plane as we build it,” added Colby Davis, 18. “This is great knowledge to have since I am working on my pilot’s license and, if something goes wrong with the plane, I will know how to fix it.”
About five young men, ages 13-23, are involved in the project, along with some parents, including Todd Davis, Colby’s father.
“As a parent who has shared the dream of flight with his kids, I’m excited to have the opportunity to build on our relationship as we spend time on a project like this,” he said.
TIME & MONEY
The project officially kicked off about seven months ago. “We made good progress through the wing rib jigs (made out of MDF board) and purchased our first sheet of aluminum in late December,” Beyer reported. “We have most of the wing ribs cut and ready to form.”
“We could be a lot further if we had the money coming in,” he continued. “That has been the biggest slowdown. As is usual in aviation, it is money that makes things go (or stop).”
But with the group working regularly, Beyer’s goal is to have the wings done by the end of summer, the fuselage done by next spring and the plane finished, ready to fly, by the end of summer 2011. “I know this is pretty ambitious, but I feel it is doable with the group we have — again, if the money comes in,” he said.
The group has a couple of fundraisers in the works, including a fly-in/pancake breakfast that will, hopefully, fund the finishing of the wings. Beyer also is donating all of the proceeds from an instrument ground class he is teaching. “We have some things going on, but most of our income comes from private donations.”
That search for funds and the effect it has on the project is teaching the kids another valuable lesson: Patience.
“That’s the most challenging part, — trying to adjust my mindset from how incredible the satisfaction of completion will be to simply enjoying the hard work and the learning it takes to get to the end,” said Gibbons.
But it’s a challenge that the kids are up for because they have their eyes on the prize: Learning to fly once the plane is complete. Says David Pittman, 17, who joined the program after he was adopted from Uganda last summer: “It will be a thrill to fly in a plane that I helped build with my own hands. Not many people, even in America, can say that.”
Beyer plans to make the first flight in the Bearhawk. “I am looking so forward to it,” he said. “From all the reports I have heard, it is a pretty friendly tailwheel airplane and a great flying plane, so it should be a lot of fun. We are planning on putting on an O-470 off a Cessna 182, so the engine work should be straight forward.”
As a CFI, Beyer is eager to begin flight training for the five who are diligently working on the project. “I am praying for a C172 or a similar plane so we can begin the training process while we build the Bearhawk,” said Beyer, the father of four, who has logged 2,100 hours, including 1,500 in instruction.
Once the Bearhawk is done, it will train not only its builders, but other missionary pilots, provide transportation for youth camps and seminars, and give Young Eagles flights.
Beyer already has plans to begin building a second aircraft. “Those involved in this first one will be the leaders on the second build, training the next group in the things they learned through the first build,” he said.
SPREADING THE GOSPEL
The “trickle down effect” of the project is already evident.
“My hope is not only to be able to fly the plane, but to someday have one of my own,” Gibbons said.
Meanwhile, at the Davis home, the project has become a topic of conversation, which has led Colby’s younger brother and sister to express interest in working on the plane.
All of the young men, who hope to be involved in mission aviation, also have talked about the project with their friends.
“I usually say something like, ‘I’m building a plane,’ and the conversation takes off from there,” Colby Davis said. “I would definitely encourage other kids to get involved — something like this is too great not to join if you have an interest in aviation and want to get right down to learning with hands-on experience.”
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn aviation in a safe learning environment where the other people involved love to share their passion about flying,” Pittman added. “It is contagious.”
“It is always amazing to see the impact aviation has on kids,” Beyer noted. “Programs like EagleFlight and Young Eagles give kids something to work at and look forward to in a generation filled with purposeless things.”
MAKING IT WORK
While the project is now house at the church, EagleFlight Aviation is on a waiting list to get hangar space at nearby Gardner Municipal Airport (K34).
“We are currently looking for a permanent home for EagleFlight to build the plane and run our projects,” Beyer said.
As his first airplane build, Beyer said the group can use “all the technical advice we can get. I am on the Bearhawk Yahoo group and we get quite a bit from that, but there is always so much to learn.”
The group also is constant searching for donations, and not just of cash. “We are starting from scratch with this whole thing, with not much more than what I happened to have in my tool box from working electrical construction,” he said. “Donations of tools, ideas, management services for help filing as a non-profit organization and, of course, cash, are always more than welcome.”