WORDS: Kara Chalmers
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
On Saturday mornings, a group of teens meets in a hangar at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport to build an airplane. An actual, two-seat, 20-foot-long airplane with a 26-foot wingspan.
This “light-sport aircraft” is small, lightweight, and simple to fly. It comes unassembled in a “kit” – a 1,000-pound crate – containing multiple aluminum sheets, plus everything else needed to assemble the plane, including a voluminous, fully-illustrated instruction manual.
The teens don’t build the plane alone. Volunteer members of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 180 of Manasota mentor the teens, teaching them how to use tools, read and understand the instructions, and plan for what to accomplish during each step of the build.
“They should be learning to understand the science of how and why airplanes fly,” said Senior Mentor Ric Romanoff of the teens, who usually number about 10 per year. “They learn teamwork and how to get along with others. They learn respect for the process and the jobs assigned to them.”
The teens don’t pay a thing to participate in the program called the Teen Aircraft Factory of Manasota. It’s open to anyone between the ages of 14 to 17. Martin Sobel, a retired commercial pilot who had worked for TWA for 34 years, founded the factory in 2013. He’s been a mentor ever since. At the start, there were four mentors. Now there are around 10.
Romanoff said he’s kept in touch with most of the teens (now adults) who’ve gone through the program. Many went on to college, or the military, or have careers in aviation now. Sometimes they come back to be factory mentors.
“We enjoy what we’re doing,” Romanoff said of the mentors. “Watching these kids develop is a reward in itself.”
Getting Off to a Flying Start
At the beginning of March, the teens were putting the finishing touches on what would be the third aircraft the factory has produced since its inception. The aircraft will fly at 120 knots and up to 10,000 feet, with a range of 450 miles between stops for fuel. As all former builders have, the teens have signed their names on the plane’s tail floor.
The hope was that a Federal Aviation Administration inspector would come to sign off on the plane within two weeks so that Romanoff could take the first flight. Romanoff has been the first test pilot on all the planes the factory has built.
Once a plane is built, approved, and test-flown, the group sells it and uses the proceeds to buy a new kit (from a seller called Van’s Aircraft Inc.), so they can start building another plane from scratch. In fact, the fourth plane is already on order.
But before the sale, the teens get a chance to fly what they’ve built. Romanoff said the group usually has a cookout, and the teens bring family and friends to watch. Names are drawn to determine the order of flights.
Saying the teens are excited to fly an aircraft, they have built themselves is an understatement, according to Romanoff, adding that the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction they feel is extraordinary.
The factory’s mission is simply to foster an interest in aviation in teens. The mentors have been pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, designers, engineers, airport managers, or just plain aviation enthusiasts. Thus, the teens learn about all kinds of jobs in aviation.
“But many want to become pilots,” Romanoff said. “And most will.”
The building process – and flights – are completely safe. “We’re watching these kids when they’re building,” Romanoff said, adding that the mentors inspect and check the teens’ work and have them re-do any work that is unsatisfactory.
On the actual flights, both teen and mentor have a complete set of controls, so if there was ever an emergency, the mentor could completely take over. Romanoff, who since his 20s has flown planes for pleasure, estimates he has flown 200 kids, and not once has there been a safety problem. In the factory’s history, there’s never even been a teen who’s vomited from motion sickness, he said.
Pre-COVID-19, the EAA Chapter 180 offered a program called the Young Eagles, which allowed local kids ages 8 to 17 a free flight by a volunteer pilot in a general aviation plane from the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. The program was offered the third Saturday of the month, and parents just needed to sign a consent form, and they’d stay and watch their children take flight.
Romanoff said he hopes the program will start up again in May. Prior to COVID-19 hitting in March of 2020, the Young Eagles program was averaging about 25 free flights per month, Romanoff said, and it has been doing so for 25 years. The flights exposed kids to aviation, Romanoff said, while the factory has served to keep them engaged and interested.
The Young Eagles flights are how many teens have found out about the factory. Including Stanley Kratounkov, 16, and in the 10th grade at Lakewood Ranch High School. He had his Young Eagles flight in September 2019 and joined the factory as a builder a year later.
