How to Build an Airplane in your School
by George Steed

[The following article appears at the Central Kitsap Junior High School Project SchoolFlight webpage:]



Why would you want to? This question is easy and there are many answers.

First, building an airplane teaches skills. Students learn what tolerances are and how to work to them. While building the CH-701 at CKJH we insist that each measurement of each part be within 1 mm of the design. They learn to read plans. They learn to transfer designs and lay out parts. Students learn to use hand tools such as snips, files, rasps, drills, deburrers, shears, and riveters. They learn the use of measuring tools such as rules, calipers, and micrometers. They learn the use of stationary tools such as drill presses, stationary shears, bending brakes, and stationary sanders. They learn skills of production sequencing and documentation.

Two students and a mentor working on the wing spar. Riveting the STOL CH 701 wing spars requires a real team effort.  Students and mentors build all the parts before assembling and riveting them together.

Students learn these skills in a very excited environment. This is not the traditional shop class. The fact that they are building an airplane makes the work they do seem very real. And it is! We only have to explain once that the laws of aerodynamics are unforgiving and the ground is hard. If a part is not within tolerance and we ask that it be remade, students understand why and invariably produce a correct part on the second try. As the project matures there have been very few rejects.

The project generates quite a bit of excitement outside of the shop as well. There are many ways that building an airplane can be integrated into other parts of the curriculum. Some are obvious. We will need fabric seat covers during the finishing stages. The Home Economics (or Consumer Skills) teacher volunteered to have her students work on this for us.

Others are less obvious and pleasantly surprising. The Computer departments of two high schools volunteered to ‘construct’ the airplane on the CADD system in the computer. This will allow our builders to see how the individual parts fit together in three dimensions. It will also give high schoolers a real world aviation project to put in their portfolio and take into the job market. If they want to work in drafting or engineering for Boeing or any of the companies that supply them, this is very relevant training.

Other computer skills developed are database management, word processing, and web page design and management. The web site you are reading was designed and is managed and updated by a 9th grader.

The band teacher at CKJH has volunteered to find students to compose and perform a triumphal roll out March. When the plane is completed and we present it to the school at an assembly, we thought we needed a theme song and the band has stepped forward.

The design classes at CKJH are working on paint schemes for the aircraft. Kids are really getting into this one. We started by giving out 175 line drawings of the airplane for students to place designs on. Within two weeks the class had asked for 300 more. We have Northwest themes, animal patterns, geometric patterns, and more traditional designs. The design classes at Klahowya Secondary are providing us with a project logo and designs for cards, letterhead, patches, and T-shirts.

We even have the French department in on this! We found a web site of a high school in France that is also building an airplane. Students of the French classes are translating the text and we have proposed a correspondence between the two building teams that would be translated by students. This is very useful, real world application of classroom learning.

The amazing thing is that most of these integrations with other disciplines had not occurred to us before we started the project. They arose afterwards and were usually delightful surprises. I have no doubt that we will include other parts of the school, the school district, and the community in ways that we cannot now imagine. A project like this sends out ripples of excitement that bounce around and come back in amazing ways.

Community involvement is key and is a big part of the project. Our project has the help of 15 mentors from the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. With 1000 chapters world wide, chances are there is one near almost anyone thinking of building an airplane that could offer help, support, training, and mentors.

We also have the Navy nearby. Two of our mentors come to us from the Navy under the P.E.C.E. program (Partners for Excellence in Community Education). They are on Navy time but assisting community education efforts.

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An airplane cannot be built without support at many levels. Starting at the top, we first approached the Superintendent of Schools. A project like this cannot be hidden, especially when newspapers and TV stations start running stories. Surprising anyone in the administration chain would invariably lead to problems. The Superintendent, when first approached was positive, supportive, even enthusiastic, but properly cautious and immediately brought in the Director of Vocational Training, the Director of Secondary Education, and the school district’s lawyers. The Director of Vocational Training is probably the biggest cheerleader. He or she can see the impact throughout the system of a successful building program.  The support of building principal is vital to the success of the program. Without his or her enthusiasm and vocal support, a project would find itself alone out on a limb. Other departments may not be as eager to become involved. Counselors are also vital in attracting capable students to the program. If they are comfortable that the project is fully supported, they will more easily recommend the project to students and parents. 

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An early decision that must be made is: How will the program be structured? Will it be a standard shop class? Will it be a club? Will credit be given? Who may participate? How often will it meet? How long will it take?

When I first approached a meeting of High School Industrial Arts teachers, they laughed at me. "You’ll never get the kids in these classes to work to those tolerances." "They won’t care about the project." "There’s no room here to do that." And all of these comments were, to some degree, valid. The really valuable suggestion they made was that the project would have to be for credit, after school, and we would have to sell it to the ‘kids in the Chess Club’. They said we would have to get kids who were already busy in many other things: motivated and capable kids.

Riveting the STOL CH 701 wing spars requires a real team effort. Everybody wins: students gain skills, mentors pass them on, schools gain a focus and a very visible exciting project, and the public sees the actual results of education in your community.

