Strategy Uber Alles! And A Good Poker Face Comes In Handy

Student competitions are about design. Simply put, can you and your teammates design a solution to a problem, or develop an apparatus to perform a complex task?

Before you’re allowed to turn your new device loose on an unsuspecting world you have to validate your work two ways: submit a very detailed engineering report describing your design approach, and give a ten-minute illustrated presentation to a group of very skeptical aeronautical engineers. PROFESSIONAL aeronautical engineers. Who design REAL fighter jets. Not nau(gh)tical engineers who design Carnival cruise ships.

S&T’s Advanced Aero Vehicle Group has done a bang-up job in the advanced class, talking 1st place in presentation and 3rd in design, racking up enough points to hold first place in the three-day event. A strong flight score could wrap up S&T’s first overall victory in a decade, but near gale-force winds have, uh, stalled that plan so far.

By late today no advanced team had flown successfully. A catastrophic crash took our good friends at St Louis University out of the running while S&T suffered engine failure and couldn’t rise from the runway. The Billikens quickly offered their engine to the Miners, who then spent the afternoon adapting it to their aircraft.

Then came the strategy issue………..

The AAVG abacus indicated that if no advanced class aircraft completes the prescribed sortie, then S&T would take home the trophy. By not flying.


Since the SLU engine couldn’t quite power the S&T aircraft, the AAVG crew decided NOT to fly anymore and just sat around texting their friends, Buuuuut, knowing a valid flight by another team could knock the Miners from the top spot, they nonetheless hauled their plane to the launch queue as if to call their opponent’s bluff. Kinda “you think you can fly in these winds? If you’re crazy enough to try it, so are we!”

Two teams took the bait and managed to claw their way into the sky, but neither were credited with a valid flight, so S&T still holds the lead.

Tomorrow the winds are supposed to ease. If any of the 2 or 3 surviving advanced class aircraft do well, the Miners may have to gamble a little themselves.

Flying Miners In 1st Place!

Early today chief engineer John Schaefer reported that both S&T aircraft passed technical inspection at the SAE Aero competition at Lockheed Martin’s Recreation area, and that the AAVG presentation “went really well.”

It seems that John was understating things just a bit as the Miner took top honors in presentation and 3rd in design, staking the team to 1st place overall after day #1!

Tomorrow and Sunday the action moves to the new Thunderbird Field on Benbrook Lake, southwest of Ft. Worth, TX. A different part of the lake shore from previous years’ events, but there’s still a decent chance of a water landing if things don’t go quite right.

John added “we tuned the engine as best as possible, but didn’t have time for/didn’t want to risk a windy flight today.” It’s springtime in Texas and strong southerly winds can cause havoc with some of the less-sturdy aircraft, so better to be safe than sorry. There will be plenty of chances to risk the aircraft in the coming days.

Testing Works As It Should. AKA Flight Test, Part Deux

BlogAAVGSUN_7364.jpgLast week’s destructive tests (somehow) validated the engineering designs, so it was back to the Cuba Intercounty Airport for final testing.

Why final? Because just a week later it’s down to Ft Worth, Texas for the real international design competition in the backyard of Lockheed Martin. The actual fly-offs are just to prove the aircraft works as designed, but it’s a design competition that includes tech inspections, written engineering reports and an oral presentation to some of Lockheed Martin’s best aeronautical engineers. Just as in real life.

Back at the Cuba Jetway, it was jubilation all around! The 8-lb bird carried its 15 lb payload as if it were a box of feathers. To the delight of the Miner ground crew It danced around the sky with abandon.

Could something still go wrong? Sure, but this team is prepared! They’ve built a complete spare airplane juuuuuuuuust in case. Chief Engineer John Schaefer says “we learned so much building the first plane we named it Athena after the Greek goddess of wisdom. The second plane looks a lot prettier, so we dubbed it Aphrodite after the Greek goddess of beauty.”

This irresistible one-two punch gives S&T a great chance to win the overall competition AND the “best crash” trophy. Never been done before as far as we know.

