Jerry Graf grew up pumping gas and washing airplanes at McPherson Airport, but his eyesight kept him from becoming a commercial pilot. After retiring from his corporate career with several pizza restaurants, he returned to McPherson to give kids a chance to start their own careers in aviation.
In 2010, Graf founded Aviators By Design, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching high school students and young adults about aviation.
While volunteering for EAA AirVenture, an air show in OshKosh, Wisconsin, Graf’s attention was drawn by a kit plane built by a group of young adults.
“I got really interested in what they were doing and thought I could do do the same thing,” Graf said.
Graf recruited an initial group of students and instructors, bringing them together in a donated hangar space to build a plane.
Aviators By Design has grown into a customizable program that allows for 14 to 21-year-olds to participate as students and older adults to serve as mentors.
The program develops mechanical skills, skills in math, avionics, welding, sheet metal fabrication, aircraft covering and social skills including teamwork, accountability, leadership and patience.
“The whole idea here is to encourage the next generation to explore and discover opportunities in the world of aviation,” Graf said. “...We want them using their minds instead of being stuck in front of a TV set or getting high on drugs.”
The Aviators By Design teams build Zenith STOL CH 750 two-seat airplanes with a 178-pound, 130 horsepower, fuel-injected engine. Programmable instrument panels that can feature both steam gages and more modern displays are inserted. The students also 3-D print parts they need to add to the plane.
Aviators By Design won the 2016 GAMA build a plane design challenge, which had students learn the physics of flight and then modify a Cessna 172 for a simulated challenge.
“They would study and work at central computers,” Graf said.
The students modified the design, engine specifications and propellers, thinking outside the box to design a plane that would reach the goal.
“You give the kids an opportunity and let them go for it,” Graf said.
When Aviators By Design displays their kit plane at an air show, the students are directed to spend time talking with attendees about the project and exploring the vendors present to find components for their next plane.
Aviators By Design also uses the “Fly to Learn” curriculum to first teach the physics of flight and then let students use a flight simulator to apply their knowledge.
Participating in Aviators By Design, students’ minds are engaged and they build confidence in their skills. Beyond mechanical and technological work, life skill are taught in the program as well. Mutual respect and trust are the top two character traits Graf emphasizes in the Aviators By Design program.
“The airplane is just the project. The program is more about development,” Graf said.
To bring the program to McPherson, Graf wants to build a 72-foot square building at McPherson Airport, with classroom space and hangar space allowing multiple classes and projects.
“It’s not just a hangar, it’s not just a plane build, it can be anything,” Graf said.
Graf envisions the building as a place for the public to come and learn skills while also mentoring youth.
“What you’re doing by bringing a kid out here to the airport is you’re putting them in a different environment,” Graf said.
Aviators By Design is also partnering with several other organizations to create a four-year curriculum course for high school students, who will be able to choose from three career pathways — pilot, unmanned aerial vehicles or aeronautical engineering.
“Once it’s available, it’s going to be put out to high schools across the country for free,” Graf said.
There is a need to produce skilled laborers for the work force, Graf noted.
“We’ve got to create facilities to allow these kids to do (things),” Graf said. “Industry and education and all these people have to be aware that it’s available and then figure out a way to take advantage of it.”
For more information about Aviators By Design, visit https://aviatorsbydesign.com/ or call 828-329-3694.
Children ages eight to 17 will be able to take part in free flights sponsored by Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program from 8 a.m. to noon May 21 at McPherson Airport, 1000 S. 81 Bypass.