A Week at the Zenith Aircraft Factory

[Linda Kirchner spent a week at the Zenith Aircraft factory in August 1997 to learn more about "real life" applications for geometry and math].

As a high school geometry teacher I long to bring workplace applications into my classroom, so I spent a week at the Zenith Aircraft factory in Mexico, Missouri 1. Three things stand out after having completing a week at Zenith Aircraft: the shop test, the workmanship, and the work atmosphere.

Potential employees at Zenith Aircraft must first take a shop test. First thing on Monday morning the shop foreman laid aside some tools, various pieces of sheet metal and a drawing I was to build. The test is designed to demonstrate the ability to measure, drill and rivet. But more than that, Zenith wants to verify that you can problem solve, ask questions, and use resources. Ninety percent of the applicants who take the test fail to construct the item. Some walk away without even trying! I was relieved to know I passed and could have been placed in the "consider-for-hire" category!

After completing the test, I worked with various Zenith personnel throughout the week. The workers were glad to see a teacher trying to bring useful, meaningful work to the classroom. The employees are real craftsmen, making certain all parts built are within tolerance. The tolerance, I found, was frequently 0.0005 mm. On some items produced the tolerance was zero! It's perfect or it's recycled.

In visiting with the welder, I said, "I suppose since you're building airplane kits you're more careful than if you were building say, lawn mowers." His response surprised me. "No, I would do my best and strive for excellence no matter what I'm producing!" Well, that's the kind of person I'd want welding my gas tank if I bought a kit plane!

The main manufacturing activity revolves around aluminum-alloy sheet metal. Sheet metal and I became well acquainted. Metal thicknesses of 0.016, 0.025, 0.032 and 0.090 inches now have a feel. We took 12' x 4' sheets and marked, sheared, bent, pressed, drilled, labeled and shelved them. Every step is done with care. Each rear wing rib, for example, is hand crimped, the flange edge hammered to a smooth 90-degree angle over a forming block and inspected for perfection. The leading edge (nose) wing ribs are placed on aluminum block templates and then machine pressed.

Most pieces take several steps to complete, like the small cable outlet fairing: We cut small squares first out of flat sheet metal, then two 130-degree bends are made, and the piece is then centered on a steel rod. By hand, you apply equal downward pressure to each side of the piece to form a smooth curve through which the aircraft's control cable will run. Throughout all this geometry abounds!

The work atmosphere at Zenith Aircraft is comfortable with positive interaction between the workmen. The shipping clerk, foreman, welder, crater builder and other craftsmen work to get orders out to customers and to make the operation run smoothly. The office sets the pace, balancing incoming orders, delivery dates and technical advice.

My overall response to this week at the Zenith Aircraft factory is, "WOW!" I saw that through the screening of the shop test, the quality workmanship and a productive, positive work atmosphere Zenith Aircraft is a great place to work and learn. Through this experience, I am confident my classroom is ready for take-off and we'll be flying high in 1997-98!

  1. A new Missouri education grant encourages teachers to spend time in a business that uses the subject he/she teaches.


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Mexico, Missouri, 65265  USA.
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