Reprinted from the San
Gabriel Valley Tribune - Friday, August 7, 1998
Wing and a Prayer
Teens Work to make airplane fly on time
By Catherine K. Enders – Correspondent
San Bernardino — Allen Lin stood atop a ladder holding
the rear of a 25-foot-tall plane on Thursday and asked how
many 3-pound sandbags it would take him to balance the tail
and wings and make the pedal-powered plane fly.
His teammates from Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights
decided the 17-year-old's question couldn't be answered
until they straightened the plane's tail, which was slightly
Such scenes have played out all week under the blazing sun
at San Bernardino International Airport, where 40 students
and recent graduates from Los Altos – who once raced a solar
car in a competition – now find themselves in a race against
The students have until Sunday to get the plane off the
ground before they must remove it from the hangar they are
If they fail, they will have to take the plane apart and
start over elsewhere in the fall.
“Most people waste their summers," said Lin. "if this were
to fly, then I would feel I accomplished something. You
feel special when you do something first."
If all goes as planned, they will roll the 46-foot-long
and 96-foot-wide plane onto the runway. Gale hale of san
Marino, a gym teacher and avid cyclist, will climb into
the cockpit and pedal as if sheer were in competition.
The plane will then sail 6 feet off the ground and travel
at least 100 yards at 10 mph, qualifying it as truly flying.
With those goals in mind, the team on Thursday worked in
groups of three students each, assembling the wings and
adjusting the pilot's seat — all in heat that topped 110
degrees on the tarmac.
"This place motivates me," said Michael Ni, 18, of Hacienda
Heights, the team leader, as he stared at a 747. "You've
got a big plane in front of you and it makes you feel like
you have purpose. A bigger sense of urgency."
The students learned Thursday that the insurance from their
sponsor — La Puente Valley Regional Occupational Program
(ROP) — would not cover a student pilot and that an adult
would have to power it.
They solved that problem by recruiting Hale, but then found
problems with their design and had to reconstruct parts
of the plane.
They remounted aluminum pipes that were too long and untwisted
cables needed to secure parts to the frame, a roughly half-day
"We're not giving up, we've already gone this far," said
16-year-old team member Joyce Chen, as she helped adjust
the height of the pilot's seat.
"The kids have learned a lot about how to work as a team
and think on their feet when problems arise," said Bob Franz,
the school's engineering and manufacturing technology teacher.
"Every time something goes wrong, they build on that." The
student's attempt began as part of a manufacturing technology
elective course for sophomores, junior and seniors. To build
Grasshopper, the students also worked as fundraisers, and
collected over $8,000 in donations from local corporations.
Then after their manufacturing classes ended for the summer
June 17, the students spent about eight hours a day, six
days a week in the school's engineering lab manufacturing
parts of the plane and preparing for their week in the hangar
to assemble it.
All in all, the students estimated they have worked 15,000
hours. Paul MacCready, a Monrovia resident and a pioneer
in human-powered aircraft who has advised the students inspired
Franz's high school teams have been successful on other
In 1996, the school's solar vehicle team was the only team
from a U.S. school to cross the finish line of the Solar
Challenge, a race in Australia.
On May 30, the team won Solar BikeRayce USA in Topeka, Kansas.
with a solar-powered three-wheel vehicle.
The one thing that makes each project work is the seemingly
limitless enthusiasm of the students, Franz said.
"The kids become crazy and so enthusiastic about each project,"
he said. "It just snowballs from there."