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Rebuilding plane inspires dreams for Northland teens

EAA Chapter 272 President Tom Betts and other members of the chapter pull parts out of the fuselage of an Aeronca Sedan plane before wheeling it into a hangar earlier this month at the Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport in Superior. The chapter is partnering with area youth groups to rebuild the aircraft. (Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram) 1 / 2
EAA Chapter 272 Vice President Jim Nelson (right) helps Nelson Wennberg, 13, a member of Boy Scout Troop 16, wield a pair of Cleco pliers while they work on a section of an Aeronca Sedan plane’s wing. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Grounded and chopped into three parts, an airplane built in 1948 still is fueling the dreams of Northland teens.

The Aeronca Sedan rests in a hangar at the Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport in Superior. Members of the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association are partnering with local students to give the craft new life.

“Kids seem to hear ‘no’ so much,” said Al White, a member of the nonprofit Duluth/Superior EAA Chapter 272. “We want to give them the idea that if you dream about something, you can do it.”

While the multigenerational crew focuses on work to make the plane airworthy, the project’s success isn’t based on how soon the Aeronca takes wing.

“The measure of success is the number of youth who get involved in this and experience aircraft construction,” said chapter vice president Jim Nelson. “The more the better.”

After the plane was handed to the chapter in 2013, local EAA members inspected the craft and cleared it of debris, including birds’ nests and at least one mouse skull. Step by step, they set up project sessions for the youngsters. The partnership has been a win-win situation.

“It’s just as cute as can be, the kids are so excited,” Nelson said. “It’s a joy to work with them. Their faces light up, almost like when they take a Young Eagles ride.”

Some of the kids who have worked on the plane are members of Boy Scout Troop 16, based out of Asbury United Methodist Church in West Duluth. It’s been an exciting experience, troop leader Scott Tollefson said. A trio of the boys begs to work on the plane every time they meet.

“That’s what they want to do,” Tollefson said.

During a recent session, EAA members met to set the Aeronca’s wings aside in storage and tow the small plane’s fuselage into the chapter’s hanger. The restoration project allows young mechanics to work on the older-style tube-and-fabric body as well as the more-modern aluminum wings.

“Keeping older aircraft alive and flying is an important thing,” said Bret Steffen, director of education for EAA. “It’s a fantastic old airplane; I’m glad there’s going to be some life put into it.”

The post-World War II model is popular with Alaska bush pilots and has a reputation as a reliable workhorse of a plane.

The same aircraft inspired Steffen, then a Wisconsin school principal, to chart a new course. He was bit by the aviation bug when the Aeronca’s owner donated it to Omro High School for shop classes to rebuild. With no teacher interested in heading the project, Steffen took it on. The fragmented plane changed his life.

“It’s the first time I had been hands-on with a general aviation airplane,” he said. The small craft are usually hidden behind fences, untouchable. “All of a sudden, they seem accessible.”

Steffen went on to earn his pilot’s license at age 38. When he landed a job at the EAA headquarters in Oshkosh, Wis., the plane’s owner tasked him with finding a new home for it. Chapter 272 was the perfect choice.

“If anyone can make it fly, these guys have a real fighting chance of doing it,” Steffen said. Chapter members volunteer regularly at the annual EAA fly-in, he said, and he trusts them.

The local EAA chapter has been encouraging youth involvement since its inception in 1966. Members have provided more than 5,400 Young Eagles plane rides to youngsters. They also hand out an annual scholarship and sponsor Air Academy trips for local students. The build-a-plane project takes that focus on youth to the next level.

It’s an opportunity for kids “to get their hands dirty, work on an airplane, see what it’s like and whet their appetite,” Nelson said.

Local chapter members are looking for help with the project. They are seeking groups of middle- and high-school-age students to work on the plane, as well as financial sponsors. Nelson estimates it will cost a few thousand dollars for needed parts. If one person or business wants to foot the entire bill, they could own the plane when it’s finished.

Chapter 272 also is looking for adults to join the team.

 “We need an influx of younger people in our chapter,” Nelson said. “I’m hoping this will jump- start that as well.”

For more information

Find more information on EAA Chapter 272 at eaa272.org. Youth groups interested in taking part in the project or people interested in financing some of the work can call Jim Nelson at (218) 343-0176 or email jnelson@eaa272.org.

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