Rotor & Wing International
Found inLeading Edge

The Ones Behind the Curtain

Five years ago, my daughter began school at Arizona State University with very little idea in what she wanted to major.

Five years ago, my daughter began school at Arizona State University with very little idea in what she wanted to major. I encouraged her to consider engineering as a major. Although it would be a challenging road, I felt it was something she could handle, and it would serve her well in whatever ambition she pursued.

“But I don’t want to build anything,”she said. I explained that more so than just building things, engineering is about solving problems using the basics of math and science, subjects at which she excelled in high school. Admittedly, there is nothing “basic” about linear algebra, partial differential equations or any of the other classes in an engineering curriculum. But I am only halfway joking when I say that everything can be simplified to Newton’s second law of motion, “Force equals mass times acceleration.”

During a career-building class, my daughter spoke with Erin Gormley, an aerospace engineer for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and a great mentor for young women in aviation. My daughter soon became focused on mechanical engineering, hoping to pursue accident investigation.

My daughter had plenty of trying times with mathematical theory that was just plain difficult to grasp. And while I could not always reach back into the corners of my own memory of those classes to help, I found I had many real-life examples. Hopefully it helped her because it gave me greater appreciation for all that goes into the machines we fly every day.

Just think of the hurdles overcome throughout the helicopter’s history. Some time after Bernoulli’s equation (derived from Newton’s second law) became the basis for flight, civil engineer Juan de la Cierva addressed issues of dissymmetry of lift by designing a flapping hinge. Thus, the first viable autogyro was born. That hinge lends itself directly to concepts learned in classes on statics and dynamics, while Bernoulli’s theorem is covered in fluids and aerodynamics.

As helicopter flight evolved, reliable engines became a necessity. Classes in thermodynamics mathematically relate temperature and heat to energy and work, underlying designs of the earliest engines and of today’s alternative-fuel powerplants.

There are courses dedicated to the well-known issue of vibration, which is part and parcel to helicopter life in the form of noise and component wear. Much of today’s R&D of helicopters is dedicated to reducing their acoustic signature. Classes in mechanics of materials examine the concepts of stress and strain – things felt by all components as they are subjected to the various aerodynamic, gyroscopic and thermodynamic forces.

The electronic complexity of modern rotorcraft lends itself to electrical engineering, from the design of each individual avionics package, to the integration of avionics and mechanics in a modern autopilot. Through plenty of calculus and digital electronic theory, courses in circuits, signal processing, and system dynamics and control, lay the groundwork for these indispensable systems.

These aircraft could not operate safely in today’s world, or at least in the U.S., without the National Airspace System. Through the collaboration of civil, mechanical, industrial and systems engineers, the FAA will be implementing the NextGen airspace system, enhancing safety and improving efficiency.

Of course, some times things go wrong. When a crash occurs, the combined experience of accident investigators from many different disciplines – chemical and biomechanical engineers, aerodynamicists and metallurgists – all use various methods of root cause analysis to “reverse-engineer” an accident and determine prevention methods.

By the time this goes to print, my daughter will have walked at graduation, earning her Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. Her college career has culminated with the design of a thermal blanket for a rocket, as well as an internship involving fatigue testing of composite rotor blades. She decorated her graduation cap with the Greek symbols for “stress and strain.” It marked the end of five years of “blood, sweat and gears,” but the beginning of a lifetime of learning and the opportunity to become part of history.

Congratulations, Kristina. You should be proud to walk amongst a unique group of professionals, the ones behind the curtain, who take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it in the real world, solving the problems of today and making a better tomorrow. RWI