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Shop Class Was Never Like This

The airplane builders of Mundelein High.

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LATE IN THE SUMMER OF 1999, two enormous wooden crates arrived at Mundelein High School, in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Inside were 30 blueprints, three thick instruction books, and the makings of a composite-material, high-speed, four-seat  monoplane. Soon after, another box arrived, this one containing a 325-horsepower Continental IO-550-N engine, assembled but lacking fuel, throttle, propeller, and instrument connections.

Last December, roughly 3,000 labor-hours later, senior Sayre Kos was crouched in the cargo bay of what had become the fuselage of a Super Lancair ES. Kos was contemplating the placement of the master solenoid hatch cover. The top of the fuselage was off, and Kos’ teacher, Jim Jackson, was peeking in over the side and asking Kos to consider where the solenoid wires were going after they left the switch box. Those thick volumes of instructions showed the theoretical circuit but not the actual path.

Already the roughed-in cockpit was sprouting a dense undergrowth of cables and wires. To get through that tangle, Jackson explained, you wanted the solenoid wiring to have the fewest kinks and the straightest path possible without getting in harm’s way. Kos, who’d spent most of a week building the fiberglass hatch cover, now had to make sure that its placement wouldn’t interfere with the solenoid’s exit hole so that in the afternoon class of Aviation Technology, another student could pick up the next stage of the cable’s journey unimpeded.

Kos moved the cover around until he was satisfied there was room. He marked the mounting points. “That looks good, Mr. Jackson,” he said.

“No, it looks professional,” said Mr. Jackson.

Since 1980, Jackson’s Aviation Technology classes—the “Mundelein High School Airplane Factory,” as he and his students call it—have put together five commercial build-your-own-airplane kits. The buyers of the airplanes are private sponsors who have put up the cash for the kits; in return, they get a handmade aircraft without having to pay any labor costs.

The sponsors must sign off on all liability. But the Mundelein airplanes do come with a guarantee of sorts: Mr. Jackson. Even though the building is done by students, “you know he’s in there at night working his tail off to make sure everything was done right,” says Kos.

Getting high school students to work is a bit like herding cats. Last December I watched as Jackson somehow got 16 of them to slowly wake up, listen to a short lesson on welding, and then declare their targets for the day’s shop time. “Any questions?” he asked. “Okay, let’s get to work.” The students headed out into the shop, which rapidly filled with the sounds of sawing, grinding, and hammering. Jackson dispensed tools, advice, and the occasional mild caution.

The Super Lancair ES was to be the last Mundelein airplane for Jackson, who retired at Christmas. But it will not be the last Mundelein airplane. A teacher named Cory Owens has since taken over the school’s aviation program, having satisfied the school board’s daunting Vacancy Notice requirements: an Illinois teaching credential, plus a private pilot’s license and/or an airframe-and-powerplant mechanic certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airplane assembly classes are part of the school’s Industry and Technology vocational program; students can take the courses to prepare for careers as aircraft mechanics. That’s a smart choice these days. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the supply of aircraft mechanics and avionics technicians to tighten over the next 10 years as fewer candidates are produced by the military and a wave of Baby Boomer retirements sweeps through the U.S. aviation industry. The Aviation Technician Education Council, a coalition of trade schools that train aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs), goes further, saying that there is already a shortage of young AMTs training for entry-level positions. The big airlines will probably do all right, says council vice president Richard Dumarescq, because they pay top dollar, but regional airlines and general aviation businesses could be facing a crisis in five to seven years, when so many AMTs now in their 50s start to retire.

Before taking Jackson’s course, Robert Hanrahan says he had “absolutely no idea of the possibilities in the aviation industry whatsoever.” He  recalls: “I’d heard about the program from some of my friends, but I thought maybe they were building model airplanes or something. I had no idea they were building a real one. One day though I’m walking by and I go, ‘Whoa, there’s an airplane in there.’ After that, I had to check it out.” (It’s not an uncommon story. Says Brian Thatcher, head of the school’s guidance department, “Jim has taken a passion of his own and turned it into a course that pulled in all sorts of students over the years.”)

