Pastor helps teens take flight

Rural students offered opportunity to take flight lessons for credit

Posted: Monday, March 29, 2010

A rural Alaska pastor is on a mission to produce pilots and flight mechanics in a region where jobs are scarce and people fly everywhere.

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Thanks partly to Grant Funk - you might call him a Johnny Appleseed of village aviation - teens in three remote high schools have the rare opportunity to take flight lessons for class credit.

In Hooper Bay, he's invested thousands of dollars to help students build a plane that should lift off in weeks.

At neighboring Chevak, a fellow teacher plans to launch his own plane-building effort, with help from the Federal Aviation Administration and others.

And in Pilot Station, 100 miles from Hooper Bay, Funk's created a distance-learning flight class. There, the schedule's been finicky - the videoconferencing equipment hasn't always worked and weather's disrupted his attempts to fly there.

To overcome those problems, Funk has just the solution.

With the help of son Barney Funk, 20, and Ryan Walker, the teacher in Chevak, Funk's creating a new nonprofit to put flight instructors in village schools across the state.

AVSTEM International - short for aviation, technology, science, engineering and mathematics - will seek financial support from tribes, Native corporations, school districts and anywhere else, he said.

Learning to fly improves math and science skills and gives students career choices in an industry that buzzes overhead daily, he said.

"And it promotes healthy lifestyles, because you can't mix drugs, alcohol and flying. Once that happens, you're out," he said.

The three villages are located in the lower Yukon River area northwest of Bethel. Like scores of villages off the state's road system, unemployment is high, approaching a third of the work force in two of the villages, according to the last Census.

Meanwhile, statewide demand for pilots and other airline positions is predicted to grow, especially for flight mechanics needed to install new, satellite-based navigational equipment, said Angie Slingluff, aviation and space education coordinator for the FAA in Alaska.

But aviation programs are rare in rural high schools. Funk could name just one - the vocational charter school in Galena nearly 300 miles up the Yukon River.

Funk, Covenant Church pastor in Hooper Bay and 53 years old, is watching his efforts pay off.

A certified flight instructor, he's taken students to national air shows. This summer Hooper Bay and Chevak teens will visit the industry's top show in Oshkosh, Wis.

In Hooper Bay in recent years, three students, including Barney, have become certified flight mechanics. Two high school graduates are earning private pilot licenses at flight schools and two more are preparing to go, he said.

Also, the Thorp 211 light sport aircraft that Hooper Bay students are helping build should be ready to fly in May, he said.

Assembly began three years ago. Funk, working with the Build A Plane nonprofit in California, arranged to have donated sections of the plane shipped to the village.

But delays arose when the Dallas-based manufacturer went out of business, he said.

Student motivation sagged during the waits. So Funk fabricated some parts or scrounged up components from supply companies, spending more than $10,000 of his own money.

Now all the parts are in. Students are adding finishing touches, such as wiring up the instrument panel before wings are attached.

When it's ready, he'll fly students around. Eventually, he hopes to let licensed graduates fly themselves.

In Chevak, students will also build a plane with help from Walker, who moved to Alaska to help Funk.

The partnership started after the 26-year-old Walker, who grew up flying his dad's Super Cub in Colorado, met Barney Funk at a small Michigan flight school.

Walker heard stories about Barney's dad and rang him up, offering to help. Two years ago, he and his wife, a teacher, moved to Chevak "sight unseen."

Walker, a certified flight instructor and mechanic, spent the last school year "commuting by snowmachine" about 20 miles to Hooper Bay, volunteering in Funk's classes.

At Chevak's high school last fall, Walker began teaching elective aviation courses, including an advanced class to prepare students for a private pilot written test.

"Flying is such a vital part of life out here and it's a real opportunity for these kids to make a living and help their communities in Western Alaska," he said.

He's planning to buy a Rans S-19 kit plane students can build.

The two-seater sells for $60,000, but the manufacturer's dropping the price for Walker, he said. He'll buy the tail section this spring, and might take out a loan for the rest, he said.

He's hoping air freight companies donate space to fly sections up from Hays, Kan. Ryan Air, formerly Arctic Transportation Services, has volunteered to ship sections from Bethel to Chevak, Slingluff said.

Slingluff recently organized a steering committee to support the project. It includes aviation experts in Alaska and a Build A Plane representative, she said.

"We're tickled pink," she said of Walker.

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