Encouragement from a group of aviation enthusiasts and hands-on mentorship in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts is helping propel Philadelphia high school students toward aviation careers they might not otherwise consider, explained Stratus Aviation Foundation leaders Dimitri Vassiliou and Michael Schultz.
Pilots, aircraft owners, and aviation mentors Vassiliou and Schultz said the Pennsylvania program meets in a hangar every weekend at historic Wings Field Airport, the original home of AOPA, to teach aviation from the ground up—by bucking rivets, talking about aviation concepts, and flying general aviation aircraft.
The thirst for aviation was visible in high school senior Marvin Wallace as he cheerfully coached younger students through proper tool-handling skills on a recent Saturday. His patience paid off as rivets punched metal in a repetitive click-click-click to begin forming an aircraft center section. A diverse group of boys and girls took turns with the shiny sheet metal as the second of two Van’s Aircraft RV-12 models began to slowly take shape. The first aircraft had been mostly completed by youth attending the Stratus program before skilled mechanics applied the finishing touches to the cockpit and other systems, and prepared the aircraft for its inspections. Long-range plans include utilizing the completed two-seaters as flight training machines.
Vassiliou said several students have “graduated” from the Stratus program and “gone on to either aeronautical programs or engineering programs.” He pointed to Anthony DeMarinis as one of the program’s “biggest success stories. He came to us without a whole lot of direction and now he’s pursuing a career in engineering. He wants to become a commercial pilot.”
DeMarinis said he became involved with the program in his senior year of high school “and I’ve been coming out here ever since.” He started out prepping sheet metal and gradually learned how to do “anything from assembly to interior work.” As a reward for the hard work DeMarinis joined the Stratus co-founders at EAA AirVenture and camped out under the wing of Schultz’s Cessna as stars and aircraft twinkled overhead. He recalled seeing “every possible airplane you could imagine” and relished his time with fellow aviators.
His first flight training experience was flying home from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, when he flew for eight of the 12 hours it took to navigate to Pennsylvania. “That was exhilarating, with three assisted takeoffs and landings.” He added that the entire flight “was a very valuable experience.”
DeMarinis is currently enrolled at Montgomery County Community College and plans to use his working knowledge of material sciences to pursue a nanofabrication engineering degree. He set a goal “to develop some kinds of patents” and sell them to businesses enterprises.
Schultz, a flight instructor, shouted over a honking air compressor that a typical Stratus Aviation Foundation session involves several hours of working on an RV-12 followed by aircraft skills discussions and computer simulation time. Then, Schultz explained, comes the best part of the experience. Volunteer pilots meet with the youth “and we take at least five or six of the kids up flying” either in Schultz’s Cessna 150 or in Vassiliou’s Mooney M20E. “That’s usually the highlight of the day” and enough to “drive their motivation to make building more interesting—even if that’s not what they showed up for originally,” teased Schultz.
Vassiliou said the airfield itself, situated on the north side of Philadelphia’s Class B airspace, has a unique aura. In 1939, a small group of dedicated aviators laid the foundation for AOPA. An aviation country club complete with a swimming pool, a dining veranda, and a view of the Wings Field ramp completes the experience.
The foundation has a Redbird flight simulator to practice aviation concepts, and a Cessna 170 was recently donated to the program by a longtime friend. “It’s not the best training aircraft,” said Schultz, who considered the advantages and disadvantages of the taildragger. The foundation will instead raffle the cream-and-tan classic and apply those funds to future program needs. If plans take shape as expected, a damaged Cirrus cockpit adjacent to the flight simulator will “hopefully, one day turn into a FAA-certified flight training device.”
Program veterans Wallace, DeMarinis, Kiera Crenny, and Avi Wolnek took turns handling tools and explaining aviation concepts to about six newcomers. Wolnek handed a rivet-punching tool to a young girl after first explaining and then demonstrating how to safely use the device. “I love sharing my love and passion with others and with younger kids that might be less fortunate, it’s so enjoyable,” said Wolnek.
Wolnek, a high school sophomore, was one of the most consistent builders over the sometimes-bleak Northeast winter. Sitting in front of a shiny RV-12 fuselage, he reflected on the experience. “I built it almost entirely on my own the days that I came,” while others huddled somewhere warmer than an airport hangar in the winter. “I just got to work and riveted and sanded all this stuff. In the end everyone, including the supervisors just came over and complimented me saying, ‘You can do a good job, Avi.’”
The program strengthened his love for aviation and brought him closer to his father, who works for Boeing’s helicopter division building CH-47 Chinooks. “I don’t want to design but I’d love to build [an aircraft] or supervise aircraft manufacturing,” said Wolnek. His mother was instrumental on the build, too. She “has been very supportive in finding the things that I love. She brings me here every time—with no ifs, and, or buts.”
Crenny began her affiliation with Stratus as a high school junior and is now a University of Delaware junior studying civil engineering. She credits her mother with discovering the aviation youth program. They “came down one weekend to hear about the program and I thought, ‘OK, why don’t I come back next weekend?’” She has been working on aircraft or mentoring other students ever since. Crenny stopped by the expansive white hangar on her summer break to mentor younger students. She added that she originally “had no experience with aviation, and I’ve helped to build a plane from a kit that is sitting behind me right now. I remember when I didn’t know how to use tools so it was nice to see some new faces today and teach them the basics.”
When she finishes college Crenny plans to earn a pilot’s certificate “or continue with aviation in some sort of way” and credits the Stratus Aviation Foundation with opening doors for her.
“I wanted to become a commercial pilot all my life,” said Wallace, as he reloaded a Cleco fastener to temporarily hold pieces of sheet metal together. “My family doesn’t have the funds so I don’t know how I’ll do it—but I will do it,” Wallace vowed. “It’s my dream.”
AOPA’s You Can Fly initiatives recognize the importance of building the pilot community through a variety of mechanisms that make flying safe, fun, and affordable. The association seeks to bridge the gap in aviation youth education with its Aviation High School Initiative. The goal is to help build and sustain aviation-based STEM programs in high schools in order to provide a quality workforce to the aviation industry.