Learning–About Flying—Can Be Fun

(long version)

Eagle’s Nest Projects of North Texas Alights with STEM

In addition to studies, normal high school days are filled with spirited youth, sports, mingling and flirtations. In McKinney, Texas there’s yet another option, one of building an airplane. Liveried as learning, stowed under STEM curriculum, students in their final years of high school in the north Texas suburb can participate in the construction of an airplane—one that will fly with two persons on board. Under the auspices of Eagle’s Nest Projects, an independent nonprofit, the program espouses a scholastic attitude while adding entertainment and career objectives to the mix.

McKinney Independent School District (MISD) is in the sprawling metroplex of Dallas–Fort Worth, comprising three large high schools approaching 10,000 student enrollments. At MISD over 200 students participate in Eagle’s Nest where the program has clearly taken off with blue skies in the forecast.

In the current school year, number seven for the Eagle’s Nest / MISD partnership, the selected aircraft project is a freshly minted Legend Cub. It’s a distinctive aircraft which, purchased as a kit, conforms to a factory completed offering that has been flying since 2005. Among the pluses of this choice of project is its nearby manufacturer, American Legend Aircraft Company, who for their first time has stepped up to champion the Eagle’s Nest approach to inspiring young aviators.

Regarding youth in aviation, build-a-plane projects have shown to have the greatest of impact over other aviation experiences. Examples might include participation in an airshow, taking a first flight (i.e. the EAA Young Eagles program), or endeavoring into model aviation. While all are impressionable, the long term effect of building an airplane stands out with its hands-on, all-consuming, and perhaps hypnotic appeal.

Eagle’s Nest and McKinney ISD selected a Legend Cub for their most recent STEM studies build-a-plane project.

For students in many such build programs, building an airplane is an immersive, daily activity. Plus, there’s a hook, according to Eagle’s Nest Projects of North Texas director Phil Campbell, in that the students are committed to the program once enrolled. With an itinerary and a goal in sight, the end product is resolute. That the typical builder puts their heart and soul into such projects is a universally known tenet.

Uniting build-a-plane projects with STEM is not a wholly new concept. However, in the two decades or more that the two schemes have existed, many forms have evolved.

Eagle’s Nest Fledglings

The true beginnings of modern exploratory aircraft construction lie to a measured degree with the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). Formed in 1953, the organization serves to broaden knowledge of flight and its scientific discovery. EAA’s succinctly named aeroeducate.org program strives to inspire, steer, and open doors to youth wishing to explore careers in aviation. While EAA has its roots in building, getting youth involved is a contemporary crusade, and one with vigorous initiative.

Not alone in affirming youth as the future of aviation, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has forged the You Can Fly program to bring exposure of aviation careers to high school students. Success is burgeoning as AOPA is setting the standards in course curriculum. Examples include Career Technical Education (CTE) pathways at the high school level. Courses such as Introduction to Aerospace, Principles of Flight, and Advanced Flight are provided free of charge and set up with the help of AOPA. Presently, the curriculum is being used at more than 280 high schools and growing. Field tested in Ada, Oklahoma, AOPA inspired many students to take flight lessons, while several attained their pilot’s license prior to graduating high school. Now in its sixth year, the program has both captured the interest of future aviators and taught students to become adept problem-solvers.

Opportunity and curriculum in place, the next step for youth is involvement, and Eagle’s Nest Projects is one such initiative. Success stories abound, and numerous aircraft are flying as a result. “Eagle’s Nest provides a hands-on approach, and this leads to retention,” according to Campbell.

Inspiration and Teaching

A variety of examples of aviation in the classroom have popped up all across the U.S. Their reach has expanded to even younger students, encouraging continuation into their teens. One is Wings Aerospace Pathways, affiliated with the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, which involves students in grades 6–12 with one-day-per-week “Hangar Days.”