“I came there, and I fell in love with it,” Stanley said about the factory, which, when he joined, was three-quarters of the way through building its third plane. “Every single Saturday, I look forward to it. I give it my all.”
Stanley has mainly worked on building the plane’s fuselage and engine, he said. He’s learned everything he knows about aviation from the mentors.
Stanley, however, has wanted to fly since he was two years old, according to his parents. His grandfather would bring him to watch planes take off and land at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved aviation,” Stanley said. “I’ve always wanted to be a pilot.”
Currently, a student pilot, who has experienced four flights and attends ground school online, Stanley is also building a plane with his father, who is a pilot. Stanley hopes to fly solo this summer for the first time. After graduating high school – which he hopes will be after his junior year – Stanley wants to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy and then enter the Air Force.
“I think it’s the coolest job in the world,” Stanley said about flying. “It’s the coolest thing you could ever do.” He said he had never experienced fear while flying, just excitement, even when he was just four years old and flew for the first time in a four-seater plane piloted by his father. He’s never had any doubts or second thoughts about his chosen career path.
Never Fear, Just Excitement
Brennan Halcomb, 17, joined the Teen Aircraft Factory two years ago. A junior at Pine View School, Brennan plans to continue with the factory until college.
“I’ve always been deeply intrigued by space exploration,” Brennan said. “Once I took an interest in hands-on projects like building robots and constructing RC planes, aerospace engineering became the clear path for me.”
After that realization, Brennan began researching ways to get involved in that field while still in school.
“I jumped on the opportunity as soon as I heard about TAFM,” he said (he heard about the factory from a former Pine View student who was a member). “I actually found out about Young Eagles through TAFM.”
Since then, he’s flown a handful of times. Each time, the mentor flying the aircraft has handed the controls over and given him a chance to “pilot the bird,” he said.
In college, Brennan plans on majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring or double majoring in statistics or physics.
Also, it’s been fun to make friends with other teens with the same interests, Brennan said. “I now have a sense of what it feels like to work on a team of people who are dedicated to accomplishing the same thing.”
All the mentors are inspirational, he said, and mentor Ron Handley has been particularly helpful to him and supportive of his future plans.
“We have some guys on the team that are past pilots, electrical engineers, software engineers, and one that was a POW,” Brennan said of the mentors. “They have a lot of stories to tell. You just need to be willing to ask.”
According to Brennan, the Saturday build sessions are his only opportunity to do anything hands-on. He attends school in person, but many of the engineering-based clubs he was part of have been put on hold due to COVID-19.
“Coming to the builds gives me a chance to relax, be productive, and learn new things all at the same time,” he said.
Aviation’s Next Leaders
Jack Mungillo is a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. Mungillo, 19, is primarily interested in airplane design. In the future, he’d like to earn a pilot’s license and a Master’s degree in business.
He credits the Teen Aircraft Factory – in which he participated while attending Braden River High School — for where he is today. The Young Eagles flight he took in middle school, plus his time building two planes as part of the factory, introduced him to aviation, he said. It also solidified his interest in engineering.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said of the factory. “It inspired me to become the person I am today.”
His mother, Dr. Sheila Halpin, who is the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading & Volunteer Coordinator for Manatee County Public Schools, agrees.
“I believe the Teen Aircraft Factory changed the trajectory of Jack’s life,” Halpin said. The factory not only exposed Jack to aeronautics, but she also said the program taught Jack self-confidence, discipline, commitment, leadership, and the value of teamwork.
As a little kid, Halpin said Jack loved building things. His favorite toys were Legos, and he joined both Lego and coding clubs. In school, he was strong in math and science.
“The Teen Aircraft Factory exposed him to aviation and then nurtured his interest and shaped it into a passion,” Halpin said. “Their mentors are ordinary people making extraordinary differences in the lives of children.”
According to Halpin, Jack will be part of the next generation of aviation leaders, in large part because of the guidance and support of the factory mentors – people she truly appreciates.
“I’m humbled to see my son blossom this way. I’m in awe of who he is becoming,” Halpin said. “I don’t think he would have had this career opportunity if it weren’t for the Teen Aircraft Factory.”