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The View From the Eagle’s Nest

Taking flight at Montgomery High School

“Mentors build the students. Students build the airplane.” —Glen Salmon

Imagine building and flying an airplane. Now imagine building and flying an airplane before you begin college. It may sound far-fetched, but for Mid-South Synergy Youth Tour winner and recent high school graduate Mallory Rhodes, that was a reality thanks to a program offered through Montgomery High School’s aerospace engineering department.

“We have successfully built two RV-12 planes, Bear Force One and the Purple Bearon, all because of what is called the Eagle’s Nest Project,” said Rhodes, who developed a passion for aviation after participating in the program, now in its second year. “The Eagle’s Nest Project is managed and funded by Ernie Butcher. He coordinates with the school district, a group of volunteer mentors, and his funds to set up a project build at a high school.”

The Eagle’s Nest Projects program at Montgomery High School gives students the chance to explore a passion for aviation.

As president and CEO of Eagle’s Nest Projects, Butcher has helped implement the program in high schools across the country. “What sets Eagle’s Nest Projects apart from the other youth build projects is that all of our builds take place within a high school during regular class hours, complement an existing STEM curriculum and, in most schools, provide dual credit to the build students,” he said. “We’re currently building our 25th airplane, and our in-school program has touched the lives of tens of thousands of high school youth and empowered hundreds of build students.”

Eagle’s Nest Project partners with JetBlue Airways, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, NASA and Space Center Houston to give students hands-on experience building an airplane kit from the ground up and the opportunity to fly the plane when it’s completed. The program gives them direct access to mentors and leaders in the aviation industry, allowing the students to network and explore a world of new experiences.

Prospective pilot Rhodes enjoyed her visit to the National Air and Space Museum during the 2019 Youth Tour trip to Washington, D.C.

“Through the ENP, I was given connections which allowed me to apply for the $10,000 Ray Aviation Scholarship,” Rhodes said, “which covers the entire cost of my private pilot’s license, which I was blessed enough to receive.”

She now has her sights set on entering commercial aviation, a field traditionally dominated by men. “Since my involvement in the aircraft build, I have decided to pursue aviation as a career by earning a degree in aviation management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, with the goal of becoming a commercial pilot,” she said.

The success of the Eagle’s Nest program wouldn’t be possible without the knowledgeable mentors who guide students through the program.

“Our goal was to lead the students through the life cycle of a project that they initially had no idea of how to accomplish,” said Joe Waltz, lead mentor for the Montgomery High School build. “During the project, they were involved in defining the dream, planning the process, learning the skills and completing work. They experienced the ebb and flow of a complicated undertaking that saw some days of major advances and some of seemingly minor consequence, all necessary to get to the end goal. Through those steps, we wished to show them how to envision a goal and teach themselves how to accomplish it. Those are skills that they can apply throughout their lives to take on any challenge.”

Jennifer Duffer, aerospace engineering instructor at Montgomery High School, said the program teaches problem-solving and teamwork skills while exposing students to topics in engineering and related fields to help them determine whether those are fields they want to pursue professionally.

Rhodes pilots Bear Force One, a plane built by students at Montgomery High School.

“Students are working with tools they’ve never used before, they are learning to read build manuals and drawings, communicating and working with teams in their own class as well as other class periods,” Duffer said. “And the best part is, they are developing relationships with our mentors that have led to some positive life-changing events.”

Jobs for airline and commercial pilots are projected to grow 4% from 2016 to 2026, slower than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most job opportunities will arise from the need to replace pilots who leave the workforce. Eagle’s Nest Projects continues to help inspire those with a passion for aviation and potentially grow the diminishing number of future commercial pilots.

“Mallory is the perfect example of the goal of our program,” Duffer said. “She found her passion via the class build and going flying with one of the mentors. I worked with her to find resources to pursue that passion, and the mentors have taken her under their wing (pun intended) and are helping guide her as she is working on her private pilot’s certificate. She took the initiative to explore aviation and has worked hard toward her goal since.”

And Rhodes is aware of the influence Eagle’s Nest Projects had on her.

Mid-South Synergy, Life and Arts

“The knowledge, memories, and connections I made through ENP will forever impact my future,” she said.