A group of 30 teenage aviation enthusiasts, who deemed themselves “the JACKPOT squadron,” meet every Saturday at 2 p.m. in Pacoima, using power tools and working in teams to build a small aircraft that they will eventually take flight in.
“We all work together and help each other out. It’s kind of a community,” said Emma Sienbenaler, a 16-year-old high school junior.
Project JACKPOT (Joint Aircraft Construction for Kids, Parents, Opportunities and Training) provides San Fernando Valley youth ages 14 to 18 with the opportunity to construct an aircraft with the mentorship of aviation experts from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 40. Over 175 kids have participated in the free program since its start in 2021.
“Where else can you build a plane at that age?” Emma queried.
“As far as I know, nowhere,” said 17-year-old high school senior Korban Siebenaler, Emma’s brother.
JACKPOT uses an airplane assembly kit called the Zenith Model 750, which is equipped with all the necessary parts to construct a small, noncommercial two-seater plane. Students follow detailed instructions as though it were a large scale model airplane, except this one will actually take flight.
“Learning the inner workings of the airplane and how it performs gives me a deeper understanding of the decisions made when flying,” said Korban, who has wanted to fly ever since he was 3 years old.
After multiple inspections and safety clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the kids will eventually learn to fly in the plane they built.
“We are creating a whole new generation of pilots, engineers and mechanics,” said Bill Berle, the founder and lead instructor of Project JACKPOT.
He believes the program teaches skills that are sought after by employers in the aerospace field and is providing a potential pathway for youth to gain economic independence and better job opportunities without the burden of college debt.
According to Berle, almost all the kids are from the San Fernando Valley with over half of them being from the Northeast Valley, an area traditionally underrepresented in the field of aeronautics.
EAA Chapter 40 operates out of the Whiteman Airport in Pacoima. Through the EAA Young Eagles program, they have provided over 10,000 free educational flights for kids in the San Fernando Valley.
The Whiteman Airport has been a point of contention in the past, with some members of the community citing safety and pollution concerns. LA Councilmember Monica Rodriguez and organizations including Pacoima Beautiful have called for the closure of the airport.
“We love this airport so much,” said Emma. “We want to keep it going for the next generation.”
On Monday, Sept. 11, JACKPOT announced it secured funding and resources to start building a second aircraft before the end of the year. The program received a grant from the Mark Hughes Foundation, as well as other private and corporate funding. Additional donations, including a new parts kit for a second aircraft and the space to build it, has sped up the timeline for the second plane.
The new aircraft will be called “The Spirit of Los Angeles.”
“We are going to design a logo and put it on the tail,” said Korban. “Once we have more planes, we are going to become an actual squadron,” he joked.
For more information about JACKPOT, contact Bill Berle at (818) 634-9762.