LAKELAND — The Zenith CH 750 Cruzer comes in a box — a large wooden crate, actually — ready to build.
Members of the Lakeland Aero Club for Polk County high school students have only just begun piecing the aircraft’s shiny, aluminum parts together as an after-school project in conjunction with a North Carolina nonprofit called Able Flight.
Over the next several months students and instructors will assemble the two-seat, light sport aircraft that will serve as a trainer for the physically disabled. It’s the first project in what is to become a long-term relationship between Able Flight and the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, which sponsors the Aero Club.
The academy and club are components of the Aerospace Center for Excellence at the Sun ’n Fun complex at Lakeland Linder International Airport. The complex will in time host a fleet of small aircraft adapted for paraplegics and people who have limited use of arms and hands.
Able Flight and its sponsors will continue to pay for the airplane kits and instruction and provide scholarships for student pilots. The academy is to provide labor and some materials to build the planes, which come without engines and electronic equipment, and flight instructors.
Able Flight has for years sponsored similar programs at Ohio State University and Purdue University, where operations are limited because of campus closings for summers and holidays. Adding the Lakeland site will enable training to take place throughout the year, said Able Flight founder Charles Stites.
“This opened up a new avenue of training for us,” he said. “We would like to see that (program) grow, so it can become a place for people even beyond Able Flight, with disabilities, to train.”
Through its partnership with Able Flight, the academy will teach students the complexities of building small planes, and how to fly them.
Noel Bell, 17, a junior at the Aerospace Academy and a member of the Aero Club, is excited about getting to help construct the Zenith 750 and possibly take it aloft.
“This is a humbling experience,” he said. “It’s not as fast as an F-16 (supersonic fighter aircraft) or a Warbird (vintage military aircraft), but it helps out people.”
It has taken students a month or more to inventory all of the plane’s parts and ready for assembly, which is taking place inside the Buehler Aerospace Restoration and Training Center at Sun ’n Fun.
Now the fun is set to begin.
“We’re going to hammer this out as fast as we can,” said Andy Ovans, aircraft manager at Sun ’n Fun, who is overseeing the project. “My goal is to have this in the air by September.”
The Zenith 750 is one of a handful of small aircraft versatile enough to be adapted with special hand controls so that someone who has lost the use of one or both legs can take the pilot’s seat and place a wheelchair in the cargo space.
In testimonials on Able Flight’s website, pilots describe how flying frees them from their disability and builds self-reliance. To apply for an Able Flight scholarship or donate to its scholarship fund visit www.ableflight.org.
It takes about seven to eight weeks to complete the training. Host sites provide housing. Able Flight covers all costs except transportation and meals.
Because the Zenith kits don’t include engines and avionics, Sun ’n Fun seeks donations of both cash and equipment. The complete aircraft, assembled with volunteers, is valued at about $75,000. To donate visit www.flysnf.org.
One of those volunteers is Juksana Mai-Nham, 16, an academy sophomore and Aero Club member whose goal is to become a bush pilot in Alaska. She too is eager to take part in constructing a plane.
Upon graduation from the academy, Juksana intends to earn an air traffic control degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
The hands-on experience of building an aircraft from scratch is invaluable to someone flying in the Alaskan wilderness, Juksana said. “If I’m a bush pilot and get stuck in the snow, I need to know how the plane works.”
Eric Pera can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7528.