SARASOTA, Fla. - It’s not an everyday sight: A million-dollar airplane, sitting on a tarmac, swarmed by high school students. Armed with tools, they’re removing screws, popping panels and taking off parts.
They look like ants on a sugar cube.
“Well, it’s a beauty,” said Dario Ruano, a student who recently graduated from Eau Gallie High School. “It’s a shame that we’re taking it apart and it’ll never fly again.”
A few months ago, News 6 told you about this plane, N399MM. It’s a Mitsubishi Diamond 1A twin-fan jet aircraft, at the time owned by Dr. Gary Kompothecras, the chiropractor behind one of Tampa Bay’s most well-known medical referral services, 1-800-ASK-GARY.
Kompothecras’ plane needed a full engine overhaul along with other maintenance. The total bill was around $500,000. But instead of spending the money (about half of what the jet was worth), with the help of airplane broker AirplaneIQ LLC. Kompothecras was able to donate the jet to Eau Galle High School.
But why Eau Gallie?
“We teach private pilot ground school and aviation-assembly technician and fabrication,” said William McInnish, a teacher at Eau Gallie who also runs the school’s aviation program.
The “flight school in high school” is the only one in Florida with a state-certified curriculum focused on aviation technology that is not attached to a college or university. In fact, McInnish recently found out the program is even more special.
“We just received certification to be the one and only high school in the nation that is an aerospace aircraft assembly certified-maintenance facility and training facility,” McInnish told News 6. “AAA certification will allow [students] to work on assembly lines in factories around the country.”
McInnish, or Mr. Mac to his students, came out of retirement three years ago after a long career with the military servicing a variety of airplanes and helicopters. If it flew in defense of our country, Mr. Mac probably knows how to fix it. He started Eau Gallie’s program with a concentration exclusively on maintenance, but just one year later, private pilot ground school was added and the name was changed from Aviation Maintenance Technology to Aviation Technology.
“I’m a retired military aviation person. I’m a veteran,” McInnish told News 6 three months ago. “I just enjoy working with kids, and this is an opportunity for me to help.”
While the school had an assortment of aircraft students could take apart, work on and reassemble (including a Piper Cadet, a Piper PA28, a Cessna 172A and even a single-seat helicopter), missing from their fleet was a jet -- which brings us to N399MM.
Built in 1982, it had been sitting at Dolphin Aviation in Sarasota for about three years.
“Dr. Gary is a huge fan of empowering people,” said AirplaneIQ, LLC Director of Operations Dan Raimondo. “When he asked us about options he had with the jet, we suggested that he consider donating it to an aviation program.”
When the school took ownership in May, McInnish took News 6 along for a tour. “It’s here. It’s ours. We just have to get it from here to there,” he told us.
"Here" was Sarasota and "there" was Melbourne. The plane didn’t need wind beneath its wings – it needed wheels.
Since the Mitsubishi couldn’t fly, the plan was to put it on a flatbed and move it by truck. The drive, 180 miles, would take the plane up I-75, across I-4 and then down I-95, and the trip wasn’t going to be cheap. To get it there, the wings would have to come off, the tail would have to come off and the plane would then have to be lifted on a trailer and tilted so it could fit under bridges and overpasses. In Melbourne, it would have to be offloaded and setup on jacks for reassembly. The total cost was more than $16,000.
McInnish and his students started fundraising when they got the jet in the spring. In just three months, with the help of a lot of different people in the community, the program hit its goal to get the plane moved.
“A lot of things have happened since that first story,” McInnish told us last week. “A lot of people have stepped up and helped in different ways.”
Almost a dozen different organizations chipped in with time, money, parts or labor to get the students their jet:
• Dr. Gary Kompothecras donated the plane and AirplaneIQ brokered the deal.
• FAST Aviation and DreamWorx Aviation were the companies that moved the plane.
• Monroe Aerospace and Fallon Aviation donated parts for the move.
• The local chapter of Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA 1288) donated funds for tools and supplies for picking up and reassembling the plane.
• Members of the Orlando-Melbourne Airport volunteered to help put the plane back in the hangar.
• The Brevard Board of Education provided transportation, equipment, and facilities to reassemble the jet.
• BB&T Bank donated $500 for the students’ room and board in Sarasota over a two-day period of deconstruction.
• And last but certainly not least, the Economic Development Commission of Brevard County provided a grant of $8,000, matching the amount students had raised to move the plane.
“I'm really happy to see that our program has grown so big that we now have our own private jet that we can work with,” said Ruano. Ruano, who was part of the aviation program since its inception, will start his college education this fall at Florida Institute of Technology.
KD Saturday, another student who made the trip to Sarasota to help move the plane, said, “The Eau Gallie high school aviation program is a great program and I hope people come and join it.” Saturday will be the aviation program’s shop steward starting next semester.
“This [aircraft] puts us in a very unique and small group of high schools that actually have a functional jet aircraft,” McInnish said. “Channel 6 got me results. Not so much money coming in for the program as much as people stepping up and asking, ‘How can I help make this happen?’”
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