The Summer of Their Lives

Eight Students Build Two Airplanes in Just Two Weeks


For most high school students, summer is a time to sleep in, relax with friends, find a part-time job, or head off for camp. But for the eight student winners of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA)/Build A Plane Aviation Design Challenge — and an old aviation head like me who was fortunate enough to work with them — the summer of 2013 was a life-changing experience as we built two Glasair Sportsman aircraft in just two weeks.

This wonderful opportunity came about when GAMA’s 84-member companies partnered with Build A Plane, a nonprofit organization that promotes aviation and aerospace education, to create the competition. Our aim was to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education among high school students and to inspire the next generation of aviation leaders and our future manufacturing and maintenance work force.

In just the first year, the competition attracted 27 entries from schools in 22 states. Schools used complimentary X-Plane software provided by Fly to Learn, along with curricula and training, to design and fly their own virtual aircraft. GAMA engineers judged the winners based on performance and aerodynamic parameters.

 

Canby and Saline High Schools the winners

Our Chairman Brad Mottier and Vice Chairman Steve Taylor announced the winners — Canby High School in Canby, MN, and Saline High School in Saline, MI — at GAMA’s spring board of directors meeting. The design work these students did under the direction of their teachers, Dan Lutgen in Canby, MN, and Ed Redies in Saline, MI, was first-rate. As their prize, four students, a teacher, and a chaperone from each school received an all-inclusive two-week trip to Glasair Aviation in Arlington, WA, to build two Sportsman aircraft through the company’s well-known Two Weeks to Taxi program.

GAMA member companies and other component sponsors generously contributed financial resources, equipment, and supplies to the build, including the kit airframe, propeller, certified avionics, parts, paint, and interiors for one of the planes. In addition, Glasair donated two weeks of staff time to support the build.

The winners had little idea what was in store for them. Some had never flown in an airplane before they touched down in Washington state. Others thought they would simply watch the Glasair technicians assemble the airplanes.

Few realized that each day would begin at 7 a.m. with a progress report on the build, along with a lecture from Glasair’s Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) mechanics Ben Rauk or Ted Setzer on a specific aspect of constructing the plane, such as safety wiring or repairing a composite structure. The students took the same work breaks, cleaned the hangar bay, and left for the day just as the Glasair staff did, usually around 5:30 or 6 p.m.

 

Glasair Aviation

The experience was new for Glasair, too. While the company typically helps a customer build a Sportsman — an experimental metal and composite kit airplane that seats four adults — over two weeks, it had never before built two birds simultaneously, and certainly not working with eight students.

The Glasair staff assigned each student, or groups of students, to work on certain tasks each day. The students, teachers, and chaperones from the two schools intermingled easily with Glasair staff, along with myself, Jeppesen CEO Mark Van Tine, Jeppesen’s Tom Letts, GAMA’s Director of Engineering Greg Bowles and GAMA’s Director of Safety and Training Kate Fraser. GAMA and Build A Plane own the first plane; Van Tine owns the other.

The students quickly became experts at bucking rivets, fabricating both metal and composite brackets, running control cables, sanding the airframe, fabricating and attaching fuel lines, installing baffling on the engine, mounting the gear, and integrating the sensors and the propeller to the engine. As Brandon Stripling of Canby High School said near the end of the build, “It’s boosted my image of airplanes and how much work has to go into making an airplane.”

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