High school students from Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley and North Scott are not only working to build an actual two-seat plane. The new project — the first of its kind in the Quad Cities — also builds their self-confidence, teamwork skills and career prospects.

Mike Zimmer, Pleasant Valley’s director of secondary education, got a $50,000 grant from Scott County Regional Authority for the plane materials from Van’s Aircraft in Aurora, Ore. It will cost $100,000 altogether and they’re working to raise the rest.

Students have been working since late August on assembling the RV12iS plane — 19 feet long, a wingspan of over 26 feet, and weight of just 775 pounds (a typical passenger jet weighs at least 90,000 pounds without passengers or fuel). It’ll have a top flying speed of 144 miles per hour.

“It literally comes in pieces; it’s pre-drilled,” Christopher Like, STEAM coordinator for the Bettendorf Community School District, said recently. “They’re putting the plane together from scratch.” All three high schools got together to partner on the project.

Mike Elbe, left, Zach Miller, and Chris Like at the North Scott garage in Eldridge where the plane is being built (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Zimmer arranged to get North Scott School District to allow use of its bus garage (on North Scott Park Road) for the project. Since August 2021, students and adult mentors from the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) have been meeting Saturday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday nights to work.

Students watch an introductory video before doing any work. As they work on parts, each student and mentor signs off on the part, as part of the eventual certification process, that the plane was built to proper specifications, Like said.

“Before you sell it, it’s got to fly for a certain number of hours,” he said. “People do this all over the country. It takes about a year. If you did it in your garage, it would take about 700 hours. We have 20 kids who don’t know what they’re doing and are learning.”

The project encouraged any students from the three Iowa high schools to get involved in the new PNB Aviation Club (named for the three school districts), said Jim Skadal, president of EAA Chapter 75.

“They have a log book where they can fill out what they accomplished that day,” he said. “This facility was revamped last fall, provided by North Scott School District.”

Last Saturday (Jan. 22), the students worked on assembling the plane stabilator, for the rear. All the tools are provided for the kids in the garage, and the mentors don’t do any work for them, but guide them and are there to answer questions.

The plan is to have the plane completed by the end of the school year, with the intent to sell the plane for $100,000, Like said.

“Mr. Zimmer said there’s no timeline; it’s a training focus,” Skadal said. “The young people do the actual work, building the actual aircraft.”

Even though PV and North Scott faced off against each other on the basketball court Friday, Jan. 21, that rivalry doesn’t cross over in this activity, he noted. “That’s kind of cool.”

EAA Chapter 75 members Paul Thronson, left, Jim Skadal, Greg Stopyra, and Jim Smith (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The EAA Chapter 75 has about 200 members in the QC area, with about 55 who are building their own aircraft. One of the student’s father is building a large version of the Van’s RV, a four-seat plane, Skadal said.

“One of the activities that is part of our by-laws is to help young people become involved in aviation,” he said.

Getting more people pumped about planes

EAA member Greg Stopyra, a pilot and West Point graduate (class of ’99) who’s worked at Rock Island Arsenal the past three years, is the chapter secretary.

EAA promotes general aviation and shares its passion, he said, while not all members are pilots.

The EAA chapter in the Quad Cities gives back to the community in activities like the Young Eagles, which helps students gain an interest in aviation.

“I grew up liking aviation; I got my pilot’s license,” Stopyra said. “This is just anybody excited about aviation, who wants to come out. We grow this into the community, to get more people excited about recreational aviation. It’s not just, go to the Moline airport, get on a plane and it takes me somewhere.”

As a mentor, working with students is exciting, especially as they talk about pursuing engineering as a career, he said.

“To share that passion – you can find commonality,” Stopyra said. “If that passion is aviation, it bridges the gaps. To be able to share that with the kids is great.”

EAA also offers Young Eagles flights, where students (under 18) can sign up for a free airplane ride, and they get to use the controls. “It’s sparking that passion in kids,” Stopyra said. “I’m in an airplane now and I’m controlling it.”

The chapter is always looking to grow, he said, noting it’s accessible for youth. There are scholarships available to help kids get their pilot’s license.

About 50 members are at some stage of building their own plane, Stopyra said. This is the first time the chapter itself has been involved in a build project.

Jim Skadal (right), president of the EAA Chapter 75, helps Pleasant Valley sophomore Nick Puthoff with a plane part (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“This is the one we’ve been looking for years to get involved with, and we’re just excited we’ve decided on this company and this aircraft,” he said. “It’s very popular throughout the country. It’s not the first one being built with high school students, but this is the first one in the Quad-Cities. It’s a well-proven design and we’re learning a lot from the people who’ve built it. We’re reading their blogs and the challenges they’ve overcome.”

