Students build a plane and maybe a flight path - Philadelphia Inquirer

By Kevin Riordan, Philadelphia Inquirer 

"Those are the wing skins," Ira Weissman says, pointing to a short, sleek stack of pearly aluminum panels. "I brought them over here this morning in my Prius."

We're in the basement at Camden's Urban Promise Academy, where Weissman and three fellow aviation buffs and seven high school seniors are preparing to build an airplane.

The single-seat BD-5B has a 21-foot wingspan and will be assembled from a kit. A second kit - containing a fiberglass Europa XS two-seater - has been donated as well and may be assembled at another school in the city.

"At first I thought, 'I can't do this,' " says Ashley Gascot, 17, of Mount Ephraim, as her classmates sort parts and examine plans. "But when I saw the tools, I got excited. Not too many students get this opportunity."

For that, the kids can thank the Camden Youth Aviation Program, an all-volunteer effort to widen horizons for students in the city and beyond.

"If they want to make a future for themselves, aviation is something that's waiting for them," says Weissman, a Cherry Hill business consultant who's been a private pilot for almost 40 years. "For me, aviation has opened up a lot of doors."

Weissman and Msgr. Michael T. Mannion, director of community relations for the Diocese of Camden, launched the program in 2010. The first plane-building project began this January.

Students at the five Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden and Pennsauken, as well as youngsters attending the Camden Boys & Girls Club and other city youth programs, have taken field trips to airports and have gotten a chance to talk to aviation professionals.

The program, which also offers science-related classroom instruction, will be expanded this year to the LEAP Academy University Charter School and the Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Center, both in Camden.

"I'm not a pilot. I'm an airplane passenger who prays for the pilots," Mannion quips. "But when I see people like Ira who have a passion for helping . . . I try to connect that passion to possibilities."

Networking within the aviation community also has been essential to the program.

Volunteers for the Wednesday morning classes at Urban Promise include Ted Fox, 78, of Cherry Hill; Don Powell, 66, of Moorestown; and Stan Harris, 68, of Franklin Township, Somerset County.

"Job one is inventory," says Powell, a contractor who's been a pilot since 1972. "We'll build in subsections. Maybe we'll start with the tail, then the fuselage, then one wing."

"It's great to use flying to get students into something that is a totally new experience for them," Fox, a pilot since 1998, says.

Physics teacher Cortney Bolden likes the combination of classroom and hands-on learning, noting that an airplane "completely demonstrates" the principles of physics. "It makes [the subject] tangible," she says. "Instead of just going over the laws, they get to see how the laws are applied."

Cafee White and Derjanai Thomas, both 18 and from Camden, are interested in the tools and the skills involved in using them. "I like doing hands-on stuff," says Thomas.

White says he "didn't see aviation as a career" until his class visited the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, at Philadelphia International Airport.

Now he's thinking of applying to the two-year program. Which is music to the ears of the volunteers. "Aviation has been very good to me," says Fox, a retired Realtor. Flying, he adds, "is just magic. There's nothing like it."

While Weissman notes that the one-seater will be built for display only, there are other plans for the Europa.

"Our goal," he says, "is the students who [build] it will be able to take flight lessons in it."

For the students in the Camden Youth Aviation program, it sounds as if the sky's the limit.