Pulling together

Indiana high school kids fly the airplane they built

May 1, 2013

Ross Porter is young, but he’s a realist.

In the middle of last summer, Porter, then 16, saw that he and his fellow students at Jennings County High School in southern Indiana were unlikely to reach their goal of completing and flying a Vans Aircraft RV–12 in time for the start of EAA AirVenture 2012.

The student volunteers in the Eagle’s Nest program had made steady progress building the two-seat, Light Sport aircraft during the past 16 months. But meeting the deadline for the world’s largest aviation gathering would require a superhuman effort, lots of help, and no more rookie mistakes in the weeks remaining—even though Porter and his teammates were all rookies.

Eagle's Nest studentsThe half-dozen friends had developed many new skills working on the RV–12 after school and on weekends. But none of them had attempted to build anything as ambitious or complex as an airplane before, and they were far from efficient. They had already devoted about 1,600 construction hours to an airplane that an experienced builder could finish in 800 hours. And by Porter’s estimation, the kids still had another 400 hours to go.

“We all had to face facts, and I honestly didn’t think we’d be able to get it done in time,” said Porter, a shy, introverted student who had had to overcome his own solitary nature to lead the project. “Looking at how much we still had to do, and the very limited amount of time we had left, anyone who took a hard look at the situation would have reached the same conclusion. The odds were against us.”

Who wants to build an airplane? Porter had impulsively volunteered for the project in 2011 when Jennings County High School engineering teacher Andy DeBose asked, “Who wants to build an airplane?” Porter raised his hand, attended the first few volunteer training sessions after school, and soon found himself hooked. He would do whatever it took to see the project through to completion.

But progress came in fits and starts. Months into construction, Porter realized that the students had forgotten to install a set of thin spacers in the airplane’s stabilator. Fixing the oversight required drilling out scores of tough rivets on aluminum skin. That and many other small errors set the project back. As he looked ahead, Porter knew his group couldn’t afford any more miscalculations.

Eagle's Nest studentsThe Midwest was in the midst of a pitiless drought that summer, and many days during the final work weeks topped out at more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The Spartan workspace at the North Vernon Municipal Airport (OVO) had fluorescent lights, no windows, and a concrete floor; it felt, at times, like a sauna. Some of Porter’s peers had summer jobs and other obligations, so just getting them to work on the airplane at crunch time was likely to be problematic.

Yet adversity brought the group together. And the harder they worked, the more others noticed and wanted to help.

StatFlight, a medical helicopter firm based at North Vernon, offered short-term use of an air-conditioned hangar. Avery Tools supplied pneumatic tools that sped up construction and increased quality. Hangar Six, an aircraft painting firm, offered to paint the airplane for the cost of materials. Parents gave their kids rides to and from the airport early in the mornings and late in the evenings.

“The way we all pulled together in the final weeks leading up to Oshkosh is something that still amazes me,” Porter said. “We worked our butts off. It sucked working all day when it was over 100 degrees, and there were days I honestly didn’t want to come to the airport. But we had fun even through the worst of it. What else can you do?”

Triumphs. As it turned out, of course, their airplane—N901EN—flew for the first time on July 16, 2012, just in time to make it to AirVenture. There, the Eagle’s Nest kids were a sensation. The group camped on the airport grounds, received an EAA award for the airplane they called Eagle’s Nest One, and spent much of their time at AirVenture answering questions from attendees, meeting VIPs, and being lauded for their perseverance.

Eagle's Nest students“People’s reaction to what we had done made us realize that it was really something unique, something special,” Porter said. “We didn’t realize how rare an opportunity we had been given with this airplane. We are amazingly fortunate, amazingly blessed, to have it so good.”

For Porter, the project was a personal triumph.

Once obese, he had lost 55 pounds during the course of the project. Even more profound was his transformation from a passive observer to an engaged leader.

“I’d always been real quiet and pretty much kept to myself,” he said. “But as the project manager, I had to be assertive. Everyone who worked on the airplane had to know what to do, what was expected of them, and how the things they were doing fit into the big picture. I had to make sure everyone knew those things, and that they all had the things they needed to do their jobs right.”

Second time around. Bob Kelly, the founder of the Eagle’s Nest program, had been shopping his idea around for nearly two years without success.

A retired technical writer for Cummins Inc., GA pilot, and builder of an RV–9A, Kelly believed high school kids were capable of building an RV–12 with proper supervision. He pitched the idea at many schools and collected lots of polite rejections.

Then, finally, teacher DeBose at Jennings County High School called and said he was ready to start. Could they begin Tuesday?

