Two female students, Nicole Jackson and Olivia Rassmussen are in the cockpit.

Contest helps Wisconsin high school fund airplane-building program


The aviation industry is not alone in struggling to attract and recruit young people but it does have an advantage over other STEM industries — aircraft. People spending time around airplanes are easily hooked, a fact proven by Falcon Aviation, the STEM aviation program of Westosha Central High School in Wisconsin.

The program is among several initiatives supported by Eagle’s Nest Projects Wisconsin (ENP WI), a nonprofit 501c3 organization. “ENP WI holds all the assets and liability for the aircraft, and is funded 100% by donations,” explains James Senft, Falcon Aviation’s director of aviation.

Taking 9th to 12th grade students, aged 14 to 18, the scheme is centered around building and, in some cases, flying a Van’s RV-12 light aircraft. “We started in 2014,” Senft enthuses. “The first plane took us one year, one month and one day to complete, the second took 18 months because I changed the curriculum, and the third 2.5 years, after Covid shut us down for a while.”

Now a fourth is in build and Senft is candid about the challenges he and the program face. “I love it, but it has been extremely tough because most of the time it’s just me working with the students. The major struggle is funding. Each airplane costs about $100,000 and since we rely 100% on donations, lack of funding could eventually shut us down.”

Falcon Aviation Students celebrate an important construction milestone – engine install. The students are seen standing around the in-build aircraft. Image: Falcon Aviation

Students celebrate an important construction milestone – engine install. Image: Falcon Aviation

While the students focus on constructing their latest RV-12iS variant, a major fundraising effort is therefore ongoing through an imaginative sweepstakes. A $100 ticket gives entrants the possibility of winning the program’s second RV-12, or $65,000, while second and third place prizes are also up for grabs.

Just 5,000 tickets are available until September 2023, from

An e-bike, an aircraft, and an Axis 500 UTV are on display on green grass.

The sweepstakes’ second prize comprises a choice of Axis 500 UTV or $4,999, while a pair of VVolt E Bikes or $1,200 is available to the third-place ticket. Image: Falcon Aviation

That a high school aviation program should produce a fleet of light aircraft is impressive, but for some students building the airplane is only the beginning. Senft explains: “Students who are part of the program can use the plane free for flight instruction. We have two amazing flight instructors, professional pilots who train the students at the highest level.”

This provides students with the unusual opportunity to learn to fly in an aircraft they helped build. Those who earn their license also have access to the aircraft.

A smiling male student is sitting in an aircraft cockpit.

Students have the option to go on and fly the aircraft they helped build. Image: Falcon Aviation

By the beginning of 2023, the program had produced 18 pilots. Three of them are now flying commercially and four are in professional flight programs. Two students also went on to gain A&P certificates as aircraft mechanics and another works at the US Federal Aviation Administration, certifying aircraft parts.

Two female students, Nicole Jackson and Olivia Rassmussen are in the cockpit. Image: Falcon Aviation

Free flight instruction is available to program students. Image: Falcon Aviation

Aviation may struggle to recruit, but Senft says that’s not an issue he faces. “Students are selected based on an application and interview and most remain for all four years of high school, but we have to limit numbers because of funding and lack of mentors to help with building the plane. I don’t need to recruit; I have more students than I can handle.”


Senft is proud that there are girls among the students who’ve gone on to successful aviation careers but admits they are underrepresented among applicants.

“It’s more difficult to get girls — the balance is 70% boys to 30% girls.” He also agrees that grassroots changes early on, at home and in the classroom, could help more girls realize that STEM careers are open to them, but right now the lack of female peers puts some off applying.

With master’s degrees in curriculum and instruction, and aviation from Embry Riddle, Senft has been an educator for more than 30 years and a pilot for over 35 years. His vision and determination have seen successive groups of students build three aircraft and begin work on a fourth. He is opening a window on aviation for girls and boys, yet ever mindful that without funding that window will close.

A 2018 Van’s RV-12 on display. This is Falcon Aviation’s second aircraft. Image: Falcon Aviation

Sweepstakes ticket holders have a chance to win this 2018 Van’s RV-12, Falcon Aviation’s second aircraft. Image: Falcon Aviation

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Featured image credited to Falcon Aviation