Flying Lessons: Crossing the Fence

Inspiring new generations to fly.

A Build A Plane Sky Skooter project arrives in Hooper Bay, Alaska … where it was taken to the local high school by snowmobile-towed sled.

Hooper Bay, Alaska, might not be quite the end of the earth but, as the saying goes, you can probably see it from there. It's a tiny town halfway up the western Alaskan coast, north of the Aleutian Islands, and the 1,200 people who live there actually can see Russia from their back doors. In fact, they're probably closer to Russia than they are to civilization. Seriously. The community is made up almost entirely of Yupik Eskimos who have to travel 500 miles to get to the nearest road and 200 miles to the nearest hospital. It's dark, cold and snowy for a good part of the year, and anything that comes into Hooper Bay has to arrive by either barge or plane — which means material items are expensive to obtain.

But whatever else the 170 high school students in Hooper Bay may lack, they have one thing a lot of other high school students in the United States would love to have: an airplane. A soon-to-be-flyable airplane. A Thorp T-211 or Sky Skooter, to be exact. And when it flies, the students of Hooper Bay will also have the satisfaction of knowing they built the plane themselves.

Hooper Bay's Sky Skooter is the result of … well, a lot of people's efforts. But fundamentally, it was made possible by a nonprofit organization called Build A Plane, which acts as a kind of adoption agency to find donated airplane projects good homes with schools and other youth organizations around the country. Build A Plane was started by former Plane & Pilot editor Lyn Freeman, who began trying to match airplane projects with schools back in 2002.

"I remembered the old shop days when high school kids would build a car," Freeman says, "and I thought, instead of a car, why not get them to build a plane? At worst, the kids would at least experience a shift in how they viewed aviation. And at best, it could inspire them to start a lifetime love affair with aviation."

Pairings were slow the first couple of years. Someone had to be willing to donate a project airplane, after all. But in the fall of 2005, Freeman got a call from the Avemco insurance company asking if he could use 17 planes it had just deregistered due to saltwater contamination down in New Orleans. Seems a big hurricane had just passed through and had done a lot of damage to aircraft in the area.

The Avemco airplanes would never fly again — that was the stipulation Avemco made for donating them, because of corrosion concerns. But Freeman had already discovered that not every school wanted a flyable aircraft.

"Originally, I wanted all the planes to be built to fly, but I had to temper that with the reality that there's a mindset out there that little airplanes are dangerous and the liability [of a flyable aircraft] is too high," he explains. "So we let each school decide for itself how to use the tool we give them."

Sue DeBlois, a teacher in the environmental technology program at Vero Beach High School in Vero Beach, Florida, got a deregistered Piper Saratoga from Build A Plane this past spring. (It had been ditched in Tampa Bay.) The plane will not fly again, but her students are fixing it up and hope to turn it into some kind of simulator.

Tim Smith, director of educational technology for the Franklin, Kentucky, school district, was already working with aviation students at Franklin High School to build a couple of airplanes, but Build A Plane got him two more planes to add to the mix. Smith is also working on a program to pair local airports with school districts in order to give students a more direct tie to the airport community and access to resources to help them with their building and flying projects. As of this writing, Smith has created five such partnerships in Kentucky, and he's working with Build A Plane to help implement similar programs in school districts across the country.

As part of his Frankfort effort, Smith has found an IA willing to donate time to the school to help supervise the building projects and a retired Delta captain and CFI who's volunteered to give the kids flying lessons for free, once the planes are completed.

"Airports are excited about it, because we're creating a whole new generation of aerospace engineers, mechanics and pilots," Smith says.

"So the kids who build the planes will then be able to learn to fly for just gas money?" I ask Smith.

"Well, yeah, but we're fundraising for that too," he answers.

Smith's efforts, along with those of Freeman and Build A Plane, are particularly encouraging because, in tandem, they offer teenagers a tangible and accessible path from outside the airport fence to inside the airport community — a bridge that has been missing for many years, and from many aviation youth programs.

