Career Center aviation academy gets its airplane

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How do you fit an airplane – not a model, but the real thing – into a classroom?

That was only one of the questions Brian Lussier, instructor for the state’s only high school avionics program, faced. Before getting an airplane into the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, he had to come up with an airplane. Then there were other challenges such as how he would pay for it and how he would get it here.

Remarkably, finding a gifted plane wasn’t all that difficult.

“We could have gotten a 747,” said William McCaffrey, director of the center.

Lussier nodded. Evidently, McCaffrey wasn’t joking, but obviously a 747 was out of the question.

“I don’t think it would fit,” he said.

What Lussier located was a GlasAir Aviation GlaStar, an experimental aircraft from Build A Plane. It came from New York and it didn’t cost the center a cent. Build A Plane is a nonprofit organization working in formal partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration and many other organizations to promote aviation and aerospace education.

The next challenge was to get the plane to Warwick.

“You don’t know where to look in the Yellow Pages to move a plane,” he said with a laugh.

Lussier thought of renting a trailer and handling the job himself. But as seemingly only in Rhode Island, through connections with one of the academy students, Lussier found a mover who had just what he needed.

“I was to go and pick it up myself. I was going to have to rent a trailer,” he said. “A friend of a student had a trailer that could support it.”

The trailer was even designed for the wings to be strapped to its side.

Lussier estimates the airplane is seven to eight years old and, if fully outfitted with instruments and an engine – this plane is without an engine, but Lussier believes he can get one of those, too – would cost in the range of $62,000.

Getting the plane into the classroom wasn’t as difficult as imagined. The wings were taken off as well as the flaps and ailerons. The rudder was also removed. Measurements were taken and the floor taped off before the plane made its touchdown at the career and technical center. There were no surprises.

Lussier said the GlaStar is designed to be a low budget airplane. The wings are hinged so they can be folded back and the whole thing fits on a trailer that can be towed to an airport and flown, thus saving on the cost of hangar or airport storage. Lussier doesn’t foresee the plane flying again, and that’s not the intended purpose of getting it.

He said the craft offers students a range of hands-on exercises that can’t be learned from textbooks. Students will be instructed on the installation and tensioning of cabling used to control the aircraft. They’ll gain from experimenting the importance of properly balancing an aircraft. They will also install the instruments and learn about the structural integrity of the aircraft.

He can see students running down a checklist in what a pilot would do during a preflight inspection.

For McCaffrey, taking on the Aviation Academy that had previously been run by East Greenwich was a natural for Warwick because of Green Airport. He and Lussier have taken the program a step further than being in the same city. Beginning on Feb. 4 the Center and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation will launch an intern program that will introduce three students to operations at Green from concessions and finance to airside operations, landside operations, customer service, cargo, security, law enforcement and maintenance operations. The interns will also get to tour the FAA air traffic control tower at the airport and interact with FAA technical support crews. At the end of the semester, interns will be engaged in a project such as an analysis of interior painting at the terminal and cost projections; landscaping design for new terminal curb frontage of the replacement of terminal carpeting and tile flooring.

Lussier, who directed the aviation program at East Greenwich for 15 years, said the airport had been open to working with students but after 9/11 “everything at the airport was locked down.”

The academy has offered intern experiences with FedEx, Horizon and North Star, all based at Green, but programs with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation fell by the wayside.

That was until McCaffrey opened talks with RIAC president and CEO Iftikhar Ahmad. Ahmad was excited about working with the community and opening doors that could lead to future jobs and careers for Rhode Islanders. Ahmad and his staff have worked hand-in-hand on developing the internship program.

“They put together the resources and the people,” Lussier said of RIAC.

McCaffrey aims to submit the aviation academy curriculum to Bridgewater State and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for review and credit should students choose to continue their education at either of the institutions offering programs in avionics. As it stands now, the center program prepares students to take the FAA written pilot’s examination. Flight hours are not a part of the course, although students can do that on their own time and expense.

The first year of the academy focuses on the Private Pilot Land Ground Instruction text with the second year using the Airframe and Powerplant text, according to the course description. The third year uses a combination of both texts and practical experience and now includes the internship with Green.

The aviation academy is funded by a federal grant for the next two years. It currently has 15 students.

As the program gains exposure, McCaffrey’s hope is to have a good mix of students from in and out of the district. Out-of-district students would be paying tuition.

In addition to the plane, the academy has a flight simulator and an aircraft engine that students break down and reassemble.

And while the classroom airplane is grounded – Lussier says the curriculum is heavy on math and science – it is inspiration for a career with wings.

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