GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) — A Houston pilot on Monday bought an airplane — a real, functioning, airworthy plane — built by high school students.
Students in Kansas put the plane together last school year, but it was owned (until this week) by a Central Texas-based nonprofit, Tango Flight, that started its plane-building curriculum in Georgetown ISD a few years ago.
“I tell the kids, ‘You better build it well, because I’m going to be the first one to fly it,'” said Dan Weyant, president of Tango Flight.
When he first suggested to Georgetown ISD that he teach students to build an airplane, administrators said no, citing liability concerns over the district owning a plane. The nonprofit was their solution so teenagers could construct the aircraft using class time. The nonprofit buys plane kits from Van’s Aircraft and owns and sells the finished product so it retains liability.
Weyant has since expanded his reach into five more U.S. cities: a suburb of Wichita, Kan.; Mobile, Ala.; Atlanta; Manchester, N.H.; and Naples, Fla. The last three are brand new this year.
It takes about 900 total hours to build a plane, Weyant said, and the students work alongside professional pilots, mechanics and builders to learn how to attach the sheet metal, connect the engine and wire electrical components.
“Building the airplane’s kind of secondary,” Weyant said. “It’s cool, it’s exciting, it’s why you’re here, but ultimately the real thing that makes the difference in the kids’ lives is them interacting with and working with the mentors.
Georgetown students are currently finishing up their third airplane and plan to sell it next month.
Trevor Eissler bought the district’s first plane about a year ago. He’s been flying for 31 years and is also a certified instructor, and he had some initial reservations about the purchase, “as any reasonable person would,” he said. “You hear high-schoolers built it, yikes.”
The plane is certified as airworthy through the Federal Aviation Administration’s experimental aircraft designation, and after loving his test flight, Eissler signed the papers.
He’s been flying it ever since and estimates he’s taken it up in the air about 100 times. He even trusts it enough to start teaching his 15-year-old son, Evan, to fly in it.
Evan, a Georgetown sophomore, is in the aerospace engineering class this year, helping finish up last year’s build before the students start on the district’s fourth airplane.
“I look forward to going to class every day,” Evan Eissler said. He’s two years away from being able to fly on his own, and hopes to become a professional pilot, working either for an airline or a private jet company.
“And I think it would also be cool to build airplanes as a hobby,” he said.
Those are the skills he’s learning in school now, with help from his dad. “That’s been a magical experience, being able to work with my son in the classroom a couple of days as they build next year’s airplane,” Trevor Eissler said.
Several of Weyant’s students have gone on to pursue flying in some way, some in college, some with private pilot’s licenses and some professional airplane mechanics.
Last year, four students in the aerospace engineering program received full scholarships to Naval Officer Training Corps programs, each worth up to $200,000, to various universities around the country. Two of those students plan to fly planes for the Navy.
“We’re starting to see results from this,” Weyant said.
The money from the planes his nonprofit sells goes back into the individual programs that built them, helping fund the next kit. With that money and financial help from companies like Airbus, Weyant plans to keep growing the program, both in central Texas and beyond.