© 2024 Louisville Public Media

Public Files:
89.3 WFPL · 90.5 WUOL-FM · 91.9 WFPK

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact info@lpm.org or call 502-814-6500
89.3 WFPL News | 90.5 WUOL Classical 91.9 WFPK Music | KyCIR Investigations
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Stream: News Music Classical

Kentucky's Aerospace Industry Is Helping Girls Get STEM Skills

The girls turning wrenches in Hangar 7 at Bowman Field have a name for the single-engine Cessna with the gutted fuselage.

It's a small plane not yet fit to fly, settled in a hangar that's part workshop, part classroom.

On a recent weekday, 16-year-old Emma Gay leaned into the aircraft to admire the web of pulleys and cables that'll soon help deliver this plane to the sky.

"It's a complete maze," she said.

Gay knows the maze well. She helped build it.

She's one of the mechanics here in Hangar 7. Along with 15-year-old Anna Leya Fields and a few other girls, Gay is helping restore the 1950s Cessna 172 back to its former glory.

They're participating in the Air and Space Academy. It's a Louisville-based nonprofit program that's partnered with 35 high schools across Kentucky and Tennessee to provide an entryway into STEM education for nearly 1,200 students.

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, education and math. Skills related to those fields are widely touted as fundamental for young people looking to succeed in the next generation of American work.

In Kentucky, those skills could land you a job in the growing aerospace industry, said Edlisa Embry Lessig, director of operations and development for the Air and Space Academy. Lessig said aviation is a potential career path for many Kentucky high school students.

In fact, the aerospace industry is one of Kentucky's strongest, making up nearly a third of all the state's exports. From 2014 to 2015, the industry swelled nearly 11 percent to account for more than $8.6 billion, according to data from the U.S. Census.

The surging sector brings jobs but demands a skilled workforce, Lessig said.

"We don't have people trained to fly the planes that we have now, we don't have people trained to work on the planes we have and the equipment, we don't have engineers that are working on the wing designs and the things we need now," she said.

The students in the Air and Space Academy get a jumpstart on learning those skills, she said, adding the hands-on work of Emma Gay and her crew on the Cessna could provide the spark needed to inspire an interest in engineering or design.

Gay and Fields each spend a few afternoons a week and most Saturdays at Hangar 7. It's been a routine for nearly two years. During that time, they've tweaked engines, timed cylinders and repaired wings.

For Fields, the work is igniting a passion for aviation mechanics.

"I've always had a love for tearing things apart and getting my hands dirty," she said. "Being a mechanic kind of embraces that."

Solving problems does it for Gay.

They both recognize the challenge of getting the Cessna air-ready. Engineers trucked the plane to Louisville from Frankfort, and the girls had to boot a family of birds making a home in one of its wings.

"It needed a complete overhaul," Gay said.

Their goal is to have the job finished soon so they can put a fresh coat of pink paint on the plane by October, for Breast Cancer Awareness month, Fields said. Which is fitting, she added, considering a group of young women is doing the restoration.

Even the plane is one of the girls.

"We named it Cynthia," Gay said. "Cynthia the Cessna."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.