I Built This Airplane with a Little Help from My Friends
September 20, 2016
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  • C​ollege senior Lee L​uckhardt calls it “life changing.” Two weeks, Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with two 10-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch, to build an airplane. “It was so much fun getting to work with those guys,” he says.

    Those guys are the airplane builders at Glasair Aviation, a leading kitplane manufacturer in Arlington, Washington. Through Glasair’s unique Two Weeks to Taxi program, kitplane buyers assemble their airplanes with expert guidance from Glasair mechanics. Luckhardt got to work with them in 2013 because, when he was a senior at Saline High School in Saline, Michigan, his team won a national challenge sponsored by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and Build-A-Plane.

    “You’d think it would be all serious because you’re building an airplane, but it’s really just a fun environment,” says Luckhardt, who is now at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, working toward a degree with two majors: one in mechanical engineering and one in engineering physics. “After the two weeks on the build, it kind of changed my direction,” he says, explaining that before going to Glasair, he hadn’t been interested in aviation. Today, he’s working part-time for jet engine builder Williams International and plans to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.

    Physics teacher Mike Hansen advised this year’s winner of the Aviation Design Challenge: the team from Weyauwega-Fremont High School in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, who got the all-expenses-paid trip to assemble the Glasair Sportsman. It was the school’s third try at the prize, but Hansen saw a benefit the very first year his school entered because of the Fly to Learn curriculum and software package that the design challenge sponsors send to all competing schools.

    Fly to Learn uses two software programs: PlaneMaker, which allows the student to manipulate the design of an airplane, and X-Plane, flight simulator software into which the design is loaded. “You do a virtual test flight with the plane you just made, and then based on that flight, you look at the numbers, and you go back and say ‘I’d like to change this a little more or that a little more and fly it again,’ ” says Hansen. Schools compete in a virtual fly-off and are scored on how the airplanes perform on a specific mission.

    “One of my students from three years ago, the first year we entered the competition, really dove in,” says Hansen. “He learned the software inside and out. He knows it way better than I do. And he’s been back each year to help mentor the kids” for the competitions. “The cool thing is,” Hansen continues, “from that experience he’s gone on to graduate from a local tech school with his airframe-and-powerplant [mechanics] degree. It’s just been really neat to see that this has actually affected a kid’s path.”

    Austin Krause already had an interest in aviation when he joined the Weyauwega-Fremont team last school year. Krause wants to be a pilot and describes himself as “one of those kids—every time an airplane flies over, we look up.” Of the build, Krause says, “We did most of the work. [The Glasair team] would give us the general instruction and show us.”

    “You’re really working hard,” says Dennis Willows, a retired professor of neuroscience and biology at the University of Washington whose Glasair Sportsman the students built. He, his 17-year-old daughter, who has just earned a pilot license, and two 16-year-old grandsons also worked on the Sportsman, which costs about $200,000 as built through the Two Weeks to Taxi program. “Many people have asked me ‘You mean you trusted a bunch of high school kids to build your airplane?’ But the people running the show had six guys who were extremely skillful at doing this. They would take two or three of us and work on a part of the project. We’d switch around so each of us got to learn to do different things. The guys from Glasair watched what we were doing. If somebody didn’t do it right, they’d have them do it again.”

    Nigel Mott, president of Glasair Aviation, which supports the Aviation Design Challenge by providing the labor and facility for the build, sees the program as a confidence builder. Even if the students don’t pursue aviation, he says, “If they’re facing future challenges, they can look back at this and say, ‘Well, I built an airplane. I can probably handle this.’ ” He also says the program benefits his company. “It’s energizing for the employees to have these young people come in who are very excited about what they’re doing.”

    What they’re doing may be as important for the industry as it is for the students. Former Jeppesen CEO Mark Van Tine sponsored one of two airplanes produced by the first prize winners in 2013. “I love my airplane,” he says. Van Tine, with GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce, created the challenge and says the competition is as important as the experience of building an airplane. “The wonderful thing about aviation is that it makes STEM real and tangible,” he says. He points out that at this year’s 76 participating high schools, about 760 students worked for 30 days designing and evaluating the virtual airplane. “The not-so-subtle agenda,” he adds, is to expose high schoolers to aviation careers.

    Bunce says that people who work in aviation today are trying out many ideas to attract students to the industry. “I think it’s going to take all of them,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot of different programs to keep [student] attention and the attention of their parents.”

    Next year’s challenge is already under way. Jeppesen product manager Tom Letts, who worked on three of the last four builds, will sponsor the airplane. Enter the 2017 GAMA Aviation Design Challenge at