The biggest surprise to me during the early part of the process was that we found, not a high school, but a junior high school that wanted to take on the task. Vital to success is an industrial arts instructor who likes kids, is willing to work outside the traditional school day, and likes airplanes. At CKJH, Steve Smith easily met those requirements.

The building project is organized like any other class with attendance sheets, meeting times, and credits given. At CKJH the students receive 1 credit if they attend 80 building sessions during the course of a year. They receive credit if they attend 40 sessions. Steve Smith is paid for instructing, as he would be for any other class. He carries the same hourly load as he would otherwise but he has more planning time during the school day and must be at school Tuesday afternoons and Thursday evenings.

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Many airplanes have been built in schools with just the leadership of the instructor. The community, however, has a huge pool of talent just waiting to be tapped. Our local EAA chapter has 75 members. From this number, 15 agreed to be mentors for the building project. That’s 20% of the chapter members! In our area there are parents, Navy men and women, and craftspeople all of whom have skills and are eager to pass them on. They need only be approached and asked.

We find that with a pool of 20 mentors, we have 4-8 attending each session. We have not had to schedule attendance because it has been so forthcoming.

Only two characteristics are required of a mentor. One is an enthusiasm for some aspect of aviation. It isn’t required that mentors be machinists, and while a few are handy; it is best that there is a mix of skills and experience available. The second and most important requirement is an enthusiasm for kids and the ability to work with them.

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How to Attract Mentors

Actually, it’s not hard.

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Which Airplane to build??

With all of the experience of EAA Chapter 406 to call on, there was no shortage of advice or opinion. Everyone had their favorite plane, design, or building material, and a reason why it should be used. But we had some pretty specific requirements we had to meet

We considered and dismissed ‘tube and rag’ construction, foam and glass, and kit glass planes. All three had structures that required large spaces, and incremental construction. The glass planes had epoxies or polyester resins with toxicity concerns and curing times that would not fit into discrete two-hour periods of time. The tube structures required a great deal of welding. That left us with wood and aluminum. Both were acceptable for instructing beginners, relatively inexpensive, and were available in numerous designs. Jeff Fraisure brought up the overriding factors. He championed aluminum over wood because designs were made of individual parts that could be completed by individual students giving them a sense of accomplishment as each was finished. Aluminum also allowed the ability to ‘down tools’ when the clean-up whistle was blown without worrying about glue curing times, clamps, drips, etc.

Further advantages were that the supplies could be purchased incrementally as needed and the sponsor’s finances allowed. Aluminum is relatively inexpensive. Aluminum parts are easily inspected. Tool costs are low.

Once we had decided to use an aluminum airplane we had to choose a design. A two-seater was mandatory. Why build an airplane if you can’t give anyone a ride? Several possibilities were:

Several factors tipped the scales toward Zenith and the CH-701:

There were a few disadvantages:

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Who Sponsors the Project?

Well, in our case, I did. When I first asked Steve what kind of an engine he was planning to put into the plane he said, "We probably won’t put anything in it. It’ll just be a display plane." This seemed silly but the school district was not willing to risk liability exposure if they were ever to sell the aircraft. The fear was that ten or twenty years later, someone would crash and injured parties would see deep pockets and sue. The problem was solved by having a sponsor who would buy the plans and thus the license to build the aircraft, all the materials, and supervise the project. This was deemed acceptable when coupled with the liability insurance that the school held.

The sponsor’s job is to purchase materials in time, as they are needed. Other sources for funding were discovered, but they were used for other things than the raw materials of the plane. A local foundation gave a grant that sent Steve to a factory builder’s workshop in Missouri during the summer. EAA Chapter 406 granted $500 to be used for metal working tools. One of the mentors, Hal Downes, a Lockheed employee, applied for a company grant of $250 to be presented to the school to facilitate the project.

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Can the sponsor choose the aircraft design?

No. The danger would be that a sponsor would choose a design beyond the capabilities of a student group. Success is very important. If the first project failed, chances of attempting a second would be greatly diminished. The aircraft design must be chosen to meet the abilities of the students and afford the greatest chance for completion. After a school has completed a couple of ‘simple’ aircraft, they would be in a better position to judge the feasibility of a more complicated project.

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As noted at the beginning of this essay, there are numerous opportunities to include the rest of the student body in the building process, and for the builders themselves to use academic skills while involved in the program:

This list is growing weekly. As more people hear of the project we are approached with ideas, offers of help, and suggestions to involve more people.

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Building an airplane in a school environment is a project that takes on a life of its own. It becomes more than you imagined it ever could and in ways that will surprise you. Students, faculty, administration, parents, and community come together around an exciting, growing project. Everybody wins; students gain skills, mentors pass them on, schools gain a focus and a very visible exciting project, and the public sees the actual results of education in your community.

Drilling the STOL CH 701 Wing Spars Drilling the wing spar lightening holes is just one of the many skills applied in building an complete aircraft from blueprints.

At Central Kitsap Junior High we are five months into what we think will be a two year project but people are already talking about saving templates and forming blocks for when we start our second airplane. It’s that real.

If you would like information or have a specific question about starting a Project School Flight in your district e-mail me, George Steed, at or Steve Smith at .

Written by George Steed 

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Disclaimer: This page is the product of the Central Kitsap Junior High School Project SchoolFlight