Kelly, 69, and a local business owner bought the first RV–12 sub-kits from Vans Aircraft to get things going. Later, Ernie Butcher of League City, Texas, funded the entire Eagle’s Nest program and fronted the full $75,000 cost of a new RV–12 kit including engine, propeller, and avionics.

Eagle’s Nest started aircraft construction in January 2011, and the students built the fuselage and tail at their high school. The wings took shape in a donated workshop at the North Vernon airport. Porter focused on the rudder and the vertical stabilizer, and he knew his work had to meet more than minimum standards.

“You learn accountability, craftsmanship, and pride when you build an airplane,” he said. “It makes you thorough because you know someone’s life is going to depend on everything being done right. You can’t cut corners.”

The success of the Jennings County kids convinced Kelly and Butcher that the program was repeatable elsewhere. In late 2012, several more high schools launched Eagle’s Nest RV–12s, and airplanes are under construction in Houston; Lafayette, Indiana; and Puyallup, Washington. Others are likely to begin soon in Florida and several other states.

Youth programs such as Build-a-Plane have had success refurbishing donated project aircraft. Kelly said Eagle’s Nest chose to build new RV–12s in an effort to develop a curriculum, standardize construction and tooling, and use the existing network of experienced RV builders.

A second Indiana high school, the Patriot Academy, started an RV–12, but
the high school itself was closed before the airplane was finished. Six of the Jennings County High School underclassmen who had been involved in Eagle’s Nest One signed up to complete this second RV–12, and it’s rapidly taking shape in the same workshop that gave birth to the first one.

Porter is once again coordinating their efforts, and the six students meet three times a week from 3:30 p.m. until 6:30.

“Things are going a lot faster the second time around because this time we know what we’re doing,” he says wryly. “We’ll have no trouble being finished in time for Oshkosh this year, none at all.”

The second RV–12’s wings are finished, the fuselage is on its landing gear, and the students are getting ready to install the 100-horsepower Rotax engine and avionics. The first RV–12 took about 2,000 kid hours to build. The second is likely to take about 1,200.

Porter, a senior, has arranged an internship at the North Vernon airport and gets to spend additional time on aircraft construction two days a week. Instead of building control surfaces, this time he’s focused on avionics. “The Dynon Skyview in this airplane absolutely blows me away,” he says.

Eagle's Nest studentsNo bad habits. The kids who built Eagle’s Nest One are now learning to fly in it, and Porter and freshman Austin Malcomb, 16, have started flight training. Ron Huddleston, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and current CFI, is donating his time for Eagle’s Nest students through their initial solo flights.

Malcomb recently fulfilled a personal goal by soloing on his sixteenth birthday in the airplane he had helped build. And Huddleston said the kids’ familiarity with the aircraft aids their flight training.

“The kids have a great depth of mechanical knowledge about the airplane, so they show me things on the preflight inspections,” he said. “They have no apprehension, and they’re easy to teach because they haven’t learned a bunch of bad habits from driving cars yet.”

Malcomb—whose father, Jeff, is an airline pilot, and grandfather, Howard, is a GA flier—grew up around airplanes and soloed in the RV–12 with less than 10 hours of dual instruction. On a blustery winter day, the RV–12’s nosewheel seemed glued to the centerline as he practiced takeoffs and landings. When another pilot asked whether the 15-knot northwest wind was intimidating, Malcomb dismissed it as “no big deal.”

“It’s right down the centerline,” the self-assured student pilot said.

Eagle's Nest students The RV–12 insurance policy allows up to four students to train at the same time, and juniors Justin Wooton and Elijah Morris are set to begin next. The two friends joke about the seating adjustments they’ll have to make: Wooton is about five feet six inches tall, and Morris is well over six feet.

Their motivations are different, too. Wooton says he gets the greatest joy from building while Morris is drawn to flying.

“I’m a builder now,” Morris says, “but I’m going to be a flier soon, and I can’t wait.”

Kelly estimates 100 high school kids have been involved in Eagle’s Nest projects, and about 25 percent of them are likely to pursue flight training. But whether they become pilots or not, Kelly said the young participants are gaining a lifelong appreciation for aviation as they develop skills, confidence, and teamwork that they can apply to all their endeavors.

On a recent Thursday night, six Eagle’s Nest kids worked continuously for four hours on their next airplane. There were no iPods in their ears, no cell phone conversations, or texting—just riveting, sanding, measuring, and fitting. And, of course, lots of laughter.

At about 7 p.m. they put their tools away, turn off the space heaters, and take stock.

“It’s been a good night,” said Porter, who plans to attend Southern Illinois University next year and study aviation maintenance. “The seatbacks are done, the instrument panel and electrical shelf are taking shape, and some of the fuel lines are in. Lots of little stuff—but one of the things you learn building an airplane is that big things are really just lots of little things put together.”

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.