Glasair Aviation’s Shaun Hunt (center) helps Weyauwega-Fremont High School students Austin Krause (left) and Derrek Cleaves install the firewall on the nose of a Glasair Sportsman at the company’s manufacturing facility in Arlington on June 22.
Dennis Willows, of Friday Harbor, works with mechanic Dan Holtz (left) to assemble his Glasair Sportsman aircraft at the company’s manufacturing facility in Arlington on June 22.
Weyauwega-Fremont High School teacher Mike Hansen talks with Glasair Aviation’s Dan Holtz at the company’s manufacturing facility in Arlington on June 22.
Weyauwega-Fremont High School student Natasha Stemwedel rivets the wing of a Glasair Sportsman aircraft at the company’s manufacturing facility in Arlington on June 22.
ARLINGTON — Natasha Stemwedel held the rivet gun steady. Her eyes intently focused as she drove the rivet straight into the airplane’s polished metal wing.
Riveting on an airplane takes concentration. Lives depend on doing it right. That responsibility didn’t faze the 16-year-old.
“I really like working on the wings because you have to be very precise about everything,” she said.
That focus helped her and schoolmates win the Aviation Design Challenge, a national competition sponsored by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and Glasair, an Arlington-based small airplane maker. Competing teams have to modify a small airplane in a flight simulator to improve its performance for a short trip between two points. Whichever team’s plane performs best in the simulator, wins.
This year’s winning team is from Weyauwega-Fremont High School in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, about 25 miles west of Green Bay. Stemwedel and her teammates beat out nearly 80 competing teams to win a trip to Arlington to build a real airplane, a Glasair Sportsman.
The competition’s six-week program teaches hundreds of high school kids each year about the science and mechanics of flight. It also spurs broader interest in the industry — at least that is the hope of its backers. Aviation is an aging industry. The legions of engineers, mechanics and pilots who joined the industry in the 1960s and 1970s are retiring in droves, leaving many vacancies among the industry’s 1.1 million jobs, said Pete Bunce, GAMA’s president and chief executive.
The big question for the Aviation Design Challenge organizers is “how many schools can we get involved?” he said.
The annual competition started four years ago with 55 schools. Bunce and other organizers hope to have more than 100 schools involved in a few years.
Several former winners currently are working on aerospace-related college degrees, said Mark Van Tine, the former head of Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen.
Van Tine helps run the competition. He flew in from Colorado, where Jeppesen is based, in his own Glasair Sportsman built by the first winning team.
“The kids aren’t just handing tools,” he said. “They’re drilling holes, riveting, doing fabrication. They’re doing real work.”
Each task is clearly listed in order on dozens of pages of paper tacked to a wall in the Glasair hangar. Customers regularly come to Arlington to build a kit airplane in two weeks with help from company workers. Glasair’s process is set up so the customer does at least 51 percent of the assembly work — a requirement for federal certification as an amateur-built airplane.
“Two weeks is a very short amount of time to get everything done,” said Ryan Flickinger, who manages Glasair’s customer-build operations.
The airplane is inspected and approved to fly after two weeks. The student-built plane went through ground tests Friday. Flight tests and further fine-tuning come next. That process takes several weeks. The airplane won’t fly away until mid-September, he said.
Customers show up with a wide range of knowledge, Flickinger said. “Along the way, we’re teaching them the proper way to install a fire wall, how to bend cotter pins” and so on.
The Weyauwega-Fremont students had some experience when they arrived in mid-June. They are building their own small airplane, a Zenith CH 750, back in Wisconsin.
“We’re almost finished,” said Logan Feltz, 17. He’s worked on the Zenith since he was a freshman four years ago. The new graduate is headed to the University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point to study cytotechnology.
The Sportsman that Feltz and the other students are assembling belongs to Dennis Willows, an amateur pilot from Friday Harbor. The 75-year-old has been flying since 1965.
Why let a bunch of high school kids put your airplane together?
“They work hard and fast. They’re sharp,” he said.
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