Destructive Testing: In The Air And In The Lab

A few weeks back we noted the plane that didn’t fly, and then it flew anyway. The Advanced Aero Vehicle Group’s ’13 SAE Aero design flew nicely, but the landing was a little, uh, rough due to landing gear that collapsed upon touching the asphalt.
“Real world” engineers test, test, and retest major systems until the wings, landing gear, or fuselage actually fail. That’s how they’re sure of their calculations, it’s cheaper to do it in the lab, and when it fails it doesn’t get tweeted (twit?) all over the web to people who would otherwise be posting pictures of their soon-to-be digested lunch.
In the Miners’ case they redesigned the errant landing gear and prepared their own set of near-destructive testing. The budget-minded (and largely unsupervised) crew tied steel wire to the workshop ceiling, fastened the other end to the plane, loaded the aircraft with a lot of weight, and pendulum-like, “flew” the assembly into the concrete floor. And yes, they did put it on Facebook. Enjoy!

We Would Like To Publish A Correction…….

Well, we don’t actually like to publish a correction but we’re going to do it anyway.
Yesterday’s non-flight of the Advanced Aero Vehicle Group’s plane was actually a non non-flight. Much to this journalist’s chagrin the plane in fact did fly. And flew well.
The problem was not the unfairly-maligned servo but a loose electrical connection. Neither was the servo salvaged from a crash years ago. It was a new one that worked as designed.
We apologize to the servo, the team, the “right stuff” pilot, and even the Chihuahua for implying it was too fat to fit in the airplane.
The flight? Outstanding.
The landing? Meh. But landing gear is easy to fix.

The Right Stuff

Aerospace (eventually) engineers. Top-Gun-style volunteer pilots. Crack mechanics. All gathered today at the Cuba, MO international airport to test AAVG’s 2013 aircraft.
As with most student competitions design rules change each year, and for “Lucky ’13” the SAE aero folks really dropped a big one on the participants. In years past four-engine monsters with 20-foot wingspans were common, adding special urgency on the ground when something went, uh, a little awry. Since then planes have gotten smaller, lighter, smarter and less lethal when performing a one-point landing*.
Each 2013 aircraft must:
Have a two-member R/C crew, one of which is the bombardier cargo specialist.
Weigh no more than 8 pounds
Carry a fifteen-pound payload
Send live, in-flight video and telemetry data to the ground for analysis
Drop a three-pound humanitarian cargo onto a designated spot.
Today’s flight plan called for testing. testing, and more testing, while waiting for crosswinds to ease, but the last pre-flight test revealed a problem. A control servo, SkunkSUN_6548.jpgrumored to have been salvaged** from a years-ago test crash started acting up, and in a remarkable example of good judgement the team decided to postpone the flight pending repairs, probably until later this week.
The “waiting for lift-off” did leave some under-utilized flight crew with time on their hands. Two ambitious S&T students (right) took the opportunity to calculate the flight characteristics of a desiccated, runway-kill skunk that vaguely resembled a frisbee, but opted not to conduct actual flight ops. We’re guessing the wind was from the wrong direction.
The “humanitarian” cargo?. The two chihuahuas (top photo, bottom left) are not the air-drop cargo. Difficulties in finding a PETA-approved pet parachute*** and getting the dogs to precisely three pounds just couldn’t be overcome in time for competition.
*There’s a best-crash award at SAE Aero events. Best seen in person, but we’ll let slip that there’s usually plenty of competition for that trophy!
** This is why the FAA frowns on buying/selling salvage parts for commercial aircraft. Dirt track racers and monster trucks don’t worry too much about that concept.
*** Lighten up, PETA, we’re KIDDING!!!

