Cal Poly is home to the only known program in the country where students perform flight tests in an experimental airplane, built entirely by faculty and students.
Composed of 24 students and held only once a year, students in Flight Test (AERO 409) accompany their professor and licensed pilot, Kurt Colvin, in an aircraft to collect data for engineering experimentation.
“You’re looking up at the sky and the next second you’re looking at Morro Bay and falling 1,700 feet in a matter of seconds. You just drop like a rock,” aerospace engineering senior Kenneth Chapman said.
Students perform three in-flight tests during the quarter. The first is a position error correction test, which evaluates the ability of the aircrafts’ systems for measuring metrics like airspeed and altitude. The second is a power curve test, which measures functions associated with the engine power. The third test is up to the student to create their own flight test on any parameter they choose.
Offered during winter quarter this year, students meet at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport in a small hangar on Tuesdays, Thursdays and sometimes weekends. However, whether they actually fly is contingent on the weather conditions — too much rain or fog typically causes a cancellation.
In the small hangar, among the various tools and mechanical parts, is the plane — an experimental RV-7 aircraft, which was built by Cal Poly engineering students and faculty in a previous class.
Aerospace engineering senior Justin Connerly has been a teacher’s assistant for the class for the last two years and became a licensed pilot in 2014. Currently working on his senior project, Connerly said his time in this class helped him gain invaluable hands-on experience he could not have received from a design class.
“To put an airplane together in a conceptual design sort of way, without having seen an airplane up close and personal and being able to put your hands on it and touch it and understand the different systems that go into an airplane is really difficult to do,” Connerly said.
An understanding of the conceptual design and mathematical portion of an aircraft is a necessity for aerospace students. But trying to fully understand an aircraft without these physical experiences, Chapman recalls Colvin saying, is like “being a bird and never having used your wings before.”