FOSTORIA - Until recently, Rodney Park counted paper-airplane making as his only aviation experience.
This summer, the 14-year-old Findlay boy has been working with other students from Fostoria St. Wendelin High School assembling a 26-foot Challenger II ultralight aircraft.
The aircraft is to serve in 2011 as the chase plane for the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company's re-creation of the first transcontinental flight made by the Vin Fiz in 1911. After that, the plane is to be donated to the Sisters of Notre Dame to use in Kenya.
Ron Bowerman, who is chairman of the science department at St. Wendelin, said the two-seat plane could be used to transport patients in need of medical care, move light freight, and observe wildlife preserves.
Rodney, one of nine students who have been working on the plane, said he signed up for the summer course for several reasons. Among them, he stands to earn a full course credit by volunteering at least 120 hours and completing required assignments.
"I was interested when I heard it was for a good cause for the people of Kenya, and it was something to do this summer, and we get credit for school," Rodney said.
Just how a high school science class came to build an aircraft is a bit of a long story.
Mr. Bowerman, who retired from Findlay city schools and taught at the University of Findlay, is the volunteer director of special projects for the Wright Brothers
Aeroplane Company/First To Fly Foundation. The group's mission: "to teach the science, technology, and mathematics on which aviation is founded as well as its early history."
Mr. Bowerman became acquainted with the group during a 2003 visit to an air show at Wright- Patterson Air Force Base. He soon got his students at St. Wendelin involved, and they were recruited to build the chase plane for the Vin Fiz re-enactment set for 2011.
Mr. Bowerman landed a $10,000 Toyota Challenger grant and managed to purchase the ultralight kit from the Quad City Ultralight Aircraft Corp. of Moline, Ill., for $8,000, about half of its regular price. A $1,000 donation from a St. Wendelin Catholic Church parishioner enabled him to purchase supplies needed for the plane, although he's still looking for a way to buy an engine and gear box.
"If anyone wants to help, we're not bashful," he said.
Mr. Bowerman, who likes to challenge kids to do things rather than memorize facts from a book, said his students are learning more than just how to assemble an airplane. They are studying engine thrust and acceleration, conducting experiments, and eventually will be collecting physics and biomedical data with onboard electronic equipment that also was donated.
"It's about kids. It's about service. It's about creating future scientists," Mr. Bowerman said. "This country has been a country of inventors for a long time, and we cannot lose that edge."
While the summer course ends this week, Mr. Bowerman said, he and his students will continue working on the plane throughout the coming school year.
"The goal is to have it completed and flyable by the end of May, 2010," he said.
The work is going on inside a tidy industrial building on Jones Road not far from Fostoria Municipal Airport.
Liz Leibengood, co-owner of A&L Compaction and a St. Wendelin graduate, said she and her husband, Al, weren't using the space and invited Mr. Bowerman and his students to borrow it "until the plane's finished." Mrs. Leibengood said she's enjoyed watching the plane come together, though she's not so sure she would go for a ride in the ultralight.
Mr. Bowerman's students seemed willing. Rodney said he would be up for a ride, while freshman Philip Streacker was a little more cautious.
"I won't be the first one to do it, but I'll do it," Philip said.
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