Flight plan

(First published in the September 20, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Public aviation programs at Wausau’s Downtown Airport aren’t just about a hobby, says John Chmiel. The underlying purpose is to address a severe shortage of pilots.

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John Chmiel with a 1941 Boeing Stearman at Wausau Downtown Airport.

The United States is in the worst commercial pilot shortage it has ever been in since prior to WWII, says Wausau Downtown Airport manager John Chmiel.

“People have taken aviation for granted,” he says. The looming shortage was talked about 30 years ago and then five years ago it really showed up, he says.

Boeing’s annual 2018 Pilot & Technician Outlook projects 206,000 new pilots will be needed in North America (790,00 worldwide) over the next 20 years, and the supply of up-and-coming pilots is far below that demand. Nearly half of all pilots today are Baby Boomers who are about to retire within a decade. And that’s on top of a current shortage that’s already affecting airlines’ ability to expand regional routes.

“If you think the pilot shortage is bad, it pales in comparison to the mechanic shortage,” Chmiel says. “The whole aviation industry is hurting, it’s life support hurting.”

“The FAA also predicts a shortage in air traffic controllers,” according to Meredith Alt, aviation education and program manager at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Bureau of Aeronautics.

Most people around Wausau don’t realize that a lot of the programs and activities at the Downtown Airport over the past several years were created with this aviation industry shortage in mind. Chmiel wants to be a part of a solution by piquing young people’s interest in airplanes. He and a strong group of local airplane buffs have been working to create youth aviation programs, from elementary to high school aged students:

• Helping the neighborhood surrounding the airport develop an aviation themed park;

• A model airplane night at the airport which has been bringing in the middle school aged kids into the airport;

• The Learn Build Fly program in which youth and adults build an actual flyable airplane.

All of these fun things heighten interest in airplanes and becoming a pilot, Chmiel says. “These careers are in demand and we forecast this shortage won’t end for 20 years, so if a kid can get into this field in the next ten years, they will be sitting pretty for probably their entire career.”

Chmiel wants to keep creating programs for all ages so that the aviation seed is planted early—a career nurturing effort that Chmiel believes the industry as a whole is lacking.

“You have kids who are already enamored with airplanes, but aviation has this stigma that it’s a rich man’s playground and sport, so we are finding ways to expose kids to aviation,” he says. “Model airplanes, learning to fabricate an airplane and age appropriate aviation programs like that aren’t expensive.”

For example, 10 students currently attend Model Airplane Night, which runs on Tuesdays at the downtown airport. “This is the first year,” Chmiel says. “We had the goal of building four different types of model airplanes in a one year period.” He thinks they will double or triple that attendance next year.

The program starts with just a basic balsa wood glider and rubber band-powered models; in spring they built a more complex rubber band-powered balsa and tissue model.

“We are now currently working on a foam, electric-powered U-control airplane, just like in the old days when you would see the kids with the model airplanes with the strings on the end,” says Chmiel.

At the end of the year they will build a remote controlled model. Each kid works on his or her own model. “We’ve had great corporate support as well as other donations,” he says. “The first couple of models are free then they have to pay at least 50% of the cost because they have to have some skin in the game.”

The airport will hold fundraisers as a way for those in the program to earn their own money toward the model airplanes. “We don’t necessarily want the parents paying for the models. We want to see the kids figuring out ways to pay,” Chmiel says. One fundraiser planned is an airplane washing day where the kids wash some of the local airplanes at the airport. “The airplane owners get their airplanes washed and the kids get to be around airplanes and learn about the aircraft. The owner would then make a donation to the kids.”

Nurturing young pilots through Learn Build Fly



Participants constructing an airplane this summer during Learn Build Fly

Another local program, Learn Build Fly, was started by local pilots Dave Conrad and Kurt Mehre back in 2012. Learn Build Fly gives people the experience of building an airplane from the ground up starting with plans on paper.

It began when Mehre acquired a partially finished Baby Ace plane from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) founder Paul Poberezny after his passing. A group of people began congregating in a hangar in Wausau to finish the plane together. After it was completed and sold, Conrad and Mehre looked at each other and all the people who had been coming weekly to help and asked, “What’s next?”

Conrad turned the group into a nonprofit in 2014 and moved from a borrowed hangar and into a hangar they built on their own behind Alexander Airport Park, creating the Learn Build Fly Center.

