Loud machines, smoke and wind tunnels | VailDaily.com

Loud machines, smoke and wind tunnels

Tom Roeder
AP photoAir Force Academy cadets Joe Walker, top, and Derek Strang work on the engine of a Predator unmanned spy drone at the Aeronautics Laboratory at the Air Force Academy.The pair are working on making the engine more fuel efficient, allowing the Predator to remain in the air longer.

AIR FORCE ACADEMY – A squat building almost hidden among the Air Force Academy’s more palatial structures is crowded with cadets who have their sleeves rolled up and their hands dirty.Unlike the pristine classrooms in the world of academics, the Aeronautics Laboratory is a place of loud machinery, belching smoke, wind tunnels and, in the words of one cadet, “real-world learning.”On a recent afternoon, undergraduates worked on some of the Air Force’s most vexing problems for existing and future conflicts. In a program unlike any other in the country, the Air Force and NASA both use these cadet researchers to augment their own scientists and engineers.

Hundreds of cadets go through the research program, which is aimed at engineering majors.In one wind tunnel, cadets tested new bullet designs to see if they could steer them at 1,400 mph. In another room, cadets worked on new wing designs for unmanned spy planes. Nearby, others tried wing-mounted electrodes to improve the airflow over wings.In the basement, senior cadet Bronwyn Oliver was up to her elbows in