The Tehachapi Society of Pilots Build-a-Plane Program offers a hangar plus retired mechanics and engineers to mentor youth. In Fall 2021, the group completed a Zenith CH 750 aircraft build. Likened to a vocational program, which are no longer as common as they once were, the program teaches about construction techniques while students do the work building an airplane, a proven method to ensuring success later. With college engineering studies but one example, the hands-on experience helps in better understanding the concepts being taught.

STEM students in Project Pegasus at Gnoss Field Community Association, also in California, benefit from mentors from several nearby airports. The project focuses on students developing a work ethic and acknowledges that the future of aviation will come from them. Once the first airplane is financed and completed, the program is financially self-sustaining—a system followed by others. The team works closely with EAA Chapter 1232 providing expertise within the community to develop technical, logistical, organizational and interpersonal skills.

TeenFlight is a program based in Puyallup, Washington, and associated with EAA Chapter 326. Building airplanes since 2012, and offering classroom instruction since 2009, the program involves Van’s Aircraft founder Richard VanGrunsven, accounting for numerous RV-series aircraft projects being completed. Personal involvement by the founder led to the well-developed RV-12 model addition to his successful line of (sequentially numbered) kits.

Returning to McKinney, there’s a similar, yet outside the classroom group that calls themselves Tango Thirty One Aero Clube (sic). Eccentric spelling aside, the mission is simple… Clube members participate in aircraft restorations, maintenance and repairs on aircraft they can fly. The organization comprises both youth and experienced aviators.

Eagle’s Nest Projects

At Eagle’s Nest Projects of North Texas, Phil Campbell is leading the charge. His role is multifaceted and, importantly, includes working directly with students. He is director by day, while in other parts he steps up to serve, like inestimable others, as a volunteer. Campbell must be an educator and mentor to all participants, be they student, teacher or volunteer. Admittedly, however, his primary function is one of inspiring youth. He concurs that the learning, STEM and aviation aspects follow accordingly.

Speaking of the current build project that began in 2020, Campbell acknowledges, “The Cub is taking longer than the familiar RV projects that we’ve completed in the past. I thought it would be faster, after all it is a historically simple airplane.” Among the most time consuming areas of this type of construction is the fabric covering process. It can also be one of the most satisfying, as, with each layer, the airplane’s form evolves. Campbell envisions that with additional mentor team experience, future fabric work can proceed as quickly as applying sheet metal and the thousands of requisite rivets involved in a monocoque design such as the Van’s RV. He’s a believer, and, as said, it’s his role to inspire.

Eagle’s Nest mentors get a lesson in aircraft covering at American Legend Aircraft Company.

In early 2022, Campbell had confirmed that all the fabrication, i.e. assembly work of the Legend Cub build, was done. With the major components subsequently painted, wings were mounted that Summer. He initially had hopes of displaying the team’s work at EAA’s mid-summer AirVenture gathering, however, reality set in and progress on the instrument panel took precedence.

While Campbell has maintained reliance on the Legend factory, aircraft instrument panels decidedly oscillate towards a customized process. “So we ventured on our own,” he noted. “Legend did cut the panel on their CNC machine, and avionics were ordered through the company. They helped load test the circuits to determine breaker sizes.”

“The panel was laid out and built with almost all Dynon [Avionics] products. Dynon provided pre-built harnesses, but students, and mentors, still looked at each connection in detail,” Campbell continued. “A intercom from PS Engineering was used since there’s no PTT (push-to-talk) on the Dynon radio.” According to Campbell, at present Legend customers are building primarily Garmin equipped panels, “This was another reason we needed to rely on manufacturer’s support from Dynon and PS Engineering, which was excellent. All we’ve done at Eagle’s Nest previously is Dynon, so the foundation was familiar.”