“We’re hoping and praying that this will not be the only one,” Stopyra said of PNB building. “We look forward to continued years of doing this, after this one is done.”

It’s not a chapter-financed project, but led by the school districts and their support has been tremendous, he said.

“What I like about this, Mike Zimmer said that not all kids need college, and this is an opportunity for something else,” Stopyra said. “This is absolutely – between Arconic and John Deere – this is an industrial center here, and this is another avenue into that, with aviation, the hands-on, trades work.

“That’s why I’m excited about this – this could grow,” he said. “We could be the industrial aviation hub here.”

An unmatched STEM project

The school districts are also excited about providing this STEM experience, Bettendorf’s Like said.

“This is unmatched in any classroom. Having kids come out here Tuesday nights for two and a half hours; some of them are here two, three days a week,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing. All they’re doing is riveting things together, but they’re excited about it. I think we have just as many girls as we have boys.”

When they put out the call for students in Bettendorf, about 30 students signed up, Like said.

Bettendorf High School has its own planetarium, of which Christopher Like is director.

To understand the engineering and construction side, why they made the plane like this, also has been vital, Stopyra said.

It also sparks interest in STEM-related careers. Like said not every kid will be a four-year college-bound student.

“The idea of the trades, that there are good-paying jobs in high demand, in manufacturing, and they’re satisfying,” he said. “There’s a pathway for students. Experiences like this, this is unique.”

“I’ve been in other groups where you have parents and mentors come in, and do it for them, with the kids watching on the sideline,” Like said. “That is not the case here. They let the kids do everything; they let them mess up once in a while and then teach ‘em how to fix it.

One of the plane parts assembled by high school students in the $100,000 project.

“The most impressive part of the project for me is the collaboration between these guys, us, the kids, the districts,” he said. “There’s so much that went into this. It was such a unique and exciting project, that you can hear the excitement in the kids, in Greg and myself.”

“This is a giant endeavor – just look at this building,” Like said, noting the logistic complexities of getting everything together, and everyone on the same page.

Stopyra has heard some students say how therapeutic the work is. “We’ve got to prepare the parts, meticulously and in detail, to make sure they’re just perfect,” he said. “They’re pulling out their phones, taking little videos, saying this is great.”

Like also is impressed with the attention to detail that the students and mentors have. “This thing has to be certified when we’re done. I always hear, we have to do this right.”

A Dubuque team that did this had an acronym – PRIDE, standing for “personal responsibility in daily effort,” Stopyra said. “We’ve told the kids, this isn’t our airplane. It isn’t the chapter’s, or the advisors of the schools. This is something you can be proud of.”

“We don’t know when it’s going to be done,” he said of the plane. “We’re not rushing; there’s no timeline. It has to be done right. But we’ve talked, it would be great if we get this. We know there’s a big air show coming back in summer of ’23. That would be a great goal, if it’s finished, we could put this on display for the Quad Cities to see what our schools have done.”

About 80 students initially signed up for the club, and 45 have been involved on a regular basis.

The partnership among Bettendorf, North Scott and PV school districts includes students
Laura Azuela, left, Justin Lafrenz, Matt Burklow, and Katelyn Kiefer (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“This is totally extracurricular, but think of what they can put on their college applications, their resumes,” Like said. “The experience they can talk about – that’s what they’re getting out of it. And they’re making friends with like-minded people, from across districts.”

On one night, a 2015 Bettendorf grad who’s an aviation mechanic worked with the kids for two hours and talked with them about what it takes to get a job in the industry, Like said, noting he works locally on helicopters.

Students happy to get hands-on experience

The students involved in PNB run the gamut from those interested in planes, to those who just like building stuff, said Mike Elbe, a North Scott advisor.

There are other kids who wanted to be part of it, but had conflicting commitments (like robotics or archery club), Like said. Some students only come on certain days.

“What’s really neat too, some kids are natural leaders,” Stopyra said. He would like to see Illinois QC schools do their own project with EAA as well.

Bettendorf senior Aidan Hamner (who will attend Caltech in the fall) works with Katelyn Kiefer and Izzy Early in Eldridge, Jan. 22, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Bettendorf senior Aidan Hamner will be attending the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) next fall, majoring in mechanical engineering (with an aerospace minor).

