Spirit of Athenian III in Full Swing, Fall 2013

Marsh Freeman

Marsh Freeman

Holden demonstrates the pneumatic rivet gun.

Holden demonstrates the pneumatic rivet gun.

Eugene shows the instruction manual to parents and students.

Eugene shows the instruction manual to parents and students.

Parents and students learning about the airplane program

Parents and students learning about the airplane program

We kicked off the Spirit of Athenian III program with a meeting on September 10th for returning and interested students and their parents. An overview of the program’s history was detailed, the adult mentors were introduced, and special kudos were given to the originator of the program, Marsh Freeman and his wife, Mugs.

To start the presentation, Eugene showed a short video with photos from the first two Athenian airplane projects, as well as some video of the current project, the RV-12. Then we donned our safety goggles and entered into the workspace to view some of the completed pieces of the plane.

Parents and students were encouraged to view the instruction manuals and see the process by which all progress on the plane is documented. Holden, one of our more experienced builders, gave an informative overview of the process, and instructed students and parents on the proper use of the pneumatic rivet gun. In the true Athenian spirit of experiential education, all were encouraged to demonstrate their ability to properly place a few rivets with the powerful tool.

The fall work sessions have started in earnest, with three sessions held each week. The groups are smaller this year, to ensure that all of the participants have an opportunity for hands-on learning during the sessions.

The RV-12 Student Work Sessions Begin

The first work session! (9/11/12)

As with many new endeavors, it takes some time to get all of the pieces to fall into place. The Spirit of Athenian III was no different. We had nearly 60 interested students, relatively limited work space, a handful of adult mentors, and the need to fit the sessions into the after school hours. An operation of this size and scope required quite a bit of organization of the various groups. A tip of the hat to Eugene, the faculty lead on the project, for taking this on and finding a way to make it all work.

STUDENTS:  Eugene devised a work schedule that would evenly divide the students into eight teams of 6 or 7, with two, 90-minute sessions planned each week. This allowed the students to remain with the same students each session, and to work on the same day each week with one session each month.

ADULT MENTORS:  Eugene wanted to be sure that enough mentors were at each session so that the students would have proper training and supervision. Marsh, the founder of the program, was available for some sessions, but it was clear that additional mentors would be needed. Bruce, an Athenian teacher and mentor on the two other airplane projects, was excited to help with the third build. Bill, a retired teacher, heard about the project and wanted to volunteer his time. Then, in what we call a stroke of very good fortune, Joe, a retired engineer with over 30 years of technical fabrication experience, also showed interest in the program. Seems that his interest was driven by the fact that he had been building his own RV-12 for the past few years in his garage! This was a perfect fit.

Blair supervises the riveting process

Blair supervises the riveting process

STUDENT MENTORS: Two upper school students, Sho and Blair, were experienced with all of the tools in the shop through their time with the Robotics program, and they offered to help facilitate the work sessions on a regular basis. Their leadership, expertise and patience have been invaluable.

Sho supervises the riveting process

Sho supervises the riveting process

TRAINING: Another challenge was the reality that many of these middle and upper school students had little previous experience with power tools, riveting, or airplane building. It became clear that there was some essential groundwork that would need to be laid to ensure the success of the project and the safety of the students. To that end, each session began with a safety review, stressing the importance of proper attire (safety goggles, closed-toed shoes, no loose strings on clothing, long hair tied back) and behavior. Each student was also formally trained on each of the power machines in the shop, including the drill press, bench grinder, belt sander, air-driven rivet guns, and all of the other tools in the shop.

Next up…milestones.

And so it begins…The Spirit of Athenian III

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Marsh addresses the group

Opening the kits

Opening the first crate…drum roll please!

The Van’s RV-12 kit crates arrived at the school during the summer of 2012. We had the plane…now all we needed was a student work crew to build it. Shortly after the 2012-13 school year began, we launched the program with an informational meeting on August 29 at the Maker’s Studio/Airplane Hangar for interested students and their parents. The masses gathered to hear Marsh speak about the history of the Airplane project at Athenian, to ask questions, and to witness the ceremonial opening of the first kit crate.

It was thrilling to see the students and their parents asking thoughtful questions, and to sense their enthusiasm when the crowbar lifted the lid on the first box, revealing the shiny contents underneath. While it didn’t really “look” like an airplane yet, for many, the project became more real at that moment.

Up next…the student work sessions begin.

Van's RV-12 kit

One of the Van’s RV-12 kit crates

In Search of Spirit of Athenian III

After the sale of the Christen Eagle plane in 2012, Marsh, with the school’s input, received the “green light” to begin the search for another plane for the students to build. Research lead him to strongly consider the RV Series plane kit from Van’s Aircraft. Van’s Aircraft has an excellent reputation, and their kits are very popular in the home-building community. The planes are known for their smooth flying and efficiency, and the Van’s instruction sets have set the standard for being thorough, accurate, and easy to understand. The Van’s RV-12, specifically, seemed ideal for this group of middle and high school student builders.

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Eugene and Marsh tour the Van’s factory

The RV-12 is the company’s first kit entry in the “Light Sport Aircraft” category. The FAA established the Light Sport category for pilots with licenses without a medical exam. These planes don’t fly quite as fast as some home built planes, and can be assembled with “pop” rivets instead of hard-set AN rivets (Army and Navy specification rivets). This was another important consideration for our young builders, who can easily set a “pop” rivet with the proper tools, especially since there are about 16,000 rivets on the airplane. The resale value on a Light Sport plane is also higher than most home built planes, which is also Key to keeping the Airplane Project flying in the future.

