Students at Southern Arizona Teen Aviation don’t have a classroom, they have a hangar. They don’t have teachers, they have mentors. And instead of a grade at the end of the class, the group has first-hand experience building an RV-12 single-engine airplane.
SATA is a nonprofit teaching high school sophomores, juniors and seniors about the many career paths in aviation, and they are currently accepting new students.
“I love airplanes, and I happen to have a bunch of retired friends who love airplanes,” said SATA co-founder Alan Muhs. “And we want to pass on our love of aviation to the younger generations.”
SATA launched in Feb. 2017, and is nearing completion on its first airplane. The RV-12 has a mostly-constructed fuselage and cockpit. On their Sunday meetings, the students busily work away on the aircraft: inserting rivets, balancing angles and studying blueprints.
SATA students have worked on the RV-12 for a little over two years, and expect to finish the project by the end of this year.
“There’s a joke in aviation that you’re 90 percent done with a project, and only have 90 percent more to go,” said volunteer mentor Glenn Brasch.
According to Muhs, while the obvious result of the class is students building an airplane, they also learn many skills, particularly perseverance and attention to detail. Over the course of the class, students learn to use workshop tools properly, how to organize and plan major projects, and work directly with members of the professional aviation community.
“We don’t want everyone who comes in here to think they’ll have to be a pilot,” Muhs said. “We also want to show them there’s a lot of different jobs in aviation.”
The program teaches high school students twice a week during the school year and once a week during the summer. The classes, taught by volunteer mentors who all have experience in aviation, guide local high school students through the process of understanding mechanical blueprints, combining individual pieces of the wings and fuselage, equipping the engine and more.
“I really look forward to coming here, it’s almost therapeutic,” said Brian Zelt, a senior at Ironwood Ridge High School who joined SATA two years ago.
Zelt plans on attending Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott later this year, and feels his time working at SATA will give him an advantage over other engineering freshman.
“I learned that just because you’re designing something as an engineer, doesn’t mean you can’t think of it as a builder as well,” he said. “It’s made me very building-conscious.”
SATA currently teaches 10 students. According to Brasch, that’s a perfect amount, because everyone has something to do. The group even began working on a second RV-12 six months ago.
Muhs and Jeff Northcutt co-founded SATA out of a mutual desire to train the next generation of aviators.
Muhs has flown planes since the 1970s, earning both private and commercial pilot’s licenses. He has owned multiple factory-built airplanes, and even built his own. During his time in the air, Muhs has flown across the US, to Mexico, and to the Bahamas.
Northcutt, with over 9000 hours of flight time, worked for nearly 20 years as a pilot for the Department of Homeland Security, and is currently a commercial pilot. Beyond Muhs and Northcutt, SATA has five volunteer mentors: Brasch, Mel Jordan, Bob Miller, Matt North and Angel “Tito” Sanchez.
SATA, which is entirely volunteer-based, hopes to become financially self-sufficient through tax deductible donations. These particularly help to purchase parts for the RV-12, which often total $60,000 or more.
“I had never put too much thought into it, but after going here, becoming a hobby pilot seems great,” said Nicholas Gullow, a student at Mountain View High School. “It’s expanded my horizon.”
Muhs is currently in talks with Amphitheater Public Schools for SATA students to receive school credit for the classes, possibly under the district’s career and technical education program.
“The whole purpose of this is to pass along our passion for aviation,” Sanchez said. “I’ve been flying my whole life, and every time I’m up there, it’s still amazing. It’s hard to explain, but you’re home up there. And we want to pass that feeling along.”
For more information, visit soazteenaviation.org.