In Jackson’s class, Hanrahan worked on the Super Lancair ES, helping install the engine mounts on the firewall and then mate the Continental engine to the airframe. He eventually was bitten deep by the airplane bug. In the spring of his senior year, he took flying lessons and got his private pilot’s license. He hopes to get his instrument rating this summer. Though he is now majoring in pre-law at Michigan State University in East Lansing, he says: “In ten years I hope to be in the first chair of a 737 or 757. If I can find a triple seven [777], I’ll be there.”

Senior Maggie Olczyk also fell under the aviation spell while working on the Super Lancair ES. She ended up taking flying lessons and applying to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Both Olczyk and Hanrahan look forward to the first flight of the Super Lancair ES so they can take part in a Jackson tradition: Whenever an aircraft is completed, Jackson serves as the test pilot, and the first passengers are students who worked on the project in class, earned at least a C, and went on to train for an aviation career.

“I can’t wait,” says Olczyk. “I’m just waiting for the phone call from Mr. Jackson. My friend and I worked on that part where you put your foot to climb into the plane. We did most of that, so if anything happens, they’ll know who did it.”

Jackson’s campaign to introduce students to aviation has extended beyond shop work. As part of Young Eagle Days, a program that the Experimental Aircraft Association runs to encourage kids to try flying, Jackson would offer all his students, regardless of their career goals, a ride in a rented Cessna. Students vividly remember swooping down on Mundelein. Says one: “To see your own town from the seat of a small airplane—I mean, it’s something you never forget.”

To help broaden their perspectives, Jackson would bring a few students to the annual EAA fly-ins at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to participate in exhibits on the Mundelein program. And each summer he took students on a fishing trip to a remote lodge in northern Ontario, where they’d go on short flights in one of the Mundelein airplanes. “My focus here has been to get young people to get away from Mundelein and see the world,” Jackson says. “Some of these kids have never flown. Some of them have never been to Chicago.… I try to open their eyes a little.”

Students say that Jackson’s lessons went beyond aviation. “He’s taught me a lot of things about life in general,” says Olczyk. “He incorporates a lot of things in his classroom, and I know that after taking his classes you have to be prepared not only to work together but to communicate.”

The Mundelein High School Airplane Factory was conceived in the early 1970s, when Jackson was primarily the school’s gymnastics coach. He wanted to fly, but he was unable to afford an airplane, so he decided to build one. In 1973 he drew up his own plans for a half-scale World War II-era P-51 Mustang and starting building it in his home shop. “We used to call it the Coffin,” says former student and gymnast Doug Bartlett. “I saw it when it was four pieces of wood laid out on a piece of paper. We used to say he was going to kill himself in that thing.”

The P-51, powered by a VW Beetle engine, was ready before Jackson could complete flight school. Impatient to test his work, he enlisted the one person he knew with a pilot’s license, Bob Lotter Jr., a Mundelein senior who had soloed the summer before and was helping his father build an airplane at home. All Jackson needed him to do was taxi the airplane—just run up and down the strip at Campbell Airport in nearby Grayslake, he said. After that, Jackson intended to go over every bolt and fastener in the aircraft before the first flight. For safety’s sake, he tossed Lotter a football helmet. It would be good enough for taxiing, Jackson figured.

Lotter obediently ran the P-51 up and down the strip a few times. Then he swung around and tossed out the helmet. It was hurting his head, he shouted to Jackson. The young pilot then gunned the throttle, shot down the runway, and, while the teacher looked on in disbelief, took off.

“I felt sick,” Jackson recalls. “Here I was responsible for killing one of my students. I just prayed he’d come right back, but 10 minutes went by, and then 20, and no sign. I was sure at this point that the engine had cut out and Bob was down. Then after about a half-hour, he comes back and performs three barrel rolls directly overhead before he lands. The only thing he said to me was ‘It’s a little tail-heavy. Move the engine forward.’ And he jumps in his car and drives off.”

