USAF Cadets Design Aircraft To Solve Problems
by U.S. Air Force Academy Stephen Roughton
December 11, 2023
For three decades, U.S. Air Force Academy Department of Aeronautics aircraft design cadets have tackled real-world problems by designing, building and testing airplanes and rockets.
About 75 cadets in the fall aircraft design course completed flight testing and final modifications to their aircraft in November. Their mission was to apply aeronautical concepts to tackle three challenges presented by Department of Defense organizations, said Dr. Steven Brandt, the department’s aircraft design field of study director. Brandt has been in the department since 1991, a year before senior cadets began building aircraft in the capstone course.
Top ... Cadet 1st Class Nolan Brody makes modifications of his team’s sub-scale flying model of a stealthy target drone as his team mates observe during flight testing outside the U.S. Air Force Academy Department of Aeronautics on November 29, 2023. Bottom ... Three cadet-designed and built sub-scale flying models of stealthy target drones appear outside the U.S. Air Force Academy Department of Aeronautics after flight testing on November 28, 2023. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force Academy photos by Justin Pacheco and Stephen Roughton.)
“For an aircraft to fly, everything has to work,” Brandt said. “The cadets can use all they learned in other courses, plus what we teach them, to design an aircraft that solves a real-world problem. It automatically forces them to review everything they have learned and apply it to making the airplane work.”
Tackling Three Aeronautical Problems
One section of cadets, comprised of three eight-member teams, worked on a North American Aerospace Defense Command request to design a rocket for delivering survival equipment to downed Airmen in the Arctic. A second group worked on a large target drone to test missiles, while four sections of cadets developed robotic wingman aircraft for the F-22 Raptor. The U.S. Air Force requested both cadet studies.
Aircraft Design Challenge 1: Delivering Survival Equipment To The Arctic
NORAD requested an aircraft for the Arctic survival mission that could travel 1,000 miles in 30 minutes. During the most severe winter weather, fighter pilots stranded in the Arctic have a two-hour survival window if their plane goes down without supplies.
“This is, by far, the most satisfying class I’ve ever been in,” said Cadet 1st Class Luke Wells. “I am actively thinking about what we are doing when I am walking around because I know the other people on my team are pouring their time into it as well. Normally, you get a problem that already has an answer, but this design has never been solved before. It has a very real mission with huge implications. In my unbiased opinion, aircraft design is the coolest class the Academy has.”
Aircraft Design Challenge 2: Target Drone Mission
About a decade earlier, cadets created the configuration for the Department of Defense’s first large stealthy target drone to test missile tracking systems that the Air Force could afford to shoot down. Their configuration was eventually chosen for the target drone in 2012 and began flying in 2020, Brandt said.
Today, cadets are creating more sophisticated models as industry manufacturers build more target drones based on the original configuration. These models are designed to neutralize large stealthy enemy aircraft in a cost-effective manner.
“The situation has become pretty critical,” Brandt said. “We have missiles that by law should not be fielded until they are tested under realistic conditions, but currently we have no way to test them. We are building more of these target drones with the same configuration that the cadets originally designed.”
Aircraft Design Challenge 3: Robot Wingman
The remaining four sections of cadets worked on input from F-22 Raptor pilots to construct an aircraft that could contain a robotic wingman and missiles. The teams designed aircraft that could carry four to 12 missiles. Each aircraft must match the others in performance and the next generation of air dominance fighters, Cadet 1st Class Keillan Laurenceau said.
“This is the next step in air warfare,” Laurenceau said. “It is not just about humans going up anymore. It is about humans and autonomous vehicles working together to complete the mission.”
Meeting Tasking Specifications
For each mission, the priority is meeting customer specifications. Some cadet aircraft projects benefit civilian agencies and industry, but the Department of Defense supplies most of the taskings. As instructor, Brandt also evaluates how the cadets apply what they have learned while pursuing an aeronautical engineering major.
The teams tested their aircraft in the department’s wind tunnels to ensure they were ready to fly before flight testing around Thanksgiving. The cadets drafted a final report and will present their groups’ findings to the customers, either in-person or virtually in early December.
“The final brief is the culmination of our efforts over the course of the semester, so it will be a great opportunity for our team to communicate everything we’ve been working on during the past few months,” said Cadet 1st Class Cammi Bych.
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