A clear, windless Sunday morning was perfect for the first flight of a student-built plane to Tehachapi Municipal Airport on Sunday.
Sporting a distinctive paint job – deep red and silvery gray accented with black flames that would be the pride of a hot rod – the plane rolled past the crowd of around 50 to line up for take off. Project director and test pilot Paul Nafziger was in the driver’s seat; he performed high-speed taxi tests with the plane earlier in the week. A fighter plane, piloted by Bob Meyer, another volunteer with the Tehachapi Society of Pilots, took off just before Nafziger.
On the ground, TSP spokesman Wilbur “Buzz” Wells explained that Nafziger would have the plane perform a series of maneuvers but would never be far from the airport. In the event of an engine failure, the pilot would be able to glide for a safe landing.
Shortly thereafter, Nafziger was back on the ground and declared the first flight successful. Wells said additional test flights for the first 5-10 hours of flight will take place in close proximity to the airport for safety reasons and will assess the flight controls, performance and handling characteristics of the airplane.
The assembled crowd included mentors with impressive aviation credentials, but the focus was on the kids who have been a part of the Tehachapi Build-A-Plan project for the past four years.
Speaking after the first flight, Thane Lundberg recalled the start of the project. As a board member 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 began to search the airport, looking for someone interested in helping.
The TSP got on board, leading to the project which involved more than 50 high school students who worked with experienced mentors to assemble a kit plane, a Zenith CH750 which is being built by the Zenith Aircraft Company of Mexico, Mo.
“Some people have said that it can’t be done, that today’s children don’t have the commitment” to engage in a project as complex as building an airplane, Lundberg told the people gathered on the tarmac. “But our children were capable. What an exceptional job they have done.
Wells said Tom Karnes, principal of Valley Oaks Charter School in Tehachapi, is the project coordinator, but the students have come from a number of high schools as far away as Lancaster.
The focus of the program, he added, is to provide students with exposure to job training programs, which are not as mainstream as they once were.
The students and parents in attendance were enthusiastic about the program.
Joy Rabb recalled thinking that students wouldn’t really be able to work on the plane. She was surprised that they learned the construction techniques and actually did the work to build the aircraft. His job included installing a row of rivets along the top of the cockpit. In total, the students installed more than 12,000 rivets, Wells said.
Rabb’s father, Alex Rabb, said his daughter really appreciates the efforts of the mentors involved in the program to work with the students. And Jan Saltzman, mother of two participants, said her daughter Maghen is now in college studying engineering and said the hands-on experience helps her better understand the concepts her professors are discussing.
Another parent, Erica Schlosser, praised the program and said she especially liked that it was open to all high school students in the area, not just those in a particular school.
Tehachapi’s proximity to important aeronautical and space operations has allowed a large number of professional pilots and engineers to live in the community, as well as others who enjoy flying. Like Wells, who says he “cares about anything airplane related,” they love to share their passion by participating in TSP and the Build-A-Plane project.
Representing between 200 and 300 years of combined experience, the mentors involved in the program included, in addition to those already mentioned, John Tumilowitz, construction manager, Brian Eney, contributor, Hal Lyon, hangar workstation builder, and mentors Jay Featherstone, Gary Childress, Tim McGuire, Ralph Bhirdo, Bill Gannon and Darrell Townsend.
Wells said the city of Tehachapi also supported the program.
Work began on the aircraft in January 2018 and construction was completed this month.
The primary funding for the project was a donation of $ 80,000 from an anonymous donor, Wells said. Although the person behind the donation always wants to remain anonymous, after the first theft, Lundberg said the man was following the progress of the program and was very proud of the students’ achievements. He said the donation was made through a foundation.
Wells said local funding also helped the project, including donations from Tehachapi Cheers for Charity and George Sandy, a longtime pilot and TSP member who died last year.
He also noted that Enjee “Diesel” Bekker and his staff at Tehachapi’s Hydro Chrome company donated the manpower, designed the color palette, and gave the aircraft an incredible paint job.
Wells said the kit aircraft selected for the project was the Zenith CH750.
“The CH750 is part of a special category of light sport aircraft that was created by the United States Federal Aviation Agency as a relatively inexpensive way to enter general aviation,” a- he declared. “LSAs are different from other general aviation aircraft in that a regular pilot’s license and medical certificate are not required for operation. Instead, a simple permit is required.
But, these planes are limited to a maximum mass of 1,320 pounds and cannot be operated at night or in instrument flight conditions.
The CH750 is an all-metal two-seat aircraft with side-by-side seats and a centrally located joystick. 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 aircraft has a maximum range of approximately 525 miles. The aircraft weighs approximately 800 pounds empty and the service ceiling is approximately 14,000 feet.
The aircraft’s kit, engine, and avionics each accounted for about a third of the total cost, Wells said. Now that it’s built, the plane is worth at least $ 100,000.
“The engine selected for our aircraft is brand new and is manufactured by UL Power of Belgium,” he noted. “The engine is rated at around 115 horsepower, which can reach cruising speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.”
Avionics (instrumentation and navigation) is a computerized digital electronics “glass panel” manufactured by Dynon.
Wells said the CH750 kit was selected because it is a proven design with over 2,000 kits already sold.
“The CH750 is also an excellent trainer because of its low stall speed of 39 miles per hour and resistance to stall and spin,” he said.
The Tehachapi Build-A-Plane project is not finished, 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 flight operations.
The students are already working on the construction of a more advanced aircraft, a Van’s RV-10. It is an all-metal four-seat aircraft with enhanced performance characteristics, Wells said. It is owned by a local pilot and the students are already engaged in the assembly of the second plane.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be contacted by email: [email protected]