In a hangar classroom at McKinney National Airport, students from McKinney’s three high schools are learning to fly — as they assemble an airplane piece by piece.

Quinn Dauenhauer, a senior at McKinney North, signed up for an introductory aviation course because he needed an elective. Now, in his third year with the program, he wants to study aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University.

“That definitely wasn’t my plan until I joined the class,” he said.

Hundreds of pieces of unassembled plane parts wrapped in protective blue plastic line one wall. Dauenhauer and Makenzie Bass, a senior at McKinney Boyd, struggle as they try to remove all the rivets from a piece the two had assembled so they could work on another part.

“You put a lot of these in here,” Bass said.

“Yeah, one for every hole,” Dauenhauer said.

The 35 third-year aviation students are starting a new project that will hopefully have them airborne by April. If everything goes according to plan, they’ll fly the plane to Oskosh, Wisc., in July for a national fly-in festival with hundreds of pilots.

They’ve split into small teams to put together pre-fabricated parts that will eventually fit together to make a 20-foot long, two-seater experimental aircraft. The Van’s Aircraft RV-12 usually costs around $75,000 and was donated by Eagle’s Nest Projects, a nonprofit that helps young engineering students build fully functional airplanes.

Building a plane is a first for the McKinney ISD aviation program, which at more than 200 students strong, recently partnered with Collin College and LeTourneau University so students can earn dual credit while in high school.

The program started with 40 students in a one-semester course about the history of flight and career options in aviation. That’s now the introductory section of a five-course academic catalogue. Students learn everything from laws and regulations regarding flight to how to take care of and operate an airplane.

“Even if you don’t want to be a pilot, airplanes are exciting,” said Todd Curtis, one of the McKinney ISD aviation instructors. “We’re the best kept secret in McKinney.”

Jerry Ashton, another MISD aviation instructor, said most of the students are aiming for 40 hours of practice flight time for a private pilot’s license. It’ll take 15,000 hours for them to become airline pilots, but not all are as interested in taking flight.

Bass, for example, wants to fly as a hobby but not professionally.

“It’s scary at first,” she said. “It’s like driving a car, but [with] a lot more controls.”

Ashton and Curtis are assisted by a group of older pilots at the McKinney airport who volunteer to mentor the students. They’re especially helpful during the RV-12 build, since many of them have built planes of their own.

“It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve done with young people,” Chuck Wilson said. “It’s just the most enjoyable, satisfying thing you can do.”

Wilson and fellow mentor Jeff Hanson are American Airlines captains who know each other from their Air Force days decades ago. They built an RV-10, the slightly larger cousin of the plane the MISD students are putting together, and help supervise the students as they rivet each aluminum piece into place.

“It’s not about making these guys pilots. It’s not about making these guys mechanics,” Wilson said. “It’s about showing how, with some guidance, they can do anything.”

While Bass and Dauenhauer worked on the center console with Hanson, Wilson assisted a team assembling one of the two seats out of the lightweight metal pieces. They were the first team to complete a part of the plane.

McKinney Boyd junior Brendon McMahon wants to go into the Air Force, so building a plane is a unique and exciting resume line.

“This is probably the coolest thing we’ll do all high school,” McMahon said. “Honestly, how many kids can say they built a plane in high school?”

After school lets out at 2:30 p.m., most students take off for after-school jobs or home. A few, however, stay behind. Getting the plane ready for takeoff in April will require a little extra effort.

Five students stay behind for a more skyward reason: flight time. Ashton and Curtis select a handful of hard workers each class to take a turn in the air — given they have parent signatures on file.

Hanson led three of the students to the tarmac and showed them the RV-10 that he and Wilson built.

“So are you guys familiar with the walk-around?” he asked.

“Sorta,” said one student.

Hanson led them to the front of the plane.

“A lot of people start at the nose. Make sure no birds are nesting in your intakes,” he said.

He showed them how to check the fuel level, the wings, the tail. When everything looked good he helped them climb into the cockpit one by one.

After strapping in, putting on their headsets and making sure everything was ready to go, the propeller started up with a loud “sput-sput-sput-sput-VROOM,” and the plane taxied toward the runway.

Allen-Frisco-McKinney editor Charles Scudder can be reached at 214-977-8778 or Twitter: @cscudder.

MORE INFO

To follow the McKinney ISD aviation program’s RV-12 build, visit mckinneyeaglesnest.blogspot.com. There you’ll find student-produced entries as construction continues through the spring.