Lotter went on to become an aeronautical engineer. Jackson went on to get a pilot’s license. Eventually, he also got an FAA airframe-and-powerplant mechanic certificate.

To set up Mundelein High’s Airplane Factory, he first found a sponsor, the owner of a skydiving landing zone who’d always wanted an acrobatic biplane. Then he talked the school board into accepting the deal—$20,000 cash up front for an Acro Sport II kit and engine, special tube-bending gear, fire insurance to cover the airplane while it was on school property, plus an ironclad pledge from the sponsor that he would not involve the school in any extra cost or any liability.

The work began. The Acro Sport was a metal-tube-and-fabric design with wood spars and ribs. “Only ‘A’ students welded on that one,” Jackson recalls. It was six years before Mustang Fever was ready for a big flight.

Six years is a long time in high school generations. By that time, many of the kids who’d bent tubes and sanded ribs in 1980 were long gone. But when Jackson put out the word that the aircraft would be making a major flight, to the EAA fly-in at Oshkosh, the builders appeared from near and far at Campbell Airport. “The kids were jumping up and down when I took off,” Jackson remembers. “They were screaming ‘It flies! It actually flies!’ ”

The second airplane was Bush Buster, a Kitfox monoplane that was much simpler than the Acro Sport, even with wings that folded for transport and floats for hopping the lakes in backwoods Ontario. Trailered north behind a pick-up each summer, Bush Buster served as the workhorse on Jackson’s summer fishing trips, and over the years probably hauled more Mundelein students on puddle jumping flights than any of the others.

The third airplane was a major step up in materials, techniques, and cost. The Lancair 360 was a sleek two-seater built of composite materials and capable of 250 mph. It took five years to complete, emerging in gleaming Porsche red. “We hand-polished that aircraft until you could see your teeth in it,” Jackson recalls, adding, “Of course, I had a lot of hands to do the polishing.” The fiery red Spirit of Mundelein became an airplane with a mission. Flying in northern Ontario had given Jackson a taste for high latitudes, and he thought the Spirit was just the airplane to make the next leap: a trip to the Arctic Circle. He recruited Tom Lentz, a former student who’d earned his pilot’s and instructor’s license, to come along.

While the students in his Aviation Technology classes slowly built the airplane in the shop, the students in his Aviation-Aerospace class, essentially a year-long ground school, laid out the flight plan. Jackson sketched out his general course: northwest to Grand Forks, North Dakota, through Customs at Edmonton, Alberta, and then to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and on to the Mackenzie River Valley. They would follow the valley to Tuktoyaktuk, an Inuit village on the Beaufort Sea. “[The students] had to figure out exact directions, refueling stops, and landing zones,” Jackson says. “They also did my alternative backup plan. In the end, we followed it more or less exactly.”

On July 9, 1994, Jackson and Lentz circled the Spirit of Mundelein over a former Royal Canadian Air Force field at Tuktoyaktuk. Looking down at the icy Beaufort Sea, Jackson had a momentary jolt: “There I was, seeing the polar ice cap in a handmade airplane and about to land on a gravel military strip in a plastic airplane built by 16-year-olds.”

The landing was a piece of cake. The two fueled up and had their logbooks authenticated (which later enabled them to earn an official world speed record: from Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Tuktoyaktuk). Then, wary of the weather, they took off within an hour, hopping southward as planned for Juneau and then the Inland Passage to the Lower 48.

