If They Build It, They Will Come

There's no question the future of general aviation is at a waypoint. Parasitic drag resulting from new and inconvenient -- if not onerous -- regulations from the TSA is hampering its growth. And then there are the turbulence from the current economy; the climbing costs of fuel, maintenance and new airplanes; and the tailspin in the number of new students signing up for flight lessons.

The general aviation forecast looks stormy and unsettled. But the laws of aerodynamics state that thrust overcomes drag. So the most effective way of mitigating the negative forces may be by increasing the number of people who are aviation aficionados.

There are a number of industry efforts underway to improve the general aviation outlook and to increase the number of student starts. AOPA's "Let's Go Flying" program, PilotJourney.com and EAA's Reach for the Sky, a monthly e-newsletter developed by EAA expressly for individuals interested in learning how to fly, are designed to help people who have an interest in learning to fly to step up to the flight school dispatcher's counter and sign up for an introductory lesson.

The lets-get-people-flying programs are helpful but they pretty much require an existing interest in aviation. How do you instill an awareness of aviation in someone who hasn't been bitten by the bug; someone who doesn't already know about the recreational and career opportunities aviation has to offer?

There is at least one organization that has found a unique way to attract young people who might not have even been aware of the existence of general aviation. It's all in its name: Build A Plane.

Since it began operations in 2003, the nonprofit Build A Plane has been promoting aviation and aerospace careers by giving young people the opportunity to build real airplanes. The kids are excited by airplanes and Build A Plane provides them with actual aircraft for construction and restoration projects. "Science, math, engineering and technology education all come together in aviation and that's why Build A Plane facilitates the donation of aircraft projects to schools around the world," explained Lyn Freeman, founder of Build A Plane. The hands-on airplane projects are not just for training airframe and powerplant mechanics but are also being used to teach a range of technology subjects in a more exciting way than simply with lectures, slideshows and PowerPoint presentations.

** Vero Beach High School environmental tech students with Avemco-donated Saratoga** (Susan DeBlois)**; Build A Plane project en route to Hooper Bay, Alaska.** (Grant Funk)

The concept is simple. Airplanes that for one reason or another are no longer wanted by their owners are matched to schools that want an airplane for their vocational training and other aviation and technology programs. The schools get an airplane, the students get to "turn wrenches" on an actual airframe, and general aviation gets trained and enthusiastic potential participants. A win-win-win. To date there are some 250 schools registered with Build A Plane to receive donated airplanes, and so far some 110 aircraft projects are underway where kids are constructing or restoring real airplanes. The value of the project aircraft that are in the hands of kids and their adult mentors is more than a million dollars.

Lyn Freeman said he got the idea for Build A Plane while editor of Plane & Pilot magazine. Concerned about the declining number of pilots and the difficulty young people had in accessing aviation, he felt that if schools could teach auto mechanics, why couldn't they build airplanes? When he asked in his magazine if his idea for Build A Plane was workable, Freeman was overwhelmed by the positive response from the readers.

According to Build A Plane, there are thousands of unairworthy aircraft and incomplete kit planes that are prime candidates for Build A Plane projects, many of which are available at little or no cost. Owners who donate their aircraft are eligible to receive tax benefits through the program's 501(c)(3) status. And with a waiting list of 250, donations are welcome and needed.

"I run an adoption agency," joked Katrina Bradshaw, executive director of Build A Plane. "I want to be sure that both parties, the donor and the school, are happy with what they're getting. I don't want there to be any surprises."

As the matchmaker, Bradshaw makes sure that the donor and the school are in contact and talk back and forth, and in some cases, exchange photographs. Occasionally people from the school will actually visit the donor to see the airplane before committing to the donation project.

While it typically takes several months to place an airplane, Bradshaw said her quickest placement came with a phone call on a Thursday. "The call came on Thanksgiving Day," she recounted, "and the airplane was in the school by Saturday. That was unusual. Sometimes it can take as many as six or eight months to place an airplane."

The ideal donations, she said, are airplanes that don't require much work. "The easiest to place are Cessna 152s or 172s or metal, four-place airplanes with engines that can be overhauled and that by the end of the semester the students can get in and fly."

Not all the restoration projects result in airplanes that fly. "It's about 50-50 whether airplanes can fly after the restoration is completed," she said. "We get the parties to sign a form to relinquish liability, but some owners still prefer that the airplane not be able to fly after the school has completed it."

** Hooper Bay's Meagan Peters (l) and Panik Smith work on IndUS T211 project airplane.** (Grant Funk)

The majority of the donations, she said, come from individual builders who couldn't complete their kits or owners unable to sell their airplanes. In addition, Avemco Insurance donated 17 airplanes that were the result of claims from the Katrina and Rita hurricanes and several other "written off" airplanes. Jim Lauerman, president of Avemco, has been an active supporter of Build A Plane and happily recycles airplanes that result from insurance claims. "Although these salvage aircraft will never fly again," he said, "we're thrilled that they make such excellent teaching tools for teachers and students."

Working with the FAA, Build A Plane arranged to place a donated IndUS Thorp T211 LSA kit at a high school in Hooper Bay, Alaska, a remote Eskimo village about 500 miles from the nearest road. Federal Express agreed to fly the T211 aircraft components from India to Anchorage, Alaska, at no charge. The students will be able to earn their LSA repair certificate and eventually those who want to will be able to get their sport pilot certificate to fly the airplane they've built.

Recently, Avemco donated a Piper Saratoga that had been ditched off the coast of Florida. The airplane was salvaged from a 2007 insurance claim filed with Avemco after it was determined the Saratoga couldn't be repaired due to extreme water damage. An additional donation to retrieve and move the Saratoga was made by Air and Sea Storage of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Ironically, the Saratoga, after being lifted from the bay, is at Vero Beach High School, back in the city where it was originally built.

The reaction to the donation by Susan DeBlois, an instructor at the school, is typical. "We're so excited about the possibilities that this donation means for our students," she said. "They'll be able to actually work on a real airplane to further their understanding of the principles of aerodynamics that we've been teaching in the classroom."

Bradshaw said that occasionally there are challenges in working with school administrations that have hesitations about accepting a donation. But help from local EAA chapters have smoothed the way and provided support during the completion process. The "champions" of the projects, she said, "are the teachers who are also EAA members."

Over the years a number of students have been encouraged by their participation in the school projects to continue with aviation training either as pilots or mechanics. "Not only can teachers use aviation to motivate kids to learn science, math, technology and engineering," Bradshaw said, "but this is a chance to allow their students to start a lifelong love affair with aviation!"

Although most Build A Plane projects are in high schools, there are programs also underway with local EAA chapters, church groups, aviation maintenance technician schools and aviation clubs. Any organization that is willing to promote aviation and provide an opportunity for young people to build a real airplane can be considered for selection as a recipient of a Build A Plane aircraft project.

In the meantime Build A Plane is seeking funds and donated airplanes. For more information, visit buildaplane.org or call 804/843-3321.