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Wheels Down

Just as the nation prepares to celebrate the centennial of the Wright brothers' historic 1903 flight, Mundelein High School in Illinois is grounding its aviation program.

For nearly 25 years, the 2,000-student school in Lake County has supported an aerospace course that teaches students the science behind aircraft technology by letting them build their own airplane.

"I think it was a fascinating course for students," said Sally Pilcher, the director of staff and student services for the Mundelein Consolidated High School District 120.

She recalls the day in 1994 when former student Tom Zentz flew the 1988 school-built Lancair 360 from Chicago to the Arctic Circle, garnering notice in National Geographic magazine.

Despite the program's triumphs—including multiple aviation and teaching awards—a downturn in student interest has forced the school to discontinue the course. This year, only 13 students enrolled, a stark contrast to the hundreds who signed up when the program was at its peak a decade ago.

"It's heartbreaking to us," Ms. Pilcher said, "because we've been so proud of this program, but it's an issue of how student interests change over time. Given the downturn in the aviation industry, it's not as appealing to students looking for careers."

The program, which started as part of a 1975 science class, initially enabled students to qualify for private pilot's licenses. In 1980, the school began an aviation-technology program with privately donated plans and aircraft materials.

Students took courses over a three-year period, earning college credit and learning the basic principles of flight, navigation, radio communication, and meteorology.

The teenagers then learned how to construct the airplane itself, down to the last detail, from installing the engine to painting the decorative flames on the sides of one model, Ms. Pilcher said.

Most of the four planes built by Mundelein students took two to three years to build and more than 4,000 student hours of work. Once a plane was completed, it was submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for inspection and then given to the individual who provided the parts.

Nearly 1,000 students have completed the program, more than 300 of whom have gone on to aviation careers.

—Marianne D. Hurst

Vol. 22, Issue 38, Page 3

Published in Print: May 28, 2003, as Take Note

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