Story and photos by Ted Luebbers
Unfilled jobs in the aviation industry spurred Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 534 to introduce young people to the joys of flying and building aircraft at an early age.
EAA Chapter 534 at the Leesburg International Airport in Leesburg, Florida, has had a Youth Aviation Program in various stages of development for nearly five years, beginning with helping the Boy Scouts of America with their aviation merit badge. For a number of years the chapter hosted a two-day campout at the airport during which the scouts took part in the Young Eagles flight program as well as working on their aviation merit badge. They also worked with the scouts by forming an Aviation Explorer Post.
With these experiences behind them they decided to branch out on their own and form their own EAA Chapter 534 Aviation Youth program.
All of the kids who belong to this program were introduced to it after completing an EAA Young Eagles Flight event held monthly, September through May.
As time moved on the chapter’s Aviation Youth program, open to both boys and girls, has become more formalized with participants learning how to build or repair aircraft.
The current program really got a boost when a Mini Max light sport aircraft that had been badly damaged in a tornado at another airport was donated to the chapter after its owner threw in the towel and decided he no longer had the will to fix it.
The Aviation Youth Program is open to young people ages 10 to 18. Some of these kids are serious about moving through the program and getting a private pilot’s license or seeking eventual employment in some aspect of aviation. Others seem to be eager just to learn how to build an airplane. The EAA chapter hopes that this exposure to aviation will kindle a vocational interest later in their lives.
Recently one of the aviation youth members, Mateo Colmenero, was granted a $10,000. Ray Aviation Scholarship by the chapter. He had spent four years as an Aviation Youth member and put in a lot of time working on the Mini Max. He is currently taking flight training to realize his dream of becoming a professional pilot.
Given the pilot and aviation mechanic shortages this industry will be suffering for some years to come, these kids may be in a position to take advantage of this situation when they mature.
The leader of the youth program for the chapter is John Weber, the vice president of Chapter 534. John is a Certified Light Sport Flight Instructor and when not messing around with airplanes, he is a practicing veterinarian in Mount Dora, FL.
There is an educational advisory committee made up of members who are aircraft builders, pilots and former teachers. This group helps bring some structure to the program and joins in setting goals and developing lesson plans.
The mentors for the Aviation Youth program are the members of EAA Chapter 534. This provides the kids with a diverse group of volunteer adults, sometimes called “the hangar monkeys”, ranging from certified aircraft mechanics, pilots, and folks who have aircraft building experience.
There are times when the instructors are only one lesson ahead of their students because they have not had the training for a skill they will be teaching the following weeks. This results in the members digging into videos or finding an expert to show them how to do a particular task, thereby learning a specific skill themselves. This becomes a win/ win situation for the adult members and the students.
A good example of this was when it came time to do rib stitching on the newly covered wings of the Mini Max. The members who usually work on building projects in the EAA chapter hangar on Thursdays looked at each other and asked, “who knows how to rib stitch”? There was a profound silence.
One of the members who had built a Burt Rutan Long -EZ had the most building experience in the group but that was a composite fiber glass airplane that did not require rib stitching. Even the two certified aircraft mechanics had never done this. The situation led to everyone looking up instructions for the Stewart Covering system or the Poly Fiber method.
They all watched videos produced by both companies explaining the technique of rib stitching. The videos were helpful but what they found was that until you actually pulled the rib stitching cord yourself through a ribs worth of holes you really didn’t have the process down.
The result was that seven or eight of the members learned how to rib stitch and were able to pass that skill onto the aviation youth members. It is kind of like the old medical axiom of “see one, do one, teach one”. This is how the mentors and the kids operate in this educational endeavor. The aircraft building and repair becomes more of a joint venture.
Currently the EAA Chapter Aviation Youth program has more than a dozen members. They meet most Saturdays from 11a.m. to 2 p.m. and the chapter volunteers provide them with a lunch.
They start out with the safe use of the tools of the trade that they will be using on any project they work on. The use of both eye and ear protection is stressed.
To date most of the youths’ work has been on the Mini Max which is a wood and fabric design aircraft. As this project nears completion, they will shift their focus to building an aluminum aircraft which will require learning new skills. Recently, the Bede Family Foundation donated a BD-6 for the chapter’s Aviation Youth program. Two of the chapter’s members who have built aluminum aircraft will take the lead on this project.
Since Chapter 534 began their aviation youth program they have been fortunate to receive several donations of airplane projects in various stages of completion or repair. They have also received two sophisticated flight simulators that help the kids learn the basic rudiments of flying a plane while under the supervision of one of the member pilots. Because the chapter is a 501C-3 tax exempt organization, the donors can receive a tax write off for their gifts.
When the building projects have been completed, the intent of the chapter is to sell the planes and with the money they make, continue to buy other aircraft kits and tools that they need for their aviation youth program.
The youth program has at least four of their teenage students intent on earning their private pilot’s license. They have already filled out the paperwork for their FAA Student’s Pilot Certificate.
This Aviation Youth Program will continue to evolve as time goes on and more chapter members become involved.
The Mini Max aircraft has now been fully restored and has been sold. John Weber the Aviation Youth director and Light Sport flight Instructor, has test flown the plane twice and reports that it flies very well. The new owner will take possession of the plane very soon.
Chapter 534 is aware that there are many new aviation youth and STEM programs sprouting up across the country with very little communication between them. It is their hope they can improve their program by learning how others operate and be in a position to pass on what works well for them.