Rebuilding Mary's Piper: Feik Posthumously Fuels Passion of D.C. Youth to Fly
Two Washington, D.C.-area women, ignited by their passion to fly, have teamed up to teach young people the painstaking work of restoring a legacy plane. Build it, and yes, they will fly, too.
Melinda Benson Viteri and Lucia Mencia created DC Youth Aviation-Build A Plane in 2016 with the hope of lighting the fire to fly in others by building a viable airplane. Their work has connected them with late aviation legend Mary Feik, her 1952 Piper, Civil Air Patrol and world-class mechanics to create an extraordinary opportunity for young people.
Benson Viteri has built over 10 RV kit planes through Build A Plane programs in the United Kingdom. She has been deeply involved in helping deaf and disabled people to fly.
When she moved to Washington to teach at the British International School four years ago, she looked for the same opportunity here and couldn’t find it. Serendipitously, two years ago at a local restaurant, Benson Viteri met pilot Lucia Mencia, who shares Benson Viteri’s passion for bringing aviation into young people’s lives. They would get together at national aviation conferences, and they came up with the idea of working together to pursue a Build A Plane club in America.
A logical place to start was Benson Viteri’s school. Thirty British International School students quickly signed up to build a plane in fall 2016. Another 100 are on a waiting list.The original plan to obtain a Cessna didn’t materialize, so they put an ad in a flying magazine for a donation plane.
Out of the blue, CAP Col. Warren Vest called her about Feik’s plane.
“I thought it was a bit of a joke,” Benson Viteri remembered.But Feik’s daughter and Vest’s wife, CAP Lt. Col. Robin Vest, truly wanted to donate her late mother’s 1952 Short Wing Piper Pacer to DC Youth Aviation-Build A Plane to restore.
Feik, a CAP colonel, died in 2016 at age 92. The Vests wanted to find the perfect place to donate the Piper Pacer before their move to Idaho.
“That plane was really my dad’s,” Robin Vest said. “Mom had a Piper Comanche of her own.” Even so, Feik took care of the Pacer and had planned to restore it herself, but got so busy with travel in her later years that she never got around to it.
“We’d been ready to start calling museums that my mom was connected with,” Vest said. But then, her husband saw the ad from DC Youth Aviation.A visit by Benson Viteri, Mencia and mechanic Vojtech “Joe” Vala at the Annapolis, Maryland, hangar, which is about an hour and a half away, sealed the deal.
“What golden news,” Benson Viteri remembered. “We were overjoyed at this project for the club with such a legendary aircraft. This is a gift, a luxury.”
Robin Vest, director of finance for CAP’s Rocky Mountain Region, remembers the meeting. “They were very excited to see it,” she said. “And we decided that this donation was the best way to go.”
The gift led DC Youth Aviation to a connection with Civil Air Patrol, which now provides curriculum for the club. “We’re very proud to use this curriculum and would recommend it to any school,” said Benson Viteri, an aerospace education member with CAP. “It’s really accessible, beautifully produced and shows how to teach experiments with aviation.”
Long-range, the plan is to expose other D.C.-area high schools to the program. “We would like to concentrate at British International School, but want to open the hangar doors to invite them to come visit,” Mencia said. “We’ve invited four high schools to see what we were doing. But if we start trying to expand now, it could dilute impact.”
The club meets every Thursday from 3:30-7:30 p.m. at the Washington Executive Airport hangar, about 45 minutes from the school. The hands-on lessons have included removing the plane’s soft covering, its panels and small components. The students are learning about the physics of flight and how to read flight charts in what Mencia calls a mini-ground school.
Club members learn teamwork by working with kids they’ve never worked with before to organize small tasks, cooperate and find solutions in a realistic work environment.
“They’re learning practical skills through a vocational hands-on experience,” Mencia said. “These skills will set them up for life.”
The club is invited to the EAA Air-Venture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July. And they are taking some students to Reno, Nevada, for a Federal Aviation Administration Women in Aviation conference, where the kids will speak onstage about the project.
“Our hope is that, at the end, we see all the kids get to fly in the plane,” Robin Vest said.
Empowered by flight
A point not to be lost is that the project is led by women aviators, with a plane donated by a woman in honor of her mother. And to the joy of the adults involved, Feik’s legacy will live beyond the plane’s restoration, as two of the girls in the club have asked their parents for flight lessons.
For Mencia, that is fulfillment. “We’ve got them,” she said. “That’s very satisfying to me.”
“Some of them have said they never considered aviation as a career path before,” she said. “Another student is now thinking about a career as an aeronautical engineer. We expose them to the science and the magic of it.”Mencia sees a big benefit for all, but especially girls, to learn to fly. “To fly, you have to know math, how to handle yourself in a crisis, and have great self-control and situational awareness,” said Mencia, who has logged more than 2,000 hours as a pilot since 1999. “Aviation transfers into very transferable life skills.”
Young pilots develop self-confidence when they know that they can plan a task such as a trip; analyze it for distance, speed and time; recognize the limitations of their plane and fuel; calmly plan for expected challenges such as mountains or lakes; involve exterior factors such as weather; and have alternate airports (Plan B’s), she explained.
Above all, both Mencia and Benson Viteri said flying is empowering.
