At a rural airport in Waupaca County, Jerry Graf shares his love of aviation with students.
Every other Tuesday evening, students and teachers meet him at Central County Airport, outside of Ogdensburg, where they work on building an airplane.
“Because of the declining population of pilots, I wanted to do something,” Graf said. “I wanted to structure something around building an airplane.”
Three years ago, he was at the annual EAA AirVenture Convention in Oshkosh when he discovered youth who had constructed a homebuilt plane.
They were members of an Aviation Explorer Post from Alabama.
“They built an airplane and were selling tickets to give it away,” Graf said. “They would go to airshows and get kids excited about aviation.”
At an airshow in Florida, he saw the same thing.
“I came back with an idea. I wanted to get back to my first love – aviation,” Graf said.
He was about 7 years old when he had his first ride in an airplane.
In 1965, Graf got his pilot’s license.
He tried to get into aviation in various ways, including sales and marketing, air traffic control and even airport management.
Graf ended up working in the corporate pizza world for 40 years but never lost his love of flight.
After moving to the Waupaca area in 2005, he found out about Central County Airport and its Friday fly-in lunches.
“I just fell in love with the airport,” he said. “It is a throwback to what aviation should be.”
Three years ago, he moved to Iola.
Retired, Graf says, “I feel someone has to take responsibility to pass along the love of aviation and inspire them.”
Aviators By Design
In October of 2010, Aviators By Design was incorporated, and Graf, a founder of the organization, began looking for an airplane to build.
He made connections in the industry.
Sebastien Heintz, of Zenith Aircraft Co., donated the basic frame and EAA Chapter 640, out of Wausau, donated the finishing kit.
Graf said money needs to be raised for the kit which includes the engine and propeller, as well as for the instrument panel. It will take about $40,000 to finish the plane.
Then, he wants to raise money for a second aircraft to be built by students.
Aviators By Design is a non-profit organization, and it sponsors Aviation Explorer Post 9868.
That post was formed to organize youth interested in aviation.
As part of the program, the students began building a STOL CH 750 airplane kit in the Homebuilders Hangar on the AirVenture grounds in 2012.
“We started at EAA and came back here,” Graf said. “By word of mouth, we started gaining kids.”
Among the students who have been involved from the start is Susanne Stalker.
The 16 year old is a junior at New London High School.
Stalker was filling out an interest survey at school, and after she marked “aeronautical engineering” as an interest, Stalker was put in contact with the newly formed Aviation Explorer Post.
“I always thought airplanes and space were cool,” she said. “When I joined the group, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Stalker is not alone.
In all, students from seven high schools – Clintonville, Iola-Scandinavia, Mosinee, New London, Seymour, Waupaca and Weyauwega-Fremont – are participating.
They meet from 6:30-8 p.m. every other Tuesday at the airport. The next meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 5.
Graf has a group of leaders who are helping the students.
Tracy Buttles, of Royalton, is one of them.
“He’s the main group leader,” Graf said. “He builds airplanes for people.”
Aviators By Design uses the Fly To Learn program which teaches Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) concepts.
When Mike Hansen learned about the project, he sat down with Joe Gruentzel and the two made a list of students they thought might be interested in it.
Hansen teaches science at W-F High School and Gruentzel teaches technology education there.
Seven W-F students signed up.
“The goal is that some of these kids will identify an interest in careers related to aviation,” Hansen said. “This is really what we’re supposed to be doing – real life. They can see what they’re doing.”
Rudy Zuleger, a 16-year-old junior, sees it as a great opportunity.
Eighteen-year-old Desiree Roe is a senior at W-F High School and is excited to be part of the team.
“The main reason I joined is because I took one of Mr. Hansen’s physic classes and enjoyed it,” she said. “When we get to the flying part, it will all be physics.”
Gruentzel said, “I think it’s an excellent extension of what we’re teaching them in metals class. The next phase will be more intense.”
Another student involved in the project is 14-year-old Ryan Johnson, who is a freshman at Waupaca High School.
He became interested in aviation a couple years ago and is a member of EAA Chpater 444.
“It’s a lot of fun building it and getting that experience early,” Johnson said.
Graf says others interested in the project may learn about it at www.aviatorsbydesign.com or https://www.facebook.com/AviatorsByDesign and may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-445-2780.
His goal is to build an educational center where students can work on planes and eventually fly them.
“I’m doing what I want to do. I had so many great opportunities presented to me in my career,” Graf said. “I’m sure they will remember the experience whether they become pilots or not.”