Joan and Bob Zaleski started the Naples Youth Aviation Project (NYAP) out of Naples, Florida, to help local youths further their aviation careers. This organization helps teens get their foot in the door and leads them to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, like its most recent project, building a Sling 2. Eleven local teens came together to accomplish something incredible and built an airplane from crates full of parts.
Joan and Bob had already built an airplane of their own and wanted to give local youths the same opportunity. The build took more than two years, allowing many teen builders to obtain pilot certificates. One of the builders, Garrett Sutton, earned his certificate through this project and flew the airplane to AirVenture 2023.
“I think it is a unique opportunity that I am thankful for,” Garrett said. “Because not many people can say that they have built the plane and are getting the opportunity to fly it as well. So, I think it is a big opportunity that I am really thankful for.”
The process was an eye-opening and life-changing experience for many teens, because they all accomplished something unique together. They collaborated and worked on the airplane in shifts. During the school year, they would come in every Saturday. They usually worked from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with some staying the entire time and some staying half the time.
Not only did this project teach the kids teamwork, but also it improved their problem-solving skills. Since this airplane came in many pieces, the teens often had to troubleshoot and ask themselves, ‘How do I do this?’ Many times when this question came up, the teenagers would come together and bounce ideas off each other.
“If we do not get this result, we are going to shoot for this, and if not, then we will sit and talk about it some more,” Garrett said. “It is not like the kit was built wrong, and it is amazing all the pieces pretty much match up, but there is still so much that you have to troubleshoot.”
Ultimately, this project was about more than just building an airplane — it was about the people involved, from the youths themselves to the mentors and generous donors and supporters who made the project possible. The mentors involved in this project quickly became role models.
“They are a key part of the build. If I needed help on a certain topic during my flight training, they would help me out. They offered any assistance if I needed help at any point,” Garrett said. “The mentors have built planes before, so they kind of knew what they were doing, but what was interesting, I think, is all the mentors came from a different walk of life in aviation.”
By the end of it all, seeing the airplane fully built left the teenagers proud of everyone involved with this project. Because this airplane build took around two years of these teenagers’ lives, seeing it accomplished was something they will remember forever. This project provided some with their pilot certificates and did something for everyone, where they personally and professionally grew.
“I could not imagine an airplane would mean that much to me, but all those hours and hours of coming in on Saturdays or occasional Wednesdays, and it just meant different,” Garrett said. “It is all your hard work, and you are sitting in that plane, and you look at it differently, especially when looking at certain pieces. Everyone knows what piece they spent much time on, and it meant something different when looking at something that you put in all your work with.”