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Engineering students work with high school students to build airplane

Experimental airplane
Engineering students from Penn State Hazleton and West Side Career and Technology Center collaborated to build an experimental airplane.

The airplane parked on the machine shop floor hasn’t taken its first flight yet, but already it has transported students at Penn State Hazleton toward careers in engineering.


Professor Wes Grebski wanted students to design the plane so they could see a practical application of their course work. Too often freshmen and sophomores view each class as a separate exercise. “They don’t get the big picture – how the knowledge can link together,” said Grebski, an associate professor of engineering.


Working on a project like the airplane requires students to draw upon what they’ve learned about materials, physical forces, mechanics and electricity. Plus it never hurts if the project sparks their interest, said Grebski, who previously helped students design and build a solar car.


“He’s very enthusiastic when he’s involved in something,” Kenneth Kirk, an educational consultant at the West Side Career and Technology Center, said of Grebski. “What an idea person.”


Two and a half years ago, Grebski approached Kirk with the idea for building an airplane. Kirk helped the plan get off the ground at West Side, a career and technical center in Kingston that attracts students from five high schools.


West Side had the facilities – the machine and automotive shops – necessary to build the plane, which is powered by a Subaru car engine and runs on gasoline. Penn State students and Grebski supplied the know-how. “Engineering students acted as mentors to high school students,” Grebski said.


When designing the plane, Grebski and his Penn State students decided to build with wood. “Very often people are surprised. ‘How come wood?’” Grebski said. But most airplanes from the Wright Brothers to World War II, including the reliable Piper Cup and Howard Hughes’ famed Spruce Goose, were made of wood. Wood keeps the plane light – it weighs about 300 pounds – and airiness is a prime attribute for aircraft.


Grebski’s students drew up the specifications for the project. They produced the working drawings, built three-dimensional models and studied manufacturing processes. To ensure that their plane would be safe, students calculated the stress that rushing air would exert on the wooden wings, truss and frame. They designed everything to withstand extra force as a safety factor.


They also completed equations necessary to know the plane’s tolerances – the steepest climb it could fly, the top air speed, which is about 110 mph, and distance – about 150 miles – it can travel on a full tank.


“I can give them a textbook problem (but) … I find they’re much more motivated if they do something they can see,” Grebski said.


Using special wood and glue ordered from websites catering to aviation enthusiasts, the students started to piece together the frame at Penn State Hazleton. The whole plane cost about $3,000 to build, Grebski said.


Students still in junior high school took part in the effort during summer engineering camp at Penn State Hazleton. “Summer camps promote engineering (and) show them how exciting engineering can be,” Grebski said.


The plane also stirred interest at West Side after Grebski delivered it. “We never had a plane in school before. Probably every student came down to look at it at one time or another,” said Michael Galanda, an instructor at West Side and a student pilot.


Folks gathered round at open houses. “It’s great to know you’re a part of something that people come to see,” Patrick Shields, a West Side senior who worked on the plane for two years, said.


Nate Wilson was in eighth grade when he first saw the plane, bereft of motor or skin. Now a junior, he, too, has worked on the aircraft for two years.


With the frame set up in the machine shop overseen by Galanda, students overhauled an engine from a wrecked Subaru and began building airplane components. They fashioned landing gear, motor mounts and carburetor parts.


Although the plane couldn’t fly yet, it got a taxi ride back to Penn State where students draped the frame in a vinyl skin and “kind of shrink wrapped it,” Grebski said. “Touch the skin with an iron and it shrinks.”


When the plane took a return trip to West Side, students in the automotive shops stepped in. “They did the wiring, gauges, the lights … I was working with them,” Grebski said. The automotive students also coated the skin with epoxy paint in the Penn State color scheme of blue and white.


Building the plane helped West Side’s students experience the synergy of collaborating with different organizations. The students also broadened their views of what’s possible for their futures.


“In gaining a better understanding of the aviation field, students were able to see how the skills they acquire in their programs of study can transfer to opportunities in different industries,” Lorri Vandermark, West Side’s director of recruiting and marking, said in an e-mail.


Grebski said his first- and second-year students at Penn State gained experience, no matter what branch of engineering they enter, from working on the plane.


The plane has two seats, one in front of the other. Dual controls let the pilot fly from either chair. Under aviation rules, the plane fits in the experimental category for one-of-a-kind aircraft rather than planes that are mass produced, Grebski said.


Restrictions prevent experimental planes from flying at night. Instead, pilots have to fly during days when skies are clear enough that they can see where they are going. They hop between airports the size of those in Hazleton and Forty Fort rather than the airports like Avoca that provide control towers for jumbo jets.


The plane passed one inspection and requires two more before being certified as air-ready. Grebski said liability issues might prevent him from ever taking off in the plane, although he wants to. “Absolutely. I do have the urge to fly that,” he said before adding: “For us the process of building the plane is more important than the final product.”


Already he has in mind another project to interest students in engineering – a house that draws all its power from sun and wind rather than the electrical grid – a timely project with the addition of campus’ newest program, a bachelor’s degree in engineering with an alternative energy and power generation track.


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