“Our parts were getting big and we saw that we needed to move on,” says Conrad looking around the brand new 5,200-square-foot hangar and at the bones of a plane fuselage sitting in the center. Learn Build Fly now is its own complete plane factory, with a 3D printer, welding equipment, and computer-aided design and programming run on a mill. The group hopes to get a laser cutter next.

The main night at the Learn Build Fly Center hangar, Tuesday, generally sees 30-40 people in attendance, some coming from as far as Waupaca to help construct the plane. There isn’t official membership and there are no dues to attend. Everything in the hangar has been donated through gifts and foundations, says Conrad.

The group is overseen by pilots, engineers and others who have been in the aviation field. Collectively they have well over 100 years of flight experience.

On other nights of the week, the center hosts the Aviation Explorer Post and the Explorers Club. Conrad says Learn Build Fly hopes to target the 13- to 20-year-old set, but says there’s so much interest from everybody that they gladly welcome any age to join.

“I want this to always be fun. Learning should be fun… I like to say, ‘STEM is for everyone,’” Conrad says, referring to the science, technology, engineering and math.

Wausau’s Learn Build Fly program also has been a springboard for higher education. Of the kids who joined the last plane-building group, Mehre says five have started studying aviation and engineering as a career path.

Jacob Lasee is one of those kids. Lasee got involved with Learn Build Fly in 2013 when he was 14 years old, and the experience propelled his career trajectory. “We had a strong youth involvement that we sort of developed and fostered. And I was really fortunate to be a part of this group since the beginning, because I had been wanting to build my own aircraft for a while,” says Lasee. “The actual hands-on skills and knowledge I gained through going there helped me greatly pursue my own airplane project.”

Lasee, from Mosinee, is currently attending his last year at Minnesota State University in Mankato in the field of professional flight, and is building his own Pietenpol airplane.

And now, at age 19, “I just received my commercial pilot’s license,” Lasee says.

Learn Build Fly currently is about halfway through completing their Wittman Legacy airplane. The goal is to get the plane ready to fly by next fall and take those who worked on it up in the air, in the plane they built.

Collaborating with schools



Learn Build Fly founder Dave Conrad (left) at the EAA convention this summer with Jacob Lasee of Mosinee, who at age 19 recently received his commercial pilot’s license.

One big next step is to offer more formal training locally for prospective new pilots.

Chmiel is currently talking to the Wausau School District about launching an accredited aviation program into the high schools.

“A junior in high school could take Aviation 101 and that would teach and prepare them with knowledge to get their pilot’s license,” he says. “Seniors could then take an advanced aviation class.”

Chmiel says he’s already found a few teachers who have their pilot’s licenses and would be willing to teach the classes. “We need to put the blocks together. It won’t be right now, but maybe in 2020 or a year after that.”

Chmiel envisions an aviation program with flight simulators and paid instructors in the schools for a more efficient transition toward earning a pilot’s license.

“We had some conversations about it and are intrigued with the idea,” says Jon Winter, Career and Technical Education Coordinator with the Wausau School District. “It’s an innovative idea but it’s really early in the process.”

The district would need to look at the curriculum, “which John has talked about and making sure we can bring it on as a school district,” says Winter. Other considerations include staffing, scheduling, facilities, and budget. “Lots of pieces to the equation need to get figured out.”

If the idea takes flight, Wausau would be only the second school district in the state to offer curriculum like this, says Chmiel. Racine is the only one with such a program.

Several higher education facilities in Wisconsin and in neighboring Minnesota offer aviation as a formal degree. “We are trying to hook up with a collegiate program in Wisconsin and maybe we would try to organize that aviation school through Northcentral Technical College,” Chmiel says.

The state is taking notice, too.

“The Wausau airport and the partners who have programs taking place there including Learn Build Fly have created exactly the type of programs and outreach that national leaders say is needed,” says Meredith Alt, from the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics. “The amount of youth aviation education activities taking place at the airport is unique in the state and can be a model to other cities.”

If the programs ultimately succeed the way Chmiel envisions, local aviation buffs will have done their part to help address the pilot shortage, “and we will have something that may attract people to the Wausau metro area,” says Chmiel. “If your kid has a serious interest in aviation, Wausau is going to be the place.”