Teacher Plans to Pilot Airplane Built by Teens

[San Jose] Teacher Plans to Pilot Airplane Built by Teens
By Frank Sweeney
Mercury News

In a wood shop at San Jose’s Independence High School, the students have set their sights higher than building corner shelves or coffee tables. They’re building an airplane. The wings sit on stands, their fabric skin not yet painted. The stubby fiberglass fuselage is taking shape. The landing gear is completed. And the engine will be started for the first time in a week or two. The first flight is probably eight months away — next semester.

It’s the brainstorm of teacher Mike Reynolds as a way to get more students interested in science and mathematics, curriculum that he says many avoided in recent years. No high school class has successfully built and flown an airplane in California, Reynolds said. “We will be the first.”

When the plane is completed, Reynolds, a veteran pilot and flight instructor, plans to fly it in a 40-hour test authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to certify its safety.

The students “will make mistakes, but we’re going to correct those mistakes because they don’t want to kill me,” Reynolds said. “I have good students, and I trust them, and I’m going to make sure it’s right anyway.”

Once the plane is certified by the FAA, Reynolds plans to raffle it, hoping to raise enough money to buy another kit for the next class and to provide scholarships.

The project, which Reynolds calls Discovery Air, is financed by a $26,000 grant from the Carl Perkins Fund, a statewide vocational fund for math and science programs. It is part of Independence High’s space technology course, a magnet school program that combines studies of general engineering, aerospace, space and aviation. Sixty second-year students work on the plane in two class periods, three days a week, with the other two days set aside for academic work in the classroom.

“This ought to be the model for California, integrating math and science,” Reynolds said.

Different from text book
Nanu Das, a 15-year-old sophomore in his second year in the program, always was interested in math and science. “To apply them hands-on is different than in a textbook. We can apply them to the real world,” Nanu said.

Reynolds said the class welcomes students ranging from academic high achievers to those who don’t score well on tests but are good with their hands, so long as they have at least a “C” average.

Aircraft in flight

The airplane is a Genesis, manufactured as a kit by SlipStream Industries in Wautoma, Wis. “It’s simple to build and fairly easy to fly,” Reynolds said.

The two-place, high-wing plane is a “pusher” design, with its a 65-horsepower, two-cycle engine mounted at the rear. Once the kit arrived in January, Reynolds faced another daunting challenge — organizing the students to do the work.

He asked for help from the local chapter of the (EAA) Experimental Aircraft Association, and seven “extremely talented mechanical and electrical engineers” volunteered to assist.

Reynolds organized the students into five teams, each with an EAA volunteer. “We taught the kids how to drill, how to lay out material, cut it; how to do fabric work,” he said.

One team is building the fuselage; another group is working on the engine. The wings team has nearly finished.

“The volunteers love it. The kids are bonding with them,” Reynolds said.

I think they’re getting a lot out of it,” said volunteer John Gould, who, like the others, is a pilot and has built aircraft before. “The instructors, too. That’s half the fun.”

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