State and Local Support

MISD is unique, operating one of the larger STEM programs in the country. Classes get some funding through Texas’ CTE programs. One drawback of the state aid is that help in the form of teachers is not always aviation specific. Presently at MISD, as Campbell noted, the other STEM teacher has a robotics focus. Aviation being split among many career clusters within CTE, the available resources must be divided. Programs of study are continuously being realigned to match Texas’ ever-changing economic landscape.

The career aspect of Eagle’s Nest / MISD / STEM is manifest with local businesses in McKinney, including iFly GPS, a developer of digital planning and navigation products for pilots, and Cirrus Aircraft, a aircraft manufacturer service center, at the airport. So local support is present and much heralded. Cirrus has provided appreciable funding for the next RV-12 slated for construction through Eagle’s Nest, according to Campbell. Both companies offer internships to students and have gone on to hire MISD graduates.

Student Interest

On the student side, Campbell routinely welcomes those who are interested in flying and the A&P profession (Airframe and/or Powerplant licensed mechanic). He adds that other students tend to latch onto the learning environment, whether for entertainment or other aspects of the class. Many just like being around airplanes and this can open minds to a future in the field. Careers in aviation are broad and the shared knowledge of the industry offers a unique camaraderie.

A team of students and mentors stand beneath the freshly assembled fuselage and wing structures. Photo by Jim Wilson Photography.

The MISD program starts with students at the junior level. While many return their senior year, it really depends on their career path, according to Campbell. Some will drop the aviation elective because it’s not needed; some elect to only do a half-day program.

Initial perceptions are varied. One student remarked early on in the project, “I’m not flying an airplane built by high schoolers.” He wants to be an engineer, Campbell elucidated. Such sentiment is understandable, as the problem solving instinct has an inherent disbelief that needs to be resolved, or processed, by “scientific” means in the thinker’s mind. Being involved in analysis, even fabrication, helps to remove perceptions of risk. An understanding of the process—in this case the complexities of building an airplane, be it large or small—can change one’s notion. As each project unfolds, apprehension is replaced with enthusiasm and conviction.

A team of students prepare a landing gear leg with the assistance of experienced personnel from Legend Aircraft. Photo by Jim Wilson Photography.

Mentors and Leaders

Proximity to important aviation and space operations results in numerous professional pilots and engineers living in a community, along with others who enjoy flying, i.e. those “interested in all things airplanes.” These like-minded people enjoy sharing their passion through involvement with build-a-plane projects.

While currently serving as the only the project lead with Eagle’s Nest Projects of North Texas, Phil Campbell collaborates with an assigned teacher. The effort to command the attention of teenage students in a workshop environment is a tall task. This is where other instructors, in particular, mentors and volunteer participants, work to steer the interests of students. Exposure alone to the unique workplace is, at times, enough to captivate most. “Though some flee, what has been learned is that it’s best to point them in the direction they are drawn,” says Campbell.

Eagle’s Nest is a nationwide organization with four Texas locations in McKinney, Conroe, Granbury and Clear Lake / League City. With twenty RV-12 projects having been completed, the strength of the program is self-evident. According to Campbell, all of those projects were made possible by the organization’s now retiring (for a second time!) president, Ernie Butcher. “Ernie is an amazing man and none of this would be possible without his generosity throughout the years he spent with Eagle’s Nest,” he lauded.

Technique, Talent and Experience

With the current Legend Cub project being a departure from previous kit aircraft builds, Campbell cheers the support and guidance received from Legend Aircraft (located in Sulphur Springs, Texas). “Their response has been an outpouring of answers to questions all along the way. They make an awesome product,” he indicated. “Together we’ve discussed the difficulties in building such a project.” Laying, stitching and taping the fabric skin, as an example, can be consuming, requiring both technique and talent. There’s a learning curve that is a challenge to teach and master, particularly in one school semester.

A team of 15-20 students worked on the wings, a framework of aluminum webs and other hardware. During the fabric covering process, Campbell recognized, “Within the student team, one girl and one guy were phenomenal. They got knots down and led the other classmates in the exercise.” Covering requires dexterity, and even promotes artistry in the finished product. Coming in twos, wings consume a lot of time.