The return flight was more leisurely. At the start of the last leg, Jackson called home from a pay phone outside Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. He told his wife Judith to put out the word: The Spirit of Mundelein was returning home in triumph. It was summer. Jackson and Lentz figured that with such short notice, the only people who would show up to meet them would be their families and maybe one or two students. Instead, there were a dozen airplane builders. Says Jackson: “I lined them up right by the plane and I shook each one by the hand and said, ‘Your part worked.’ ”

The fourth airplane was Glacier Express, a Montana Coyote kit for a light, rugged, short-takeoff-and-landing bushplane. The project began with a geologist from Northern Illinois University who was making annual research trips to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska to study global warming; he thought such an airplane would be a vast improvement over the expensive small planes that he had been hiring. The Express would have folding wings for trailering, plus floats and skis. Jackson made 30 changes to the original kit in order to make the airplane better suited to the geologist’s needs: He provided more visibility, extra fuel, more storage space for scientific equipment, and a strengthened tail for the floats. He even enlisted the assistance of an art teacher, whose students painted murals of the Johns Hopkins Glacier along each side of the fuselage. In the end, though, the geologist couldn’t convince his funding source, the National Science Foundation, that he needed his own land/snow/water-capable airplane. A private sponsor took over the project.

According to the plan, the last Jackson airplane from Mundelein High School, the Super Lancair ES, should be test flown this summer. But the builders’ confidence will get its ultimate test in April 2003. Weather willing and aircraft ready, Jackson will fly from suburban Chicago over the North Pole and back. His copilot and sponsor will be his old gymnastics student, Doug Bartlett.

The aircraft is being modified for arctic conditions. Instead of a back seat, it will have room for a fuel bladder, plus extra wing fuel tanks. A fixed landing gear was judged better for gravel strips than the retractable gear that came with the kit. The pilots will have nasal tubes to provide oxygen at high altitudes in the unpressurized cabin. And the avionics will be awesome and expensive.

Because he wanted to let Mundelein’s new aviation teacher set his own course, Jackson moved the Lancair from the high school to a private shop after retirement. He is completing the airplane himself.

Finishing the airplane and getting it rated airworthy are only the first steps of the trip. The two pilots have to rack up time together at the controls and hours on the engine. Because the polar region’s winters are so severe, barrels of aviation gasoline have to be transported by barge during the summer to be in place on remote Canadian military strips by the spring of 2003. Survival gear has to be selected. A flight plan, including emergency alternatives, has to be mapped out. A long sequential list of things to do—it’s Jackson’s idea of blissful retirement.

Co-adventurer Doug Bartlett, who is now running his family’s electronics manufacturing business in nearby Cary, says he had to think a while about the risks before committing to the North Pole foray. Private pilots at the Arctic Circle are at the edge of the known world. To fly north of the circle is to fall off the edge—beyond land, beyond weather reports, beyond rescue. As an airplane approaches the Pole, conventional navigation goes out the window. Jackson and Bartlett will have to get up there, prove that they were there, and get back, all without landing.

On the other hand, Bartlett didn’t have to think long about putting up the cash to fund the construction of the airplane. It’s a good investment, he believes. He figures he will spend about $150,000 for the Super Lancair ES; by contrast, had he opted to have the aircraft fully assembled by the factory, he would have paid about  $300,000.

But the real investment Bartlett wanted to make was in his former teacher. He still recalls Coach Jackson’s gymnastics workouts at Mundelein: “At Iowa State, Jim was a runner-up ring man in nationals, and he brought that competitive spirit to the gym,” he says. “When we were in the gym, he did not understand why each and every one of us did not want to be an Olympic gymnast.

“I figured there were other kids like me at Mundelein, kids who just needed a project to give them a little spurt, and I figure that Jim’s aviation program does that,” he adds.

Nominally, the polar flight is a tribute to the centennial of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. In truth, it is the final proof of the Jackson method. “If you show somebody that you can start out with one of these instruction books that have thousands of simple directions and complete them in an orderly fashion, you can do some fairly significant things,” Bartlett says.

“That’s one of the biggest lessons that Jim teaches. Complicated tasks and challenges in life are nothing more than a series of small steps, well thought out, and the discipline to continue on with them.”

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