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Building Airplanes and Character

By Barbara A. Schmitz

July 28, 2019 - Since 2011, Bob Kelly has brought nearly 150 high school students to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh as part of teen airplane-building projects. But as much as those groups are helping students build airplanes, their volunteers are helping to build students' character.

Bob started and ran Eagle's Nest from 2010 to 2014 before founding Aviation Nation in 2015. Both organizations allow high school students to build and fly airplanes.

Aviation Nation is currently located in five states — Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Texas — but hopes to expand. As of Friday, 24 people had signed up for information on how to start programs in their communities at the Aviation Nation booth in Exhibit Hangar B, presented by Collins Aerospace.

Aviation Nation students build RV-12s and have seven planes finished or in progress. Some of the finished planes will be sold to provide funding for more build projects, while others may be used for students' flight training, said Bob, who previously taught college and built his own plane.

Aviation Nation likes to do build projects with schools because of their permanence and their visibility in communities, he said. But it also will partner with churches and other groups.

"Every person is a volunteer from me on down," Bob said, estimating that about 30 volunteers are involved in projects. "But you cannot believe how well paid I am."

That payment comes with each student success. "To see students grow and gain confidence is rewarding," he said. "And to see their faces when their airplane flies is exciting."

Although the build projects are long-term commitments, it doesn't take much time for the students to realize the seriousness of what they are doing.

"The responsibility really kicks in about three weeks into the build," Bob said. "They realize that they're not only going to build this, but that at some point, they're going to put their butt in it, too."

Eighteen Aviation Nation youths are attending the 2019 Oshkosh convention, and students are expected to attend daily at least one workshop or forum, or work in the Aviation Nation booth, as well as other sessions or programs.

Madison Malcomb, 18, of North Vernon, Indiana, just earned her private pilot certificate a month ago and was able to fly Aviation Nation's first completed RV-12 into Oshkosh this week.

Madison said she was introduced to aviation by her grandfather, who would take her flying in his Cessna 172. So when Bob Kelly came to her school to tell students about Aviation Nation, she knew the program was right for her.

She joined as a freshman and spent four years helping to build the plane. Coincidentally, Madison's brother helped build the first teen-built plane for Eagle's Nest, which her father has since purchased. And her brother, now a CFII and first officer at Endeavor Air, instructed her in that same plane that he earned his certificate in.

This fall, Madison said she will head to Indiana State University for its professional flight school. But she hopes to come back and mentor Aviation Nation students as her schedule allows.

Aviation Nation teaches students more than how to build an airplane, said Mehul Dhillon, 16, of Columbus, Indiana.

"I've learned about the mechanical aspect of building a plane," he said. "But because of Aviation Nation and going to events like this, I've gotten so much better in talking to people. It's really helped me in that social aspect."

Attending events like AirVenture also helps to expand his knowledge. This year he's attended workshops on composites, TIG welding, and woodworking, as well as several informational forums, he said.

Mehul said he became involved in Aviation Nation as a freshman, thinking it would be cool to build a plane. After going to the airport the first time for the build, he knew he had to be involved.

He's been helping build the Columbus RV-12 for two years, which should be completed by the year's end.

In the future, Mehul said he plans to work on his private pilot certificate and become an aeronautical engineer.

No one flies in Scott and Tyler Swanson's family. But they're changing that.

The two 17-year-olds from Omaha, Nebraska, plan on becoming professional pilots — airline or cargo — and both are working on their private pilot certificates. Scott has already soloed and has 15 hours logged, while Tyler should solo as soon as he returns home from AirVenture.

The Swansons said they heard about Aviation Nation at their school, Burke High School, which has an air and space academy, and thought it was something that would interest them.

"I took a Young Eagles flight and really enjoyed that," Scott said. "But in Aviation Nation, you learn the components behind flying, why they fly and how the parts of an airplane work. I thought that would help us in getting our private."

They have been working on the build for two and a half years, mainly the fuselage and wings. Their RV-12 should be done in time to fly to Oshkosh in 2020, they said.

Both said they learned a lot from the Aviation Nation mentors, like how to work on fiberglass, sheet metal, and plexiglass. Tyler said one important part of the program is that the teens do the work, while the mentors just give instructions.

And that is what makes the program so successful, Madison said. "It gives the students an opportunity to put forth their ideas, while the mentors are just there to help. They really do let you do everything."

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