On a rainy spring Saturday morning, Kristi Lowry was ungreasing a portion of the fuselage on an old World War II airplane at the Sandpoint Airport. Eventually, she or another student would strip off the mint green paint and replace it with a more original Army green.
Lowry, a Clark Fork High School student, is often at the airport on Saturday mornings, part of a high school aviation program held there.
“I like being able to learn a lot of new things with building,” Lowry said. “Usually girls aren’t involved with these things.”
On this morning, about half of the dozen or so students there are girls, which is standard for the group, said Ken Larson, who is in charge of the program.
Lowry will log her time working on the two airplanes in the hangar, an effort she can eventually convert into flying time. She wants to be a pilot.
“The first time I flew a plane, I knew this was the best thing in the world,” she said.
All the students there seemed to agree with her. Larson, who flew in the Air Force and then flew business jets, co-founded the North Idaho High School Aerospace Program with Barney Ballard six years ago.
“We have a ground school class that’s an actual academic class at Sandpoint (High School), and it has kind of evolved into a career pathways class,” Larson said.
This year, he said, there are 16 students in the class. Some are homeschooled while others attend high schools in the area. And most of them are at the airport just about every Saturday to work on restoring these two planes.
Patches, the more complete of the two, the group hopes to use in its own training flights. Accordingly, they plan to put in a bigger engine, one with an electric starter for the propeller. The other plane, whose fuselage Lowry was working on, was in many more pieces. Both were originally gliders used in World War II.
Tom Dean lives in Sandpoint and was one of three volunteer mentors there with the students. His father was a pilot who got his license on the G.I. Bill. Dean is an engineer and designed large commercial airplanes before he retired, “but,” he said, “this is where my love lies.”
“It’s just part of my DNA. I was born this way,” Dean said of working with planes. “This is a great way (for students) to get started. Hopefully this gives them a connection with history.”
In a different hangar, Larson keeps the two training planes: a Zodiac named Zoey and a Cessna 150 named Lupe. It gives students two different wing configurations (high and low wings) to practice in.
Students also spend time flying, and through the program they can earn their pilot’s license. About a dozen have, Larson said, in the program’s brief history. The process still costs money, but someone who is taking lessons outside the program would pay more to earn a license, he said. The program has received grants and scholarships to help offset the cost.
So far, a handful of former members are now enrolled in aviation programs at colleges to become commercial pilots. Others are training to be—or already are—aircraft mechanics. Still more are in engineering school. Entering a post-secondary program with a license in hand is an advantage for those who want to work around planes, Larson said, but there are other benefits as well.
“It’s a difficult thing to achieve, the license. It takes a lot of academic work, a lot of flying and precision, and really a commitment,” Larson said. “So employers see that, and especially the Air Force people, they see that somebody can achieve something difficult and stick with it, so it’s more than just the license; it’s the ability to do it.”
Maggie Kirscher was Larson’s first student, before the program existed in its current form. A counselor at Sandpoint High School told her about the opportunity and sent her for a job shadow. After the flight, Kirscher was all in.
“I had an intro flight with Ken and went up for an hour, and I just got hooked,” she said. “It’s a really incredible thing.”
Kirscher earned her pilot’s license after her senior year at Sandpoint, in 2012, and then went to North Idaho College to complete a number of her general requirements. After that she enrolled at Cochise College in Arizona, and there she got her instrument, commercial and instructor’s licenses.
She was hired as a first officer for Republic Airlines last June and said she loves it.
Gavin Klein does, too. After two years in the aviation maintenance technology program at North Idaho College, Klein is a student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, about a year and a half from earning a bachelor’s degree in professional piloting.
A Sandpoint graduate, Klein appreciated that the high school program emphasized other aspects of aviation, not just piloting.
“There’s so much more to aviation [than] just flying,” Klein said, “so it shows a lot of the students that they can be a part of aviation but you don’t have to fly.”
The program is completely reliant on volunteers and donations. They were given a Zenith Zodiac CH 601XL—a plane Klein helped rebuild—that they finished in August 2017. After that the group restored a 1945 Taylorcraft BC12-D, which they sold locally in order to buy the two planes that they are currently working on.
They have a Rotorway Executive helicopter—in pieces—they would like to sell, Larson said. They were just donated another plane from Las Vegas, and Dean drove down and brought it back. That will be a project for a little later on, according to Larson.
“We’ve run out of space,” Larson said, “and the cost of operating is going up, so we’re having to stop growing, which is a little bit of an issue because we’re getting a lot more interest.”
The students would fly every day if they had the time, Larson said, but they are busy with school, homework, sports and other commitments. They each keep a mechanic’s log book, and when they’ve worked enough hours they get a free flight.
Kirscher said the experience students get working on planes and flying them is a big advantage and was invaluable to her as she worked her way into the profession.
“What Ken has done in Sandpoint is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen,” she said. “For kids to get this experience this early is amazing.”