MELBOURNE, Fla. - For five days a week, 10 months a year, the old locker room behind the senior patio and next to the campus weight room is filled with teens and the sounds of hammering, drilling, wrenching and riveting.
For most teachers, it would be a classroom that’s way too small and an environment way too noisy for work. William McInnish, however, sees it as baby steps. The space works for now and the symphony of sounds is music to his ears.
“I’m a retired military aviation person. I’m a veteran,” McInnish said. “I just enjoy working with kids and this is an opportunity for me to help.”
McInnish, whose students call him Mr. Mac, is the aviation technology teacher at Melbourne’s Eau Gallie High School. Launched in 2015, it’s the only high school program certified by the state that isn’t attached to a college or university to have a curriculum focused on aviation technology.
“Here’s a safe environment that they can make mistakes. And you gotta let them make those mistakes,” McInnish said. “This isn’t auto mechanics, this isn’t marine mechanics. Once you fix something and that plane takes off, there’s no pulling off to the side of the road. It has to be done right and it has to be done right the first time.”
When McInnish came out of retirement three years ago, he started Eau Gallie’s program with a concentration exclusively on maintenance. Just one year later, private pilot ground school was added and the name was changed from Aviation Maintenance Technology to Aviation Technology.
“You have to be able to speak aviation-ese,” McInnish said. “You gotta know the language. And that’s a lot of what we teach here.”
Part of that language is also being familiar with and being able to understand the technology of different types of planes.
The school has an assortment of aircraft that students can train with, take apart and reassemble, including a Piper Cadet, a Piper PA28, a Cessna 172A and even a single-seat helicopter. But there’s still something missing from their fleet: a jet.
The school has a jet, but it’s sitting at an airport a couple of hundred miles away.
“This is a Mitsubishi Diamond 1A and it is a twin-fan jet aircraft,” McInnish said.
Tail number N399MM was built in 1982 and has been sitting at Dolphin Aviation in Sarasota for about three years. It was previously owned by Dr. Gary Kompothecras, the chiropractor behind one of Tampa Bay’s most well-known medical referral services, 1-800-ASK-GARY, and creator of the MTV reality show “Siesta Key.”
“Dr. Gary is a huge fan of empowering people,” Airplane IQ, LLC Director of Operations Dan Raimondo said. “When he asked us about options he had with the jet, we suggested that he consider donating it to an aviation program.”
After a search of different programs around the state and with a lot of help from former NASA astronaut Winston Scott, McInnish’s program was paired with the old Mitsubishi workhorse.
“It was just a funny situation,” McInnish said. “I got a call one day, and from that point on, it has just fallen into place for us to get this jet.”
Getting the jet was one thing. Getting the jet from Sarasota to Melbourne, however, has been quite another.
“It is a little bit of an effort to come up with the money,” McInnish said. “It’s going to be over $16,000 to move the jet and that’s to take the wings off, take the tail off, put it on a semitruck, bring it here and put it back together. And that’s someone being nice to us. I have had quotes as much as $35,000.”
McInnish said that $16,000 is actually a bargain compared to getting the Diamond 1A flight-ready. A complete overhaul would cost roughly $500,000.
“We’re looking for an individual or a corporate sponsor to help us get this plane to Melbourne,” said McInnish. “It’s here. It’s ours. We just have to get it from here to there.”
Students said bringing the jet to the school would bring a plethora of opportunity to them.
“I want to become an aerospace engineer,” Dario Ruano said.
Ruano, who is in his third year with McInnish, has gravitated toward the mechanics side of the program from the very start.
“Everything we have right now, Mr. Mac fought for it,” Ruano said. “For someone who has been here three years, it’s really amazing to see how much this has grown. You learn so much more when you actually put your hands on something.”
Ruano was recently accepted into Florida Institute of Technology.
Justin Ruan is a ninth-grade student in his first year with McInnish.
“My dream job is to become a commercial pilot,” Ruan said. “One day I would like to do trans-Atlantic flights.”
Like Ruano, Ruan echoes the idea of hands-on learning. “If you learn it from a book and you never get to do it, it’s not gonna stick.”
Ruano and Ruan are just two of 61 students enrolled this year in Eau Gallie’s aviation program.
For three years, the students met on a daily basis in the locker-room-turned-classroom space. But things are changing.
After six months of construction, the school has just completed a new 7,500 square foot hangar that the aviation technology students will start using next semester to work on aircraft.
“Everything will be in here, where the kids won’t have to worry about what the weather’s like outside to be able to work on the airplanes,” McInnish said.
Along the side walls will be a paint booth and a welding station. The classroom area will have three enclosed flight simulators, a weather station, an air traffic control station and more than 20 desktop computers. The hangar will have room for three aircraft, including the Mitsubishi if the school can raise the money to get it to Melbourne.
“This aircraft is going to give us the ability to teach systems you can’t teach on the smaller airplanes,” McInnish said. “When you’re working on a twin fan engine jet aircraft, you can teach things like hydraulics systems, gear swing systems. All those things that a student needs to know before they go into the industry.”
McInnish told us that the 36-year-old jet’s flying days are long gone and that it’s simply not cost-effective to get the plane flying again.
“This aircraft is for learning servicing and systems and learning to do small jobs,” McInnish said. “We have other aircraft that we can completely take apart and put back together. This one’s going to be an asset for a very long time.”
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