Youths get firsthand experience with 100-year old planes
History in school typically involves learning about it through a textbook, but nine high school students from Franklin County and the surrounding area got to experience the past first-hand by helping to restore two vintage World War I aircraft.
A 1917 Curtiss JN-4, or “Jenny”, and a 1918 De Havilland DH-4 differ in size from each other but shared a common goal in bringing the United States into the aviation age 100 years ago.
The Jenny was used mostly as a training plane but went on to be the first mail carrier for the United States postal service while the DH- 4 was America’s first war bird.
The students get to have the rare experience with the planes because the nonprofit, faith-based organization Missionaire International has partnered with historic aviation support organizations, including the Saving Liberty Foundation, Friends of Jenny, and the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 699, to run an internship for local high school students at Winchester Municipal Airport.
During the past year, nine students on Thursday nights from 6-8 p.m. went from learning how to assess and repair two Team Mini-Max kit airplanes to working on the DH-4 and Jenny. The Mini-Maxes served as the training ground before moving on to the more advanced historical planes.
The DH-4, a single engine, two-seat biplane, was the first aircraft that the United States sent into combat in 1918.
Of all the DH-4s built prior to and during World War I, there are only three places the public can see the historic plane — the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the Smithsonian Institution and Winchester.
In addition to working on the Curtiss JN-4, the students have become associated with the Friends of Jenny Historical Society that promotes the education and history of aviation.
The Curtiss JN-4 was one of a series of “JN” biplanes built by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company of Hammondsport, New York. The company later became the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company.
The Curtiss JN series was originally produced as a training aircraft for the U.S. Army around 1915.
Once the DH-4 aircraft is completely restored, assembled, and rigged, the team will go through an inspection with the Federal Aviation Administration where it will issue an airworthiness certificate. The aircraft will then be tested, flown and adjusted in Winchester.
Jon Foote, who heads Missionaire International and owns and manages Elevation International, a for-profit company that specializes in restoring mostly smaller aircraft, spoke about what the current project entails for his team in Franklin County.
“It’s just a matter of taking a component and going through a master plan that is 6,000 pages long to make sure everything is correct,” Foote said. “Then, since we will be flying, making sure the plane is safe to fly.”
Foote said that the key to restoring these historical planes is to evaluate what is there and to try to use as many original parts as possible.
Despite the challenges of working on planes that predate the Federal Aviation Administration regulations, for Foote, it is quite a thrill to work on the planes.
“It’s absolutely amazing at the end of the project because it’s like living art,” Foote said. “To see something that’s not a replica being built is like art in motion.”
Foote explained how rewarding it is to be able to work with the students who come in with minimal experience working with airplanes and then see a lightbulb go on when they realize they are working with a piece of history.
The DH-4 was an innovative plane with its elevator trim to maintain balance while dropping bombs and the way the guns were mounted on the machine.
Another fact Foote shared was neither of the planes had brakes when landing.
Foote spoke about what motivated him to pursue aviation professionally and focus on projects like restoring the Jenny and including students in the work.
“I got involved in aviation primarily because I took a science class when I was in high school back in 1978 or 1979,” he said. “That introduced me to aviation as a career option.”
Foote referred to his dad who was involved in the military in World War II.
“He never pushed me into that — it was really when I was in high school that I really found my career in aviation,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to get back and help other students who have that desire — not everybody is slated to go to college and with the apprenticeship program. They can learn a real good career trade and earn a really good living.”
Foote said the program offered a wide range of students the opportunity to have hands-on experience and find a special area of interest.
Reese Bragg graduated last spring from Huntland High School and has aspirations to get his pilot license and join the Coast Guard. He said his experience with the internship has been amazing.
“I have always been into history, and this program got me completely into it,” Bragg said.
He said he thinks the program is run really well, and he got into it because of a friend of his, then he, in turn, got some of his friends to join.
Bragg said it has been worth making the time to come every Thursday night for a couple of hours.
He said he was impressed with the size of the DH-4 because he did not think it would be as big as it is.
Bragg’s favorite part of the program was the chance to sit in the gunner’s seat and attach replica guns to the plane.
A fun fact about the DH-4 Bragg shared was that it could fly night missions because it had headlights which many planes of the period didn’t.
“My mom said a lot of people ask what history is, and we are making it. This is history.” Bragg said.
The program provides a place for youths to not only find their niche but also interact with students who have the same interests.
Huntland student Hope Brown said it’s nice that others her own age have interest in the things that she is interested in.
She has even become a fan of history due to the program, but she has always been sort of an adrenaline junkie with hopes to become a commercial pilot someday.
Brown said that flying makes her feel free, and it is good to restore something that somebody worked really hard on.
She said she hopes to start an aviation club at her school in Huntland with the potential to come to the airport and work on planes.
Huntland student Jason Callaway said he enjoyed the opportunity to work with friends and gain experience working on airplanes.
He said it feels good to know he is building an old airplane, and he was fascinated with how much horsepower the engines have and how much gas they consume.
Program participant Caleb Curtis said he enjoyed learning about the engines and how they work while interacting with other people.
“It feels good, bringing stuff back that most people don’t know about, and it’s awesome for other people to learn about.” Curtis said.