BRIDGMAN — A machine aerodynamically designed to create the type of lift that makes human flight possible is taking shape deep inside Bridgman High School’s Industrial Technology area.
Twelve students in “shop class” instructor Hanns Heil’s classes are taking the first steps in a process that should lead to the emergence of a flight-ready airplane.
“It’s a Bowers Fly Baby,” Heil explained. “It’s a single-seat, low-wing monoplane — the term is trail-dragger meaning it has a tail wheel as opposed to the tricycle gear like you see on more modern aircraft.”
Designed by Boeing engineer and technical writer Pete Bowers, Heil said the Fly Baby won the Experimental Aircraft Association’s home-built design competition in 1962. He said approximately 3,000 of the fabric-covered plywood and spruce aircraft have been built.
“The wingspan is 26 feet,” Heil added. “There have been variations built that have a tandem cockpit and can fit two people, or a side-by-side configuration, but we’re building it strictly according to the plans that Pete Bowers designed.”
Bridgman High School senior Mike Jones said the project fits in perfectly with his career plans, which include attending Andrews University and “learning to fly this spring.”
Jones said he toured the Boeing factory in Washington State last spring with has father (and Southwest Airlines pilot) Mike Jones and brother Sam (also a Bridgman Industrial Technology student).
“After going to that it was pretty cool to come back and actually build our own airplane.” he said.
The Bridgman High School Fly Baby isn’t expected to be living up to its name overnight — to put it mildly.
“This is going to take us years to finish, Heill said. “I’ve heard the average home-built aircraft is 6 to 7 years from start to finish.”
The students are getting some valuable advice from area pilots and airplane-builders — especially Detlev Ansinn of Bridgman.
“He donated the manual for building the Flybaby along with a bunch of miscellaneous parts,” Heil said.
Ansinn, who has built and piloted an airplane of his own, also has supplied a part that can be filed under anything but “miscellaneous” — an already assembled Flybaby fuselage.
“We have a head start,” Heil said.
Ansinn said he always liked the design of the Fly Baby because its shape reminded him of World War II-era training aircraft such as the Fairchild PT-19.
“So when an opportunity came up to acquire a partially built airframe that had been given to our local Experimental Aviation Association (Chapter 585), I jumped at the chance to buy it,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, Ansinn purchased a set of plans from the estate of Bowers, planning to complete the Fly Baby once he finished another aircraft project — an all metal Sonex.
“During an ad hoc discussion at Bridgman High School last winter with Hanns Heil … I suggested that the shop class should built an airplane for change,” Heil noted. “This struck an immediate chord of interest and so I offered to donate my Fly Baby project and associated materials.”
Ansinn also offered to help as an advisor through the life of the project.
Originally Heil said Sky Baby planes were usually powered by engines specifically built for aviation applications, but Heil pointed out that those motors are out of production and hard to find.
“It was actually designed to work with a Continental A-65, all the way up to an O-200 … A lot of those smaller airplane engines went out of production so they’re hard to find … many people have gone on to convert automotive engines,” he said.
Smaller kit planes often employ Volkswagen Beetle mills, but the Skybaby is a bit too large for that four-cylinder unit.
He said air-cooled, horizontally-opposed (or “boxer”) six-cylinder motors that were used in second-generation Chevrolet Corvairs from 1966 through 1970 can be rebuilt as a flight engine, and are the right size and power for the Flybaby.
Bridgman students are currently working on a “cut-away” Corvair motor which shows most moving parts including the valvetrain and two of the cylinders once it has been assembled. Members of the Corvair Club of West Michigan helped assemble the parts.
“This is our trainer engine,” Heil noted.
It has been taken apart and put back together three times so far. Heil said it will be entered in the Michigan Industrial and Technology Education Society’s regional competition, hosted last year by Bridgman and set to take place this year in Sturgis.
The ultimate plan for the Fly Baby is to find a complete Corvair motor and rebuild it for the airplane.
This year’s students also are putting together a model airplane — a Guillows balsa-wood and tissue paper incarnation of a Cessna 172 to be exact.
“We will make the model airplane fly,” Heil said.
Plans are to let the aircraft loose in the gymnasium under rubber-band power before the end of the school year.
As for the much-larger Flybaby, Heil said students are almost finished cutting out all of the plywood portions for the wing ribs.
Once the airplane has been built, it still must go through a lengthy break-in period for the motor (about 10 hours of constant running) and be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It can be a daunting project, but if you break it down bit by bit and get the right people to help you it’s not too bad,” Heil said.
He added that the budding aviators have received permission to taxi around on school property. The airfield where the plane will first achieve lift-off is yet to be determined.
There are at least two option for the pilot, however.
“Detlef has volunteered to test fly it after we’re through with the break-in period. And there’s another fellow (Craig Tice of Buchanan) with the Watervliet Experimental Aircraft Association who also would be willing to fly it — he’s already flown a Bowers Fly Baby.”
Heil said Tice’s Sonex home-built airplane, this one featuring all-metal construction, also is due in the shop at Bridgman High School for some fabrication work.
“So eventually we’re going to wind up with two planes,” he said.
The Industrial Technology program at Bridgman High School includes lessons in working with woods and metals, drafting and computer-aided design, machine shop and mechanics.
Students at the district’s Reed Middle Schol helped build two shell-back sail dinghies (“the Finch” and “the Bee”) and high school students constructed the 23-foot, electric-powered “Kraken” longboat that was launched in 2012.
“We actually fitted a 400-watt wind turbine to it (the Kraken) to charge the two 12-volt batteries … There are two 60-pound thrust trolling motors that power it,” Heil said.
Last year, Bridgman High School students created 40 Adirondack-style chairs using wood from the old football stadium bleachers. All of them sold.
“This year we did a production run of 18, and we’re just about out of bleacher board … We’ll need the rest to make the model propellers for the Corvair engine,” Heil said.
One of the projects Reed Middle School pupils are currently involved in woods and welding at the seventh- and eighth-grade level while younger students in computer tech courses have been building and programing Lego robots.
“Whether we realize it or not we’re surrounded by robots every day. The biggest application is automated production systems, there are quite a few shops locally that build these systems so I think in order for them to have a viable work force it’s important for our students to learn about these technologies … The younger we get them started the better,” Heil said.
He said the Bridgman Foundation For Educational Excellence has provided the Industrial Technology program with a CNC Router that is already being used to create plaques for teachers who receive Competitive Innovation Grants from the Foundation.