In order to investigate further, Marsh and and his wife, Mugs, organized a tour of the Van’s Aircraft factory in Aurora, Oregon in June of 2012. They were joined in Oregon by Eugene, who had been appointed by to school to oversee and drive the Airplane Project. They were impressed with the facility and the people they met, as well as the craftsmanship and the attention to detail in every aspect of the factory.They were beginning to feel that the RV-12 was a great fit to become The Athenian Spirit of Athenian III for our group of student builders.

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Eugene views the student-built RV-12

They were also inspired by seeing a plane at the factory that had been built exclusively by high school students in the Aurora, Oregon area. The team of students met on Saturdays with adult mentors, and together, were able to assemble the RV-12 in about a year and a half. For more about that project,  you can check out their blog and the story of their project at http://www.teenflight.blogspot.com/.

Stay tuned for more on the after-school work sessions!

Spirit of Athenian II

The Christen Eagle plane

The Christen Eagle plane

The wooden "ribs" of the wings.

The wooden “ribs” of the wings.


The sale of the Piper Cub plane funded the purchase of a second aircraft project, aptly named “Spirit of Athenian II.” This project featured The Christen Eagle II airplane, an aerobatic sporting biplane aircraft. Marsh and Bruce welcomed the assistance of Dr. Jim Manley, an Eagle enthusiast and Aerobatic Pilot extraordinaire. His expertise with flying and building this type of plane was invaluable to the students and the program.

The Christen Eagle II plane is 18-feet long, with a wingspan of 20 feet. During the after-school work sessions, Athenian students built the wooden ribs of the wings, and some even “signed” their work, etching names or initials into the ribs that they helped build. The body of the plane was completed, leaving only the “skinning” process, whereby fabric is stretched and sewn over the wings. Because of the demanding nature of this process, and the fact that it would hide the workmanship of the wooden wings, it was determined that a prospective buyer would probably prefer to see the wings “as is”, without the skin.

This plane was sold in the Spring of 2012.

The Spirit of Athenian Flies Again!

Students and mentors with the Wag-Aero Sport Trainer

Thanks for your interest in the Athenian Airplane project. Our goal is to provide some history of the student-built airplane project at The Athenian School, as well as to chronicle the current progress of the students as they begin work on the latest project, a Van’s RV-12 light sport aircraft.

The project began back in 2002, when pilot, Marsh Freeman, had an idea. Born of his lifelong passion for airplanes, both building and flying them, he wanted to gather a group of young people together to build (and eventually, fly) a plane. When he approached The Athenian School, Eleanor Dase, the Head of School, was immediately interested. She felt that the project was in line with the school’s mission of providing experiential education experiences, and along with Dick Bradford, gave Marsh the school’s blessing to bring this innovative program onto the campus.

The first order of business was to build a suitable workshop for the project. Freeman took charge of the permitting and construction of a shop on the school grounds. He then presented the project to the student body and parents. He successfully inspired 85 students, an equal mix of boys and girls, including both middle school and high school students, to take on this challenge. Marsh and his family funded the purchase of the first airplane kit, a Wag-Aero Sport Trainer, and the construction process began.

Marsh was aided in the instruction process by Dr. Jim Mandley, a retired Navy pilot and award-winning aerobatic pilot and other members of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Together, these mentors began the process of teaching students how to build the plane, dubbed the Spirit of Athenian. The project was an after-school club, and students typically spent two to four hours per week in the workshop working on various parts of the plane. Two and a half years later, at the Buchanan Airfield in Concord, CA, the Spirit of Athenian went “wheels-up” to the cheers of about 100 spectators , many of them the student builders. Jim Mandley was the pilot, and the first passenger? Eleanor Dase.

In order to keep the program flying, the Spirit of Athenian was sold to fund the purchase of a second airplane kit, a Christen Eagle, an aerobatic biplane. More about that in our next post. Stay tuned!

Airplane Project Blog Tips

Hello airplane mechanics!

Here are some tips for posting to the Athenian School Blog Airplane page:

      1. Login at athenianblog.athenian.org/wp-admin (Username = airplane; check with the advisers for the password)
      2. Once you login, you will see the WordPress Dashboard, which looks like this:
        A.  Click here to view the blog

        B.  Click +New to create a new blog post.  This will take you to the new post screen (see below)

        C. Check to make sure that you are logged in with the correct account.  If it says “Howdy, Airplane” you are in the right place.

        D.  If you want to create a short blog post, you can do it right from the Dashboard.  Give your post a title, type up your content, add pictures, and click Publish.

      3. Create a new post using the New Post Screen
        E. Type your post title here.

        F. Type your post here.

        G.  Editing tools.  There are advanced tools in the two rows below the highlighted section; if you know what these tools are, feel free to use them.

        H. Save your draft.  Do this after you title your post.  This way your draft is saved if your browser crashes.

        I.  Click Preview to see what your blog post will look like when it is published.

        J.  You can choose what type of format you would like your post to be.  Most posts will be Standard, the default option.

        K.  Enter tags here.  Tags can be a useful tool to organize posts and find information quickly and easily.

        L.  To add photos or documents to your post, click Upload/Insert.  Follow the prompts on the pop-up screen to add your media.

        M.  When your post is finished, you’re ready to publish. (Don’t forget to edit first.)  Click Publish to publish your post.  You can then view your post on the blog.