“I want to work in space flight, and that’s part of the reason I chose Caltech, because of JPL,” he said of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The JPL is owned by NASA and is a division of Caltech.

“I’ll probably get a private pilot’s license at some point; I’m not gonna be a commercial pilot,” Hamner said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I applied to the astronaut program at some point in my life.”

This plane building is important to get engineering experience, he said. “It’s helped me see what kind of problems arise and how to solve them. It’s given me hands-on experience I haven’t had in the past, working with tools, rivets, that sort of thing. Plus, it’s reaffirming that this field is what I want to do.”

“I like to do hands-on stuff. I thought it would be fun,” said PV sophomore Nick Puthoff, noting one of his former neighbors was a pilot. “I hope to be a mechanic, something with cars. It’ll definitely help.”

Students Katelyn Kiefer, left, and Laura Azuela working on a part Jan. 22, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Laura Azuela, a North Scott freshman, is one of several female students working on the plane.

“My dad’s an engineer and he’s always tried to get us interested in building,” she said, noting he works for KONE, which builds elevators and escalators.

“We found the EAA Young Eagles events, and we’d go every time we could,” Azuela said. “We made friends with the pilots, and hearing about this, I got really interested in it. And it gives me a hands-on experience I can’t really get anywhere else.”

She wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps as an engineer.

“I would love to see more girls attend this, but I’m really excited there are so many people who are excited and willing to come here to build the airplane,” Azuela said. “There are a lot of girls that come, but I’d like to see more.”

Laura Azuela, left, Justin Lafrenz, Matt Burklow, and Katelyn Kiefer work on a plane part in the North Scott Bus Garage, where they hope to complete building the plane this June (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“It’s awesome, and we’re making a difference – that somebody one day is gonna be flying this,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll get some pictures when it’s painted and all nice.”

Van’s the most popular kit in the industry

Paul Thronson, a Chapter 75 member, said that after working on stabilator, they’ll move on to the wings, then the cockpit portion, engine and more in the front part of the plane.

This is the most-sold aircraft kit in the industry, he said. “The holes are all in the right places. It’s assembly more than it’s fabrication. Back in the old days, you had to cut things; you had to shape things. You had to measure out where to put your holes. Now, it’s all done for you.”

“This is state of the art; it’s well-proven,” Thronson said. “I think they’ve sold over 1,000 kits.”

A photo of the finished Van’s two-seat plane in flight.

The engine, propellor and all the main parts are included in the kit, he noted. “You’re getting the right parts, all together, so that just cuts down on the potential errors you could make. The industry has done a smart thing by putting that together for you.”

“It’s fun seeing the enthusiasm; that’s my favorite part,” Thronson said. “The kids are here because they want to be here. They want to learn something new, and be hands on. We have to keep reminding ourselves, this is their project and not ours.”

There’s a growing shortage of skilled workers in the U.S., especially in the aviation industry – where technology is rapidly changing, according to the PNB project description.

“Both military and civilian sectors are scrambling to train pilots, mechanics and avionics specialists to meet current and future needs of the industry,” it says. “To address this shortage, a greater focus on science, technology, and math in secondary education is an essential prerequisite for developing and preparing for even more technical training ahead.”

Many benefits to the build

The PNB Aviation project gives hands-on training in use of tools and equipment, interpretation of technical assembly instructions, promotes teamwork and introductions mechanical, electrical, and avionics fundamentals in an aviation context.

The skills students gain can be transferable to aspects of whatever career they pursue, including:

  • Process skill development — read, interpret and execute assembly instructions.
  • Technical knowledge and skill development in applied science, engineering and math.
  • Teamwork and interpersonal skill development.
  • Communication and skill development through project review presentations for school administration, parents and the community.
  • Development of personal responsibility, commitment and discipline.
  • Building confidence through a fully completed, complex task.

Once the plane is completed and certified by the FAA, they plan to sell it and use proceeds to buy another kit to be assembled by the next wave of students.

Additional funds are being sought to purchase the remaining items needed to complete the project. The Moline Foundation is overseeing an educational fund called High Flight, focused on education related to aviation.

Money donated to the High Flight Education Fund is tax-deductible and can be directed to the RV12iS assembly project. To learn more about donating to the effort, call 309-764-4193 or visit the Moline Foundation website.

The EAA QC chapter meets monthly (except during the summer) on the second Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Deere Wiman Carriage House in Moline. For more information, visit its website.