Advanced Aero Vehicle Group Takes 3rd In Advanced Class Design

The SAE Aero folks haven’t posted the full event results, but we do know this. Missouri S&T took 3rd place in the design event, pretty good considering the level of international talent that comes together for this fly-off.
The Miners fly in the rarified air (another pun intended) of the advanced class. What’s the difference? To look at some aircraft in the regular event, not much. Large aircraft in both classes, and each strives to carry more and more payload as the weekend goes on and the attrition rate goes up.
The advanced class adds mandatory braking systems and sensors that record landing and take-off distances. The tough thing is, based on modeling their designs AC teams must also predict their actual ground distances.
Officials managed to run five micro-, regular- and advanced-class rounds in just a day and a half. The more planes that met their doom, the faster the rounds went. In this morning’s 5th round only three of the top-tier were still rolling, and one of the best regular-class planes met a spectacular end just feet from a safe and valid flight.
ChinaSUN_1487.jpgAt the end of round #4, the Miners were in 6th place despite notching just one flight. They took 3rd in design and second in tech presentation, just half a point behind last year’s champion Poland.
The dominant 2012 team was China’s Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT). That plane had two small engines, a pusher and puller, each of which drove a large, slow-speed propellor through a set of noisy reduction gears, It flew steady, flew high, and landed beautifully. S&T PR officer Nick Eplin described their plane as “very light, very strong, and built with great precision.”
*Great to know BIT officials toured the S&T campus just about a year ago, just before the Kummer Student Design Center was opened to the public. Too bad they had to see the old Design Center workshop.

One Tough Bird, And One Tough Team

Yesterday’s SAE Aero competition was full of ups and downs (pun intended), as more plane took off safely than landed intact.
Survival rates were trending down as design teams added more and more cargo weight with each flight, increasing the risk of structural failure. Wind shifts caught some pilots off guard, and a few planes even plummeted into the viewing area. When that happens you get a good idea of who is paying attention and what their reaction times are.
S&T has a big, heavy aircraft. The day’s first major wind shift nearly turned the plane on its side and the pilot had to, uh, put the plane down ASAP to prevent spectator injury. And he did, right in the middle of the stunned Miners.
Results? Broken ribs (on the plane, not the students), serious wing damage, and a wrecked nose gear and engine mount. No panic, just back to the workbench. Thanks to the wonders of 5-minute epoxy, team leader Zach Luker’s calm rachSUN_2979.jpgdemeanor, plenty of spare parts and lots of coordinated labor, the plane was able to slip one more flight in just before operations wrapped up for the day.
This flight was much steadier, and the Miners topped it off with a successful* crash landing when a wing tip caught the ground and spun the aircraft to the ground.
The plane was tough enough to survive slamming to the ground sideways, and the critical data acquisition system indicated a dead stop. Why is that good? Teams get points for shortest combined take-off and landing distances, so a screeching halt is a good thing for points, but kinda rough on the nerves.
In the less dramatic design contest, the Beijing Institute of Technology took top honors in the advanced class. Had the Miners not incurred a nine-point penalty they’d be in second place, just a point or two behind. The Chinese are leading the flight scoring, but now that S&T’s bird is back to hauling freight, they should clawing up in the standings.
Stay tuned.
*Successful means “nothing fell off”.

Flight Ops In Zero Visibility

The Georgia fog is hovering over the airfield so heavily that nothing is flying, and you can’t even see the end of the parking lot.
SAE Aero officials have been struggling to answer questions from dozens of pilots, while stalling to wait to the sun to burn through the pea soup. Micro class birds go first, followed by regular, then the big “open” class fliers.
Flight ops have been pushed back from 8 to 8:30, and now things are on “standby”. That gives teams time for last-minute repairs, adjustments, and prayers.
Crash photos as soon as we put together a decent library.

Tech Inspection And Presentations

Where have we heard THAT before?
These events aren’t just about racing. Nobody drives, flies, paddles or launches without first being checked out for safety and rules compliance.
After that it’s points-scoring time. We’re pretty sure their engineering reports were turned in and judged many days ago, but today each team’s designated expert got up in from of some pretty experienced aircraft designers/builders to “show them the numbers” and defend their construction ideas.
Group leader Zack Lucker did just that, and quite well, thank you very much. The judges seemed impressed that the plane’s cargo holds and tail booms were “recycled” from the team’s rocket-building side of the shop.
Want an embarrassing moment? Get up to present and find out a judge’s hotel room was right above yours when you were working on the plane (very) late last night. And that he could hear what your were doing. Uh, oh!
The aircrews will gather at the flying field before 7:00 a.m. tomorrow, and that’s when the balsa and carbon fiber carnage, er, flights begin. Make you wonder of the slogan at tonight’s all-team/all-pilot meeting was “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we FLY!
Nah. Probably not.