Let’s build a plane!
In 2012, a group of AE students had the dream to build a full-size, flight-worthy airplane and the registered student group Student Aircraft Builders was born. Although 10 years have passed, AE junior Chloe Hettick wants the original dreamers and everyone who worked on it over the years to know it is still alive and well, living in a hangar at Willard Airport.
SAB purchased a kit in 2013 to build a Zenith STOL 750, which stands for short take-off and landing. But the word “kit” is a misnomer because it’s just engineering drawings and instructions. No parts or materials.
Hettick, who is the current president of SAB, said the pandemic hit clubs that build harder. “It’s difficult to build something without being together. We can’t do it all online. We are physically cutting, bending, and riveting sheet metal.”
A recent partnership with the Experimental Aircraft Association has already proven to be a valuable collaboration.
“With a project as big as this, we needed more continuity than what a four-year college student can contribute,” she said. “There are 1,000-plus parts. We have to keep track of every single one of them and each part must be perfect and trustworthy. Bringing in EAA will give us professional mentors and help us make sure we attain the quality standards needed for aircraft.”
What’s the timeline for completion?
When Ethan Clemmitt, BS ’18, joined SAB in 2014 as a freshman, he said the group talked about a four-year timeline for the Zenith project. “It's unrealistic to assume that a rotating cast of students, the majority of whom have no experience with sheet metal construction, could build a complex aircraft efficiently. But the bigger goal was to expose a large number of students to aircraft manufacturing techniques and to use the Zenith project as a means of doing that.”
Clemmitt was one of those students the project benefited. He is currently working for Boeing Satellite Systems as a guidance, navigation, and controls engineer and is pursuing a master's degree part time at Stanford. “The Zenith project taught me both technical and leadership skills that have helped me excel in the workplace,” he said.
Hettick agreed that SAB is about much more than having a finish date. The project is an educational tool to help students learn manufacturing and construction skills and to gain an understanding of what it takes to build an aircraft. For example, one of the early training activities for new students is to rivet together their own little toolbox.
“In some technical clubs, we might design something that is impossible to build,” Hettick said. “The Zenith is about understanding what you can realistically produce. Its ongoing goal is to educate students and give them hands-on experience in manufacturing.”
The EAA has plans, too. When it is finished and certified, the Zenith could be used to train students in flight. “It’s a crazy goal that’s way out there but would be amazing,” Hettick said. “Plus, I’m picturing a big alumni event when we finish it, inviting everyone who ever worked on it.”