Building Planes, Building People

by  Louise Freeman

Talkeetna youth program soars with aircraft training


Larry Rivers

Joshua Smith, 14, installs buck rivets in a Piper Cherokee Six.


Throughout the winter in Talkeetna, a group of kids gathers around the wreck of a Piper Cherokee Six plane. With sure hands, the 9- to 19-year-old students drive rivets, strip paint, install wiring and rebuild the landing gear, all under the direction of professional aviation mechanics and parent volunteers. Many sport colorful jackets bearing the logo: “Build A Plane: Real Kids Building Real Planes.”

The Talkeetna-Build-A-Plane program is now in its second year in Talkeetna, a small community near Denali National Park. Aviation is the driving economic engine for the town, which boasts a large fleet of air taxis to serve the tourists and mountaineers that flock there every summer. Thus, to Rebecca Fisher, a local resident and Alaska Airline pilot, it made sense to start an aviation education program for local youth. The national BAP organization offered startup advice and C.W. Harter, of Big Lake, donated the wrecked Cherokee. Matanuska Electric Association provided its warehouse with all utilities, for use as a hangar and classroom. A group of volunteer mechanics, parents and “about a dozen kids showed up to an empty building, with no tools, and no idea of what we were doing,” parent volunteer Robin Rivers said.

What happened over the next 18 months has been nothing short of incredible. “I had no idea it would be such a raging success,” project manager and parent volunteer Larry Rivers said. The number of students doubled in one year, and progress on the plane has been substantial and impressive—rebuilt landing gear, shiny new metal “skin,” and an airframe rebuilt with professional-quality riveting.
Encouraging Excitement The all-volunteer Talkeetna BAP program has developed into three parts: classroom instruction, hands-on work and flight lessons. The students start with riveting, move on to repair work, then learn specialized skills, such as sheet metal and fiberglass, always following strict safety standards. A local flight school offers students a free flight lesson for each 20 hours worked and United Parcel Service in Anchorage donated the use of a flight simulator for a day so students could experience flying an airliner. Parent volunteer Jack Smothers said his son, Brandon, has been “transformed” by the program. “He hadn’t shown any interest in aviation before, but once he got tools in his hands he really lit into it. The program has given him more self-confidence.” “I really like riveting and it’s fun to see broken things get fixed and used again,” Fern Spaulding, 16, added. Last summer, Fern was one of several BAP participants who received paid internships or seasonal jobs with air-taxi services at the Talkeetna airport. Rebecca Fisher said they intend for the program to be self-supporting. Talkeetna BAP plans to sell the Cherokee when it is ready to fly, with the proceeds of the sale going to fund the next project. The excited students already have two donated planes waiting in the wings.

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