Students awash in learning opportunities
By Kathleen Ellyn
Wallowa County Chieftain
Wallowa County is far more steeped in aviation than anyone guessed. Joseph Charter School instructor Toby Koehn first proposed an aviation class in 2016.
That idea took off, and airplane professionals have dropped from the sky to help the students who enrolled.
In addition to speakers, retired U.S. Air Force Flight Engineer Brett Hays of Enterprise donates the use of a flight simulator he built himself.
“It’s a fully functional flight simulator,” Koehn said. “It’s some pretty cool technology and a huge donation”
Principal Sheri Kilgore calls the support of the community “crazy amazing.”
“It took a lot of dedication on the part of Toby Koehn and others. I don’t think a lot of people understand how much aviation is a part of our county.”
The class is involved in building an airplane –– in virtual reality. Four teams from the class are in the middle of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association nationwide contest to design and fly aircraft based on powerful software programs.
One hundred schools across the nation are competing.
The contest builds off a Cessna 172 platform on which the students make changes. Their plane is then put into the flight parameters and every school “flies” the same mission, Koehn said.
“They’re doing good,” Koehn said of the four Joseph Charter teams. “It’s a learning process this year because we’ve never done it before.”
That building project received a boost when students were able to see a plane being built in a Joseph garage in real time.
Michael and Rene Fleming, both aviation professionals from Joseph, invited the class to learn how to build a private plane from a kit in March.
Michael Fleming is an airframe and powerplant mechanic has a commercial rating for flying and has flown in Alaska. He was a skydiver and is now a paraglider pilot –– one of the ones who flies off Mt. Howard. His wife, Rene, trained as an air traffic controller, was a fight instructor and flew as a full-time commercial outback and glacier pilot near Denali.
The two are semi-retired and no longer own their own plane. But airplane enthusiasts can’t stay away from flying for long. So while Michael was attending an international airshow in Abbot’s Ford, British Columbia, Canada, he fell in love with a kit plane on display.
“The builder of the plane started talking and an hour-and-a-half later, the hook was set,” recalled Michael.
Their kit plane is a Vans RV-7, two-seat side-by-side, low wing plane with an all-metal body. It’s fully aerobatic, can go 200 miles per hour and the FAA certifies the kit. Under the rules of the FAA, a pilot must perform 51 percent of the build himself, and the plane will be inspected thoroughly prior to launch.
“This is not a work-around for a certified airplane where someone has skirted some of the rules for a licensed aircraft,” Michael said.
He is required to keep a construction log for the FAA. He’s set up a GoPro camera and takes thousands of photos every time he works and then assembles them in his workbook.
Every step of the build is helpful for students of the aviation course.
“We really appreciated the Flemings for letting us see the process,” said Koehn. “You can build a plane right out of your garage, everything is out there to learn.”
Fleming prepared for the visit by creating a lecture on design and then teaching students how to rivet.
“I felt like they needed to put their hands on something,” Michael said. “Here I had a garage full of tools and aviation stuff, and I thought they’d be interested.”
“When we walked into the shop, we noticed it was well organized and very clean – which is essential to building a plane,” said student Kana Oliver.
Student Ben Lopez, one who initially expressed a desire for a military career, said he was impressed by the amount of work Fleming put into the project.
“I learned that the building process of an airplane is very similar to the building process of anything else of complicated value,” Lopez said. “It takes rigorous discipline, and there is no room for mistakes. I do believe I have an interest in this field, although it does seem to be very difficult.”
This summer, students hope to get their flight simulator, configured and ready for use during the annual Joseph fly-in the second Saturday in August.
“They want to take that to the fly-in and let other kids get in and see how it feels,” Koehn said. “Next year, maybe they’ll do more with younger kids and have a field day.”
The North East Oregon Aviation Foundation continues to support aviation students county wide. The first $2,000 Student Pilot Scholarship, which is open to a U.S. Citizen and Wallowa County high school student will be awarded in June.
“I look at it from the perspective as a current airline pilot and air flight enthusiast,” said Tim Locke, president of foundation and Wallowa County Fly-in chairman. “I see a shortage of employees in the aviation field coming in to replace the people retiring. We need mechanics, aeronautical engineers, operations specialist, air traffic controllers, pilots and airport administrators. I think it’s important to introduce students to these career opportunities early on and not wait for college sciences.”
Joseph charter school aviation student Kana Oliver contributed words and photos to this story.
Joseph Charter School Aviation Class will help host a fly-in this July. The Northeast Aviation Foundation has announced that the Puget Sound Antique Aircraft Tour will arrive at the Joseph Airport, July 10. A fundraiser barbecue is at 5:30 p.m., $25 for tri-tip with shrimp) followed by a day full of activities and opportunities to observe more than 40 vintage planes on the tarmac. This is the first time the Puget Sound Antique Aircraft Tour has visited the county.