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When passion takes flight

March 22, 2016
David McFarland
The view from Clarion University professor Andrew Turner's Experimental Amateur Built Aircraft.

You might not think that building an airplane or flying that airplane has much to do with biology – but you might be surprised. One Clarion University professor found that there’s more overlap with the subjects than one might think.

For one, biology professor Andrew Turner, Ph.D., flies the plane he built across the United States where he gets a bird’s eye view of the ecological systems that he teaches to his students.

“I’ve actually seen most of the landscapes of North America from above and that is such a valuable perspective for an environmental scientist,” Turner said.

Turner said that the airplane offers an excellent vantage point to observe how humans have altered those ecosystems, and he’s able to take that information back to the classroom. He often manages to snap pictures to share with his classes.

Also, Turner, who built his experimental aircraft from scratch, had to become a student of aviation technology for the six-and-a-half years required to build the plane. Being the student taught him empathy for his students.

“In order to be a good teacher, you need to be a good learner” Turner said. “It’s very humbling to learn complicated new things.”

Andy Turner
Clarion University professor Andrew Turner is in control as he flies his Experimental Amateur Built Aircraft.

 As a 30-year pilot, he wasn’t unfamiliar with airplanes, but he still had to learn metal working skills, electronics, and other technical skills in order to build the airplane. As a professor of science and technology, he found that one passion did carryover to the other.

But Turner admits, “it’s a slow process” when it comes to building an airplane.

Case in point: Constructing the aircraft meant setting 25,000 rivets and countersinking them for a smooth and aerodynamic surface. Just constructing the two wings took one year of work.

Turner estimates that he spent about 4,000 hours building and customizing the plane.

“It was a great challenge,” Turner said of the work that went into the plane.

It wasn’t only a challenge, but in the end, a labor of love.

“I love to build things,” Turner said. “I’m really not happy unless I am engaged in the creative process.”

Turner’s aircraft is licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration as an experimental aircraft. He explained that upon completion, the aircraft received a final inspection from the FAA, and that he had to complete a phase of test flights before carrying passengers. 

“As an experimental aircraft, the builder is solely responsible for the safety of the aircraft,” he said.

Because the aircraft is licensed as an experimental aircraft, Turner can develop and test modifications aimed at maximizing performance.

“I spent of portion of our winter break working on modifications to the engine and cowling that minimize cooling drag” he offered as one example.

Due in part to his customization efforts, the airplane, which can seat up to four people and luggage, is fuel efficient getting 20 miles to the gallon and yet can clock speeds of 220 miles per hour.

 “The performance of this airplane has exceeded my expectations,” he said, “I describe the performance as world class, and I mean that in a very literal way. In its category, it is one of the fastest and most fuel efficient aircraft in the world.”

When he was done with the test flights, his family took to the skies as his co-pilots. Turner’s wife, Clarion University physics professor Sharon Montgomery, Ph.D., and their 7-year-old twins, Joshua and Caleb, have traveled across the country with him. Their twins’ names are the reason he chose the letters J and C in the call-sign for his airplane, N784JC.

“They think that it’s normal,” he said of his youngest co-pilots. “They grew up flying places.”

He and his family have flown to Yellowstone National Park, California and Florida among other locations in the United States.

When he’s flying, Turner said he likes to think about his other passion – ecology.

“I’m almost always thinking about the ecosystems we’re flying across. There’s so much to see and so much to learn.” 

Last Updated 1/11/21