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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Engineering Students’ Senior Capstone Project Takes Flight in International Competition

When two mechanical engineering students came to Drew Landman with an idea to build a plane and enter it in a contest sponsored by Lockheed Martin, the longtime Old Dominion University professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering was skeptical.

"You see the proposals from time to time and the students frequently don't realize the tremendous amount of work involved," Landman said. "I asked them two things: Has anybody ever built an airplane, and can anyone fly the thing?"

The answer to the first question was no. The second answer was, well, sort of.

Nevertheless, Brian Duvall and Jon Hannell, joined by two other seniors from ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, Leah Ewart and Sushil Kasab, worked all year to design and build a small airplane that could take off and be flown via radio control while carrying a payload exceeding the weight of the aircraft. The effort was a senior capstone design course for the four students, who will graduate this month.

The ODU engineering team, who called themselves The Flying Monarchs, recently returned from the SAE Aero Design East competition in Marietta, Ga., the site of Lockheed Martin's Eastern headquarters. Their plane successfully completed five flights, carrying 10 pounds on the last flight (two more than the weight of the plane itself). That was good for 12th place in the competition, which featured 42 engineering schools from across the United States, Europe and South America.

There was also an oral presentation in front of contest judges and a written design component as part of the final grade.

"I thought it went swimmingly," Landman said of the effort by the ODU team. The four seniors not only helped design the model aircraft, but also flew it during the competition. "Some of the other teams had professionals flying their planes. Our comments back (at the competition) included compliments about the quality of Brian's flying," Landman said.

The competition consisted of five flights of the team's self-made aircraft. The judging took into account how much additional weight, or payload, the plane carried in total.

"Truthfully, we were a little conservative. But we didn't want to come back with a broken plane," Landman said. There were some spectacular crashes of other teams' designs, but also flights by teams whose planes carried two or three times the weight of The Flying Monarchs' payload.

More valuable for the students was the experience of designing, constructing and learning to fly a small aircraft. "We crashed three times in practice," Landman said. The students' exposure to other schools' research at the event has inspired them and Landman to keep the project going at ODU next year. "We came back with all sorts of great ideas. Now we want to try to keep the momentum going," he said.

This kind of exposure was something that had helped other teams in the past, since they were able to build on lessons learned by previous years' teams, Landman said. "I'm so excited about continuing this project next year. It's a great senior project for student engineers because it brings in so many different skills and concepts."

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