In 1988 a Piper PA-32-300 single-engine airplane overloaded with fishing cargo was attempting a landing at an Alaska airport when it stalled a few feet above the runway and dropped to the ground.
The impact of the hard landing pushed the main landing gear up through the wings and twisted the fuselage. A mechanic hauled off the wreck to a spot in the woods where it sat for years under a blue tarp—an inglorious end to the 15-year life of a workhorse aircraft.
Or so it seemed, as the years passed.
Cozad connected with Lyn Freeman, founder of Build A Plane, a nonprofit launched in 2003 to give youngsters a chance to build a real airplane.
Soon after, Rivers recalls, a presentation to a standing-room-only community meeting followed, and Talkeetna Build-A-Plane was born, with Rivers, who describes himself as “not good standing around twiddling my thumbs,” becoming its director.
The community’s receptiveness to the idea of introducing aviation to local students continued beyond the well-attended public meeting.
The Matanuska Electric Association offered a building and utilities at the Talkeetna airport. The mechanic, C.W. Harter, donated the wrecked airplane to the group, whose members transported it, piece by piece, from Willow to Talkeetna.
A local transportation company donated a 40-foot enclosed trailer for storage. An aviation wholesaler supplied Piper parts at discount prices.
Over the next seven winters, a succession of youngsters participated in the restoration, fabricating every needed part, and learning every necessary skill at each stage. Restoration was a winter-only activity, with work sessions on the Piper held on Monday and Thursday nights, because the mechanics who teach the skills and supervise the work—all volunteers—are busy all summer working for Alaska flight service companies that “go 24 hours a day” during their busy season, Rivers said.
The restored Piper now sits on the airport ramp—there’s no room in the building for an airplane with wings—awaiting installation of instruments and a few finishing touches.
When that work is done, before snow flies again if all goes well, it will pave the way for the aircraft to be put up for sale to finance Talkeetna Build-A-Plane’s future restoration projects.
That’s how Talkeetna’s own aircraft-restoration operation began—but don’t mistake that history as just a story of an airplane’s resurrection.
“This isn’t about getting planes done. It’s about building kids,” Rivers said by phone from Talkeetna on May 30. The previous evening he had returned from Washington, D.C., where he was honored in the Capitol Visitor Center with a Crown Circle Award from the National Coalition for Aviation and Space Education (NCASE), an event attended by dignitaries including Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young.
The Crown Circle Award is bestowed on “outstanding educators and education supporters who have shown leadership in their field or in support of aviation education objectives” by NCASE, which together with the FAA, promotes “aviation and space education while supporting schools’ initiatives at the local, state and national levels.”
Rivers emphasizes that the students who participate in the restorations at no cost to their families aren’t there helping grownups work on the airplanes. The students perform all the labor, hence the motto, “Real Kids Building Real Airplanes.”
If that means a participant must learn how to rivet, or do wiring, or fabricate sheet metal, the training comes first, followed—after testing—by being allowed to work on the aircraft. (A 10-year-old student was the oldest member of the Piper restoration’s plexiglass team, he said. Insulation was installed by an 8-year-old—the individual with the easiest access to the fuselage’s constricted sections.)
You can’t create a syllabus for a restoration project, Rivers said, because the skills a student may have to learn can’t be predicted. At each phase of a rebuild, unknown challenges will dictate what current program participants need to know.
Currently, Talkeetna Build-A-Plane participants are restoring an older model, straight-tailed Cessna 172.
For the participants, the experience doesn’t end when they have built an airplane.
Students have the opportunity to learn to fly. For those who have been through the Talkeetna Build-A-Plane program and are old enough to work, their prospects brighten as recruits for the busy maintenance shops of Alaska airports.
Rivers estimates that 14 percent of the program’s approximately 150 past participants—many who had never been to an airport before working on an airplane—are now employed in aviation, with more earning pilot certificates or enrolled in aircraft maintenance training programs.
As if to underline general aviation in Alaska’s demand for skilled labor, Rivers paused to describe an email that had arrived during his visit to Washington, D.C. The message was sent by a business inquiring if any youngsters in the program were seeking a summer job.
“They are highly sought after in the shops,” Rivers said.The nonprofit Build A Plane promotes STEM education through aviation and aerospace by giving students an opportunity to build airplanes. The organization is currently seeking donated aircraft to place in school programs for rebuilding.