Talkeetna students now have chance to learn to fly

Rindi White
Photo Susitna Valley Build-A-Plane

WASILLA -- In Talkeetna this fall, students will have a chance to take to the skies and even restore to flying condition a plane that crashed several years ago not far from the town.

Su Valley High School recently added aviation as a part of its curriculum. Students in the "AeroScholars" program can learn principles of aviation in the first year of the course, then prepare for the Federal Aviation Administration pilot's exam the second year.

Su Valley counselor June Ruda said Rebecca Fisher, who lives in the area and works for Alaska Airlines, approached her with the idea of incorporating aviation into the school curriculum.

In the upper Susitna Valley, planes provide access to many people's off-the-grid recreational cabins, hunting sites and fishing holes, as well as taking tourists and climbers to Alaska's highest peaks.

The demand for air travel in the area translates to jobs for pilots, mechanics and others who support the industry.

Ruda said the school got permission from the Mat-Su Borough School District to add AeroScholars to the curriculum for a science credit. Up to 15 students will be able to take the classes this fall.

Along with the in-school work, a group of community volunteers has banded together to create a club that's part of the national Build-A-Plane organization.

Build-A-Plane is a nonprofit national organization created for young people interested in aviation.

The group restores donated planes that have crashed, but whose damage is not related to technical problems -- the pilot hit a tree or the plane was flipped in a windstorm, for example.

The students restore the plane, sell it and donate or buy another plane to restore.

The organization has completed projects around the world, including jobs in Nigeria and a 2007 project in Hooper Bay.

In Talkeetna, students who participate in the program will be working on a yellow 1949 Stinson 108-3, a four-seater plane donated by Matanuska Electric Association general manager Joe Griffith.

Griffith knows a little about flying. He flew 275 missions in F4 Phantoms during three tours in Vietnam, and then served as test pilot and commander for F-15 jets.

He is former wing commander at Elmendorf Air Force Base. These days, he pilots a Cessna 172.

Griffith said he ended up with the Stinson about seven years ago.

It had been wrecked on landing about 50 miles northeast of Talkeetna, he said. The man who owned it -- whose name Griffith declined to disclose -- said he would give it to Griffith and two other pilots if they would fly it off the mountain. They removed the plane and housed it at Griffith's garage.

"It was a pretty nice airplane for its day, though it's a little underpowered," he said. "I started to renovate it but everything else got in the way."

Griffith and volunteers loaded the plane on a trailer and hauled it from his Anchorage garage earlier this month. Students will be working on it in a Talkeetna warehouse donated by Matanuska Electric Association near the Talkeetna airstrip.

Griffith said the building, an insulated metal shed about 60 by 40 feet that the company picked up several years ago in the sale of a small power plant, is rarely used.

But its location, about 30 feet from the airport, near K2 Aviation, is ideal for the club's use. The club will use part of the building to restore the plane, leaving enough space to store equipment there if needed, Griffith said.

Aviation-related companies in the Talkeetna area have also pledged support for the program, from paid internships to introductory flight lessons.

The project is getting interest and support from outside Talkeetna as well. UPS has offered to let top-performing AeroScholars students use its 747 or MD11 full-phase flight simulator, and the Ninety-Nines Inc. Alaska Chapter has offered up to $500 for a private pilot course for the Su Valley school library, according to MEA spokeswoman Cheryll Heinze, who is helping provide information about the project.

Heinze said 15 local pilots and mechanics have also agreed to be involved in the AeroScholars program and the Build-A-Plane project.

"It's an amazing buildup of people," Ruda said.

The Build-A-Plane project is expected to start in the fall, along with the AeroScholars program, Ruda said.

The AeroScholars program will also be available for use in other high schools around the Mat-Su Borough School District.

Find Rindi White online at or call 907-352-6709.