August 22, 2014

Historic plane built by Fort Mill students featured at Charlotte museum

A Sopwith Camel airplane, an exact replica of that flown by flying ace Col. Elliott Springs during World War I, is on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum.

For two and a half years, volunteer Dave Griffin and teachers and students at Fort Mill High School have been building a plane in the middle of the cafeteria.

They didn’t want to fly it or sell it or really do anything with it except teach the students valuable lessons in engineering and honor a local legend. But now the plane has a new home at a museum, where it will be on display for the public at the Carolinas Aviation Museum, near Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The plane is a World War I-era Sopwith Camel, a replica of the biplane flown by flying ace Col. Elliott Springs of the Springs Cotton Mill family in Fort Mill.

Griffin, a retiree and aviation buff who is originally from Great Britain, said he got the idea to incorporate his history (his father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II) with that of the town of Fort Mill, all through the lens of educating the next generation of pilots, engineers and manufacturers – the students in Fort Mill’s two high schools.

With the help of Ell Close, Springs’ grandson, Griffin was able to get a kit to make the Sopwith Camel, and for the last two and a half years he and students at Fort Mill High School have worked on it diligently. The students at Nation Ford High School got to build an engine. While the engine isn’t in the plane, Griffin thinks they’ll be able to find a use for it in a new project.

A few months ago, Griffin and Close went to visit the Carolinas Aviation Museum and told them about the plane. Wally Coppinger, the museum’s executive director, said officials there jumped at the chance to have a local story about aviation history on display.

“It really fits into our mission here,” Coppinger said.

Over the summer, Griffin and a handful of students dismantled the plane, loaded it into a trailer, and transported it to the museum, where it was reassembled in the gift shop, with just inches to spare between the plane and the ceiling and walls.

“She looks quite fine,” said Griffin of the finished airplane, which is painted and decorated to look exactly like the one Springs flew nearly 100 years ago.

Now, the replica of the plane that was flown during a war but recreated by local high school students will be one of the first things people see when they walk in the building.

“It draws people in immediately,” Coppinger said. “We feel like our guests will be inspired, not only by what Col. Springs did, but what these students did as well.”

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