Cal Poly’s aerospace engineering department took first and second place at the national Undergraduate Team Aircraft Design competition, in September.
After winning the event eight of the last nine years and placing in the top three 44 times since its first competition in 1991, Cal Poly’s aerospace program has received national attention from elite companies in the industry — many of which use the competition as a recruitment opportunity.
“It helps (aeronautical companies) out because they get to pluck the cream of the crop of our students,” faculty adviser Bruce R. Wright said. “It’s amazing how many people get hired during the presentations. Honest to God, last year we had two guys hired before they even left the facility.”
The competition is annually sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Foundation (AIAA) and is a year-long process. Students spend three consecutive quarters designing starting in September and ending in June. Entries are judged during the summer before results are announced early September, just weeks before the next year’s competition begins.
Cal Poly aeronautical engineering graduate Dominic Surano’s team, “Much Better Planes Introduces the Bearodactyl,” won first place and a prize of $2,500. He said there were several steps toward completing the project.
“We started fall quarter all doing individual designs,” Surano said. “This is when the professors really encouraged us to think out of the box. Starting winter quarter, we were put into groups, about six to eight people, to converge together and design one aircraft.”
The class, Aircraft Design I-III (AERO 443-445), is for aerospace engineering seniors who know the meaning of hard work and long hours.
“Most of the work is done nights or weekends,” Wright said. “I mean, they live in here. By the time we get into winter quarter this is their second home. For the number of credits they get for this course they put in a huge amount of work, far beyond what you would expect is the call of duty.”
Last year’s design specification, called a request for proposal (RFP), was a 175 passenger, green replacement for the Boeing 737 using alternate fuels and environmentally friendly aircraft systems.
“What they were trying to do was: No. 1 get a more efficient engine,” Wright said. “No. 2, get a better lift to drag ratio, which is better aerodynamics. And No. 3 is to make it lighter by using composite materials.”
Cal Poly had six teams enter the competition this year, all of which faced adversity throughout the designing process. Aerospace engineering graduate Brian Borra, whose GFX-50 team finished in second place and won $1,500, said the most challenging part was collaborating with team members for an entire year.
“The big thing was time management and the interaction among team members because we had to do it as a whole,” Borra said. “We all have ideas of what we want from a plane. As to who gets the final bid in design — that was a major hurdle.”
However, despite all the difficult tasks to be successful in a competition like this, Wright, Surano and Borra were all quick to point out Cal Poly’s advantages.
“We have some pretty unique advantages over most of the other colleges,” Wright said. “That is part of our winning formula every year.”
Cal Poly students take the class for the entire school year, as opposed to only one quarter at other universities. Also, they take several trips throughout the year and receive feedback from professional engineers. These trips include such esteemed companies as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Edwards Air Force Base.
“That’s what I think really gives Cal Poly the edge in this competition,” Surano said. “We get to go talk to real engineers and they give us real feedback on certain things we are doing correctly or incorrectly. And then some of them judge the competition, so we tend to get their input before hand, which is extremely beneficial.”
Borra said that Cal Poly also does the coding and analysis on the aircrafts themselves, citing MATLAB as the class’ “savior” throughout the year.
MATLAB is a “matrix laboratory” created by MathWorks to aid in numerical computing and programming language for engineering.
One of the most influential advantages Cal Poly teams receive during the year is the assistance of Wright and Associate Professor Dr. Rob A. McDonald.
“We had the perfect balance of real world insight from Bruce (Wright),” Borra said. “He has done everything. It’s an honor for him to be giving us input.”
Surano echoed Borra’s sentiments.
“He (Wright) knows everything there is about every aircraft,” Surano said. “He’s basically this huge wealth of knowledge. He did everything he could within his power to be able to translate to us and help us with any types of design choices we were making.”
Wright said his 34 years of experience with Lockheed Martin and 17 years as program manager for Skunk Works make him a resource for students and a contributing factor to Cal Poly’s success.
“The combination of my hands-on experience and Dr. Rob McDonald’s academia talents … I think that and along with all of these industry reviews are two of the things that are pretty unique about us and our winning formula,” Wright said.
This year’s design competition’s RFP asks for a hybrid airship, which would fit between an airplane and a ship in terms of speed and shipping cost. Again, this is an area which Wright is extremely knowledgeable about, and he expects to repeat previous success at the competition this year.
“This year my goal is we win all three places,” Wright said. “And they should be able to because I got more knowledge on this subject than the other teachers are going to have.”