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Aerospace Engineering Students Prepare for Design Competition

Friday, March 18, 2011

It’s truly a team effort requiring hundreds of hours from University of Kansas aerospace engineering students as they design an aircraft for the Society of Automotive Engineers 2011 Aero Design West competition, held March 18-20 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Jayhawk Heavy lift team with their aircraft

But when the competition kicks off, months of painstaking design, construction and testing comes down to just a few minutes. At that moment, the fate of all that work lies entirely in the hands of just two team members, seniors John Pheatt and Jeff Griswold.

The aerospace engineering seniors are the pilots for KU’s Jayhawk Heavy Lift design team. They are tasked with ensuring the team’s remote control aircraft, known as Goed Genoeg II (which translates to “Good Enough” from Dutch), takes off successfully, executes the proper maneuvers in flight and lands without a hitch.

“It’s really nerve-wracking,” said Griswold. “Everyone is really counting on you to do well. If we fail, it’s obviously a huge let down.”

The two pilots have years of experience between them, but until they have the opportunity to practice in the field with the competition aircraft, there are lingering questions about just how well it will perform. The team had to deal with some last minute scrambling leading up to the competition — after running into problems in their initial test runs. While flight simulators provide a nice start, nothing matches the real-world experience.

“Last semester, we built a plane in our simulator that had the exact specifications as our competition aircraft, and when I tried to fly it in the simulator, it was like flying a school bus,” Griswold said. “I just could not fly it, and I was so scared, but when we actually got it to the practice field, it flew really well.”

The Jayhawk team works on their aircraft
The entire team faces plenty of challenges for this year’s competition. The aircraft’s total weight must be 55 pounds or less. The flight crew must then figure out how much payload the plane can carry, with a goal of having the lightest aircraft possible while supporting the most weight. Pheatt said the KU plane weighs approximately 14 pounds and should carry up to 35 pounds. Unlike aero design competitions from previous years, lead weights are no longer allowed because of safety concerns, so the team made the to switch to more expensive and dense tungsten weights. Tungsten’s high density makes it easier to pack into a smaller amount of space.

The Jayhawk Heavy Lift team spent the first semester of the school year developing two test aircraft to examine what best handled the specifications of this year’s competition. Students chose a single engine plane with a single wheel at the front and two at the back. That so-called “tricycle” setup for the wheels is a key difference from the design of the previous competition aircraft.

“Last year, we had two wheels in the front and one in the back,” said Pheatt. “That design has a tendency to spin and throw the tail end of the aircraft around while it’s on the ground. The new design and a lower center of gravity for the payload will have the whole aircraft much more stable on the ground and in the air.”

The team placed ninth out of more than 40 teams that registered in the 2010 competition, and Pheatt said the team hopes to fare better than that this year. The group also plans to compete in SAE Aero Design East, set for April 29 to May 1 in Marietta, Ga.

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