Having built multiple RV-12 kits prior, Campbell and several Eagle’s Nest mentors were want of learning something new. Hence, the “tube-and-fabric” Legend Cub was suggested. On this first of its kind, mentors were also students—equals but for the passage of time. While Campbell wished more experienced mentors had been available at the onset, the overall class lesson presented a catch-22 lesson. The monocoque construction to which they were accustomed (with the RV-12 builds) introduced a dilemma in the form of the new tube-and-fabric process.

Students at Eagle’s Nest / MISD begin the covering process on a Legend Cub elevator surface.

Though the educator is there to impart knowledge and skills, the variety of qualifications rendered are often limited by availability. Legend Aircraft, as does any factory with a talented workforce, experiences as much in their hiring and retaining. To increase retention employees are often trained at new tasks. It’s a phenomenon in the manufacturing trade worldwide. A visit to the factory (a field trip) and the lending of an employee to work with the Eagle’s Nest team offered great inspiration to the students of all ages and competency.

Students and mentors work to ensure each step of the build is performed to specification.

Free Flight

With semesters marking the end of each academic session for most youth, some do participate in the “off” months to continue the work. The drive to finish is ever present. Eagle’s Nest sets a goal of finishing and selling the airplane, thus enabling the start of another. Essentially, the funding cycle must continue in this manner.

While the project aircraft, on completion, is essentially the same as one built at the factory, it is expected to have a life of flying ahead. Perhaps it will be flown by a single pilot/owner for a generation or more. There’s also the possibility that hundreds of pilots will sit behind its controls and experience its joys. This particular aircraft is slated to go to Bruce Bohannon, a renown world record holding pilot and current owner of the highest time factory-built Legend Cub. Bohannon operates a flight school in the Houston area where he’s introduced many student pilots to flying.

In addition to its Dynon-centric instrument panel, with a SkyView HDX touch screen display, the completed Eagle’s Nest Project aircraft will feature an O200-D engine from Continental Motors, a staple of aviation for more than 80 years, and a composite propeller manufactured by Catto Propeller of Jackson, California.

Building Bumps-in-the-road

An extensive project, such as this one, is not without the common gotchas that beleaguer most aircraft builders. Setbacks can and do happen, such as supply delays, even price increases. Campbell noted that Legend Aircraft was highly supportive in buffering many of these issues for the Eagle’s Nest team. For instance, “The engine was procured before a 30-percent price increase went into effect,” said Campbell. Furthermore, normally stocked factory items were at the disposal of the build crew as needed.

The paint scheme was somewhat an easy call, “To get people’s attention, we need a bright yellow Legend Cub,” Campbell articulated. He sees the project as a tool for keeping the Eagle’s Nest and STEM partnership visible in the minds of all. Further, it was decided that the painting step would take place at the Legend factory, without student involvement, short of a possible field trip. This is among the many things Campbell has learned over his years of building in order to avoid bumps.

When complete, the Eagle’s Nest / MISD program will have built a Legend Cub in classic yellow livery, one that will serve to instruct new pilots and bring enjoyment to many who browse and fly beneath its wings. Photo by Jim Wilson Photography.

Kitting and Curriculum

For its part, Eagle’s Nest handles the logistics to include funding and materials all the way through to FAA inspection and first flight. Where knowledge can be imparted under the STEM curriculum, many opportunities are warranted.

Kit building an aircraft comes with high expectations. Regardless that the kit is a known entity with numerous examples already built, the depth of the curriculum is significant. Adjusting the curriculum is an ongoing endeavor. Making new friends, learning organizational skills, seeing the big picture, learning that no matter how much you know there’s always a new lesson ahead.

While the concept of “kit” airplanes might alarm some. Within the regulatory framework of the FAA such practices are well established. Not only do they meet the safety standards of commercial air transport they often exceed them. The experimental foundation of aircraft construction provides ever-expanding knowledge. It is a two-way street for aircraft large and small.

