The Summer of Their Lives

Oct. 23, 2013
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 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 and Ed Redies in Saline, 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. One student even took pride in making his own time card, clocking in and out when the staff did.

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 Chief Executive Officer 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.”

Throughout the two weeks, the students were also treated to flights in Glasair’s demo Sportsman, as well as rides from Lyn Freeman, Build A Plane’s founder and president, and Steve Taylor, president of Boeing Business Jets and GAMA’s vice chairman. On their day off, the teams toured local aviation highlights: Boeing’s nearby Everett, WA, aircraft factory; the Museum of Flight in Seattle; and the Seattle Tacoma airport facility, including the control tower, operations center, and BBA Aviation’s Aircraft Service International Group commercial fueling operations.

Passing the tests

The second week brought two big tests of the students’ work: Could the aircraft they built taxi, and could they pass a rigorous FAA inspection? It turned out that their craftsmanship was of such high-quality that each plane not only taxied, one accomplished this milestone on Wednesday of the second week. After checking every detail of proper paperwork, the FAA inspector invited the students to follow his very detailed and comprehensive walk-around. Upon completion, the FAA inspector was highly complimentary of the students’ work, telling them it was some of the finest riveting he’d ever seen.

The pride each student displayed as we took pictures of the presentation of the airworthiness certificate was evident on each of their faces. Thursday and Friday were consumed with getting the second aircraft ready for taxi and inspection. Another major milestone occurred on Saturday, the last day of the build, when the first aircraft, piloted by Glasair’s Setzer, made its first flight, coming back with only minor squawks.

Sharing the story

The students’ experience with general aviation didn’t end in Washington state. In July, Jeppesen sponsored trips so that the teams could travel to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI, to show off the airplanes and share their story. They met with FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker, NTSB member Earl Weener, and Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. They were featured at press conferences for Piper Aircraft, Lycoming, Jeppesen, and Glasair Aviation, as well as at the Build A Plane Teachers’ Day and the Living Legends of Aviation Kiddie Hawk exhibit. 

The students no doubt got a lot out of the experience. “It was incredible,” said John Deslauriers of Canby High School. “It let me do something I probably never would have been able to do.”

But I think the experience was even more meaningful for all of the adults involved in the project. We saw firsthand what incredible young people these were, in terms of both their talent and their enthusiasm for aviation. If these students are the future of our industry, I am very encouraged and hopeful about what lies ahead.

Almost all of the students said they now plan to pursue an aviation-related career, whether as an engineer, a mechanic, a pilot or a public relations specialist. “It’s going to point me in the direction that I really need to go in life,” Julia Garner of Saline High School said.

GAMA and its members continue to stay in touch with the students and plan to follow their careers, including setting up internships for them next summer. As Kyle LaBombarbe of Saline High School said, “I just hope they keep this going and it’s not just a one-time deal.” We at GAMA couldn’t agree more.

For more information about the build, please visit GAMA’s Facebook page at!/General.Aviation.Manufacturers.Association.

Peter J. Bunce is president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, an international trade association representing 84 of the world's leading manufacturers of general aviation airplanes and rotorcraft, engines, avionics, components, and related services.