A year and a half ago, I spent a morning giving Young Eagle rides to high school kids in Livermore, California (Fences, August 2008). The girls I flew asked me how I'd gotten my pilot's license, and I told them I'd traded work on airplanes for instruction from a local CFI. Not surprisingly, they wanted to know how they could work out that kind of deal. I asked the Young Eagles organizers, but nobody had a clear idea of how to translate the kids' new enthusiasm for this thing called flying into any kind of next step that might keep them interested, or get them closer to choosing aviation as either a lifestyle or a career.

Hurray and huzzah, that situation may finally be changing. And not just because of Build A Plane. This past April, the EAA announced that it had teamed with Hal Shevers, founder and chairman of Sporty's Pilot Shop, to create a program called "Next Step." Shevers is a big supporter of the Boy Scouts' Aviation Explorers program, has provided free Cessna 172 panel posters for every Young Eagle since that program's inception and, through the Sporty's Foundation, contributes funding to Build A Plane as well. But now, Sporty's Foundation is not only adding a logbook to the poster package, but is also making Sporty's online Complete Private Pilot Course available to every Young Eagle (past, present and future) … free of charge. In the first 90 days after the program was launched, 1,400 kids signed up for the course.

"If there's no freshman class, in just four years you don't have a graduating class," Shevers says by way of explanation. "We've got to interest young people in aviation again. They've been so shut out by fences and overzealous protection of young people that they don't get out to the airport as much anymore." Shevers is also funding a full-time staff position at EAA to oversee the Next Step program and work to coordinate efforts with other groups such as Build A Plane, Aviation Explorers and the Civil Air Patrol.

All of these efforts are relatively new. But already, there is impact. Take the kids in Hooper Bay, Alaska. Grant Funk, a pastor who works primarily with youth, moved to Hooper Bay 10 years ago to try to combat a high teen suicide rate there. A pilot himself who says "up here, aviation is life," he saw aviation as one of the best options the kids there might have for employment. Originally, he worked on model airplanes with the kids. But through a friend in Bethel, he found out about Build A Plane, and three years ago, when a Bethel Build A Plane project fell through, the project was offered to Hooper Bay instead.

IndUS Aviation, which sells the Thorp kits, first donated parts for the empennage and wings, and then, after a delay (the project was donated just as the new LSA category approval was putting a big demand on IndUS for paid kits), IndUS sent Funk a Jabiru engine and a fuselage from its plant in India. Federal Express flew the parts to Anchorage for free, another local freight company flew them to Bethel, and a third freight company flew them to Hooper Bay, where they were offloaded onto a sled and towed by snowmobile to the high school. Funk is now trying to raise the money to buy the few remaining parts the students need to complete the plane.

But while the Sky Skooter is still a few months away from completion, it's already had a tangible impact on the community. Three of the original students who worked on the plane went to A&P school, got their ratings and have come back to Hooper Bay, where two of them have been hired part-time by the school district to help supervise the younger students working on the Sky Skooter.

"I think the project had a huge impact on them," Funk says. "A lot of kids who grow up here don't have the confidence that they can compete in the world outside. But working on this project gave those kids the confidence that they could go to A&P school and compete." Funk's vision doesn't stop there, either.

"I have high hopes, once this plane is finished, that as many as 20 students in the next five years will graduate from high school with a private pilot's license already," he says. "And even if they don't go into aviation, I think this program has the potential to inspire a generation here to grow into people who are pursuing something."

Funk pauses for a moment. "Sometimes," he adds, "we don't see the little fires that are burning at the periphery. But they can grow into something."

Build A Plane, Next Step, airport-school district partnerships … they're all little fires. But taken together, they might just grow into a movement that finds a way — an affordable way — for a new generation to find its way not just into the right seat, but into the left seat, and into the aviation community.