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Tuskegee Eagles Help Teens Soar

A local mentoring program is encouraging students to keep their heads in the clouds.

Posted: Apr 8, 2018 8:20 PM
Updated: Apr 9, 2018 8:38 AM

(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) A local mentoring program is encouraging students to keep their heads in the clouds. The Tuskegee Eagles are a non-profit group that mentors students while teaching them to construct small engine airplanes.

The Tuskegee Eagles were founded in 2012 by former pilot James Smith. Smith said he wanted to use his 50 years of aviation experience to mentor at-risk teens and share his passion for flight.

“We determined that it would be a good idea to share some of this enthusiasm and information of learning with the kids,” Smith said.

The afterschool program teaches students how to build airplanes using what Smith describes as ‘oversized model plane kits’. The group meets twice a week at the hangers of the Rosecrans Memorial Airport to assemble a Zenith aircraft.

Skyler Dodd, a Freshman at North Kansas City High School, said he was instantly interested in joining the Eagles.

“I’ve always had a fascination with planes and when I heard about this opportunity, I wanted to take it right away,” Dodd said.

Each student in the program was recommended by their teachers to participated in the program. A team of six students and three to four adult volunteers meet to piece the plane together and learn the mechanics of aviation.

“They have to be academically pretty sharp, because they are reading blueprints, they have to do fine measurements and not make mistakes,” Smith said.

With the exception of the engine, the entire plane is constructed by the students. Each student is responsible for certain tasks during the work session.

Lafayette High School Freshman Jonathan Krause has been helping construct the plane for the last year and said the project has been tough but rewarding.

“We have to think on our feet. Every once in a while we hit a bump in the road,” Krause said.

For Smith, the program isn’t just about building airplanes, he focuses on the Tuskegee motto “Rise Above Your Circumstance” as the program focuses on mentoring and improving the lives of the students.

“It expands their vision and gives them encouragement that they can pretty much accomplish whatever they want. If they can build an airplane they should be able to do most anything,” Smith said.

Caleb Bonnet is a seventh grader at St. Paul Lutheran that was influenced by the mentoring program to turn his experience into a lifelong hobby.

“I want to jump over to getting my pilots license, [going to] ground school instruction all that kind of stuff,” Bonnet said.

After almost three years of work the Tuskegee Eagle student plane is expected to be finished later this summer.

“Once it’s got 40 hours on it, which is basically test flying to make sure everything works well, then we will be able to carry passengers and the boys will get to ride in it,” Smith said.

The finished product will be sold and the revenue will be used to purchase the group’s next plane kit. For more information on the Tuskegee Eagles or to make a donation to the youth construction project log on to

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