Mencia owns an architecture business, Aero-Biz Development Group, LLC, that designs and manages aviation construction and facilities projects. She’s heard the “you’re-just-a-woman nonsense,” she said. “But up in the air, it doesn’t matter if you are a girl, a boy or Harrison Ford. Flying gives so much confidence, which goes into life behavior.”
Benson Viteri learned to fly in 2010. Long enamored with flight, she finally went for it after a divorce. “It was life-changing,” she said. Mencia soloed in 1999, also after a divorce, and found the experience magical.
Both are members of Civil Air Patrol, Ninety-Nines, Women in Corporate Aviation International, the American Association of Airport Executives and the Short Wing Piper Association. Mencia also belongs to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
DC Youth Aviation member Zahra Heussen, 16, has been interested in aerospace since she picked up a book about Mars when she was 5. She’s been to Cape Canaveral and has built rockets at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. And while her family lived in Europe, she visited the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands.She jumped at the chance to build a plane, assuming it would be a model kit, just like the rockets.
“When we walked in that first day and saw that we’d rebuild a real plane, I was amazed,” she said. “The fact that we’re building a plane that will fly in the end, I know that every part I work on now is key to the product. It never stops being cool.”
Building the plane birthed Heussen’s interest in learning to fly. She’s taking flying lessons as often as possible and is applying for scholarships to defer the cost. Only 3-5 percent of pilots are female. “It motivates me to stand on the shoulders of female pilots like Mary Feik, who didn’t have the same privileges as me,” she said.
“This experience has brought about a new world of possible aviation careers for me,” Heussen said. Her ultimate dream is to earn a doctorate in astrophysics.
Feik’s plane was moved from Annapolis to its new home at Washington Executive. Stan Fetter, airport manager, helped establish a restoration hangar suitable for youth, Mencia said.
DC Youth Aviation is a nonprofit and is continually raising money for the project. Early help came from Ethan Martin, who runs the Aviation Community Foundation. Benson Viteri said ACF supports DC Youth Aviation, educational aviation workshops and student aviation expeditions. Mencia networked with the flying community to find mechanics and materials.
Inspection authorization mechanic Vala, a retired Czechoslovakian Air Force colonel, leads the restoration project with mechanic Shahram “Chuck” Amirkhanian. The pair has restored other historic planes.
For the four of them — Benson Viteri, Mencia, Vala and Amirkhanian — it’s been a labor of love.
The project, however, is cash-strapped.The Piper needs an engine rehaul, new panel dials, new wiring, new seats, fabric enclosure and other rebuild requirements. The original end date for the project was spring 2018, but that date is up in the air, with hopes to finish by fall 2018. The speed of the process depends on donations.They estimate the total rebuilding cost at $30,000 and have a GoFundMe account set up at dcyouthaviation.com. “We are continually fundraising,” Benson Viteri said. “I want to reach out to every CAP member who loved Col. Feik. Together we could reach even more young people if everyone donated a dollar to help us complete the project. I wonder how many $1 donations we could receive?”
The club reassembled much of the fuselage in Phase I. Next, Phase II work will focus on electrical and wiring. “We have a basic six-pack; however, in order to be compliant to the DC3 Special Flight Rules restrictions, we need a radio and transponder, which will be put into the glove compartment,” Mencia said.
Other needs are a Garmin 430 GPS (for weight) and an AXP340 ADS-B transponder and Artex 406 MHz ELT 1000 to make the Piper compliant with FAA regulations for secure DC3 airports like Washington Executive. Phase III will be to validate the engine.
When completed, “It will be a very valid plane with wonderful karma, and it will fly and be FAA-compliant,” Mencia said.
All About Mary
Col. Mary Feik left a legacy of love for flight among Civil Air Patrol members, and now that legacy is touching the lives of a new group of students in DC Youth Aviation.
As a young girl in Tonawanda, New York, she asked her father for a flight with a barnstormer. For $5, she flew for an hour and a half, the news of which made her mother faint, she said in a 2015 CAP video.
At 13, she overhauled an auto engine with her dad. By age 18 she was teaching airplane maintenance to mechanics at Wright Field in Ohio. She designed one of the first flight simulators, called the P51 Captivair, which embedded the wings in concrete. She also wrote manuals on various airplanes.
She would restore aircraft for the Smithsonian and log more than 6,000 hours in flight. She joined CAP in 1971. With a long list of accolades, she was especially proud that the third achievement in the cadet program was named for her in 2002.
In 2016, the Maryland Wing’s Annapolis unit was renamed the Mary S. Feik Composite Squadron.
“When she became ill, the squadron commander went to headquarters to ask to rename it after Mary. It was approved within 24 hours,” said Capt. Teresa Edwards, the squadron’s deputy commander for cadets. “She was aware, but with all of her greatness, she was still so humbled by it. She gave so much of herself to those kids.”
The memory of the presentation in Feik’s living room is still emotional for Lt. Col. Robin Vest, her daughter. “It was great, but it was hard,” she said. “I think she was aware for one of the very last times when that happened.”
Cadets from the squadron would visit every Tuesday. Toward the end of her life, it was hard for her to recognize people. “But if a cadet walked into her house on Tuesdays, she recognized a cadet in a uniform and her face would light up,” Edwards said.