Getting started with building a kit airplane introduces design methodology, tools, and workspace parameters to those involved. Parts, construction, materials, and processes all contribute to safety and to the study. Kits generally comprise a fuselage section (the safety cage), upon which the tail, wing and powerplant sections are mounted. Each element has a practical, i.e. scientific, element to its manufacture. Variety is evident in the many construction methods that have been used, and refined, since the early days of aviation.

Traditional construction methods include monocoque airframes of welded steel and riveted aluminum. Newer methods include reinforced composites. The outer surfaces, called skins, are of aluminum, sometimes composite materials, or reinforced and coated fabrics. Many of these methods can also be found in the automotive, nautical and sport manufacturing industries. The scientific studies are therefore applicable across of wide range of applications.

The McKinney Aviation Academy (MAA) is a preparatory program for studies in aviation, from model flying to careers. The academy was selected as the latest Eagle’s Nest project in the Fall of 2020. That’s when students in the third year course of MAA began learning how a Legend Cub is built.

Alongside academy instructors is a team of mentors who volunteer their time and expertise. They instruct students in the construction of amateur-built airplanes. Moreover, the learning extends to life skills and experiences. Connecting with an educator can impact the outlook of a student, making a long lasting, positive influence on the lives of the young men and women participating. Through the encouragement of the instructors, mentors and Eagle’s Nest leaders, students gain an experience they will remember for a lifetime. facebook.com/mckinneyaviationacademy

More Local Involvement

One key to the success of such programs is the aforementioned two-way flow it facilitates. Youth are introduced to both studies and to their real world application. When local businesses get involved they benefit from apprising and cultivating local talent for future employment. Students gain valuable exposure to workplaces and opportunities within industry relevant to their interests.

Namely, American Airlines’ representatives serve on the CTE Aviation Advisory Council at MISD. This partnership leads to pilot recruiting and a career path for talented individuals. The company participates in aviation days at the airport and works with students at the campus level. They host special field trips to American Airlines’ facilities. Providing information to high school counselors to aid students serves to educate them about professional opportunities at all levels within the company.

Additional partnerships have been formed with Southwest Airlines. One with Monarch Air, for example, provided on-airport space for a project and classroom. In the past, LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, coordinated with streamlining pilot, engineering, and aeronautical science studies. Such degree path programs confirm that aviation is more than flying.

History on Repeat

The build-a-plane idea has been around since the 1960s, and today it involves much more than the reading, writing and arithmetic mantra of that era. Years ago, at Steen Aero Lab, a prototype aircraft designed by Lamar Steen was built by the high school shop class he taught. It was a conceptual airplane of original design and completed in just a year at Denver’s Manual High School. The project served to teach wood, tube and fabric construction skills. Over 400 of the award winning, popular, aerobatic, sporting, one and two-place biplane aircraft variations have been built since the prototype first flew in 1970.

Aviation Full Circle

“The task of introducing teenagers to aviation is not nearly as difficult or expensive as you might imagine. It is work, admittedly. It requires effort and planning and at least a handful of willing volunteers who can share the load,” noted Jamie Beckett, the always poignant aviation wordsmith. He added, “To hold the interest of the students and keep them motivated, I’ve found it best to procure an actual airplane to center the activities around… a project that would one day fly.”

Beckett is involved with the Aspiring Aviators Aero Club in central Florida. Working from an open hangar, he adds, “They see Cubs, Stearmans, Swifts and Champs taxi through their field of view.” He describes one student participant as filled with “youthful exuberance.” Those two words deftly summarize the build-a-plane concept. It’s an excellent way to satisfy the charge that learning should be fun.

The classic yellow Cub manufactured by American Legend Aircraft Company. Photo by Jim Wilson Photography.

This article was published in Texas Aviation STEM Magazine, September 2023.