Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: email@example.com.
Aclear, windless Sunday morning was perfect for the first flight of a student-built airplane at Tehachapi Municipal Airport. Sporting a distinctive paint job — deep red and silver-gray accented by black flames that would make a hot rod proud — the airplane taxied past the crowd of about 50 people to line up for takeoff. Project director and test pilot Paul Nafziger was at the controls; he completed high-speed taxi tests with the plane earlier in the week. A chase plane, piloted by Bob Meyer, another volunteer from the Tehachapi Society of Pilots, took off just before Nafziger. On the ground, TSP spokesperson Wilbur “Buzz” Wells explained that Nafziger would take the aircraft through a series of maneuvers but would never be far from the airport. In case of engine failure, the pilot would be able to glide to a safe landing. A short time later, Nafziger was back on the ground and declared the first flight a success. Wells said additional test flights for the first 5 to 10 hours of flight time will be in the immediate vicinity of the airport for safety reasons and will evaluate aircraft flight controls, performance and handling characteristics. THE PROGRAM The assembled crowd included mentors with impressive aeronautical credentials, but the focus was on the kids who have been part of the Tehachapi BuildA-Plan Project over the past four years. Speaking after the first flight, Thane Lundberg recalled the beginning of the project. As a member of the board of AST (The Arts, Science & Technology Educational Corporation of Tehachapi), he had been approached by a donor interested in investing in a project to provide young people with hands-on experience. With the promise of a large donation in hand, he said he started poking around at the airport, looking for someone interested in helping. The TSP jumped on board, leading to the project that has involved more than 50 high school students who worked with well-experienced mentors to put together a kit airplane, a Zenith CH750 which is built by the Zenith Aircraft Company of Mexico, Mo. “Some people said it couldn’t be done, that kids today don’t have the commitment” to engage with a project as complex as building an airplane, Lundberg told those assembled on the tarmac. “But our kids were capable. What an outstanding job they did.” Wells said Tom Karnes, principal of Tehachapi’s Valley Oaks Charter School, is the project coordinator, but students have come from a number of different high schools as far away as Lancaster. The program’s emphasis, he added, is on providing students with exposure to vocational programs, which are no longer as common as they once were. Students and parents present were enthusiastic about the program. Joy Robb recalled thinking that the students wouldn’t really be able to work on the airplane. She was surprised that they were taught about construction techniques and actually did the work to build the plane. Her work included installing a row of rivets along the top of the cockpit. In all, students installed more than 12,000 rivets, Wells said. Robb’s father, Alex Robb, said his daughter really appreciated the effort that the mentors involved in the program put into working with the students. And Jan Saltzman, mother of two participants, said her daughter Maghen is now in college studying engineering and has commented that the hands-on experience helps her better understand concepts discussed by her professors. Another parent, Erica Schlosser, praised the program and said that she especially liked that it was open to all area high school students, not just those from a given school. THE MENTORS Tehachapi’s proximity to important aviation and space operations has resulted in a great many professional pilots and engineers living in the community, along with others who enjoy flying. Like Wells, who says he’s “interested in all things airplane,” they enjoy sharing their passion through involvement with TSP and the Build-A-Plane project. Representing between 200 and 300 combined years of experience, the mentors involved in the program included, in addition to those already mentioned, John Tumilowitz, construction leader, Brian Eney, contributor, Hal Lyon, hangar workstations builder, and mentors Jay Featherstone, Gary Childress, Tim McGuire, Ralph Bhirdo, Bill Gannon and Darrell Townsend. Wells said the city of Tehachapi has been supportive of the program, as well. Work started on the plane in January 2018 and construction was completed this month. FUNDING Primary funding for the project was a donation of $80,000 from an anonymous donor, Wells said. Although the individual behind the donation still wants to be anonymous, after the first flight Lundberg said the man has been following the progress of the program and is very proud of the students’ accomplishments. He said the donation was made through a foundation. Wells said local funding also aided the project, including donations from Tehachapi Cheers for Charity and George Sandy, longtime pilot and member of TSP who died last year. He also noted that Enjee “Diesel” Bekker and his staff at the Hydro Chrome Company of Tehachapi donated the labor, designed the color scheme and gave the aircraft an amazing paint job. THE AIRPLANE Wells said the kit plane selected for the project was the Zenith CH750. “The CH750 falls under a special Lightweight Sport Aircraft category of planes that was created by the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency as a relatively low-cost way to gain entry into general aviation,” he said. “LSA are different than other general aviation aircraft in that a regular pilot’s license and medical certificate are not required for operation. Instead, a simple permit is needed.” But, these aircraft are limited to a maximum weight of 1,320 pounds and cannot be operated at night or in instrument flight conditions. The CH750 is an all-metal, two-place aircraft with sideby-side seating and a centrally located control stick. The wingspan is 29 feet, 9 inches, the length is 23 feet, 6 inches, and the height is 9 feet, 2 inches. With a fuel capacity of 24 gallons, the plane has a maximum range of about 525 miles. The aircraft weighs about 800 pounds when empty, and the service ceiling is about 14,000 feet. The kit, the engine, and the avionics for the airplane each represented about one-third of the total cost, Wells said. Now that it’s built, the airplane is worth at least $100,000. “The engine selected for our aircraft is brand new and is made by UL Power of Belgium,” he noted. “The engine is rated at about 115 horsepower which can yield cruise speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.” The avionics (instrumentation and navigation) are a “glass panel” of computerized digital electronics made by Dynon. Wells said the CH750 kit was selected because it is a well-proven design with more than 2,000 kits already having been sold. “The CH750 is also an excellent training plane because of its low stall speed of 39 miles per hour and its resistance to stalling and spinning,” he said. THE FUTURE The Tehachapi BuildA-Plane project isn’t over, Wells said. The pilot’s organization will retain ownership of the aircraft, known by its radio call sign — N19BP — and use it to familiarize high school students with general aviation aircraft operations. Students are already working to build a more advanced aircraft, a Van’s RV-10. This is an all-metal four-place plane with improved performance characteristics, Wells said. It’s owned by a local pilot and students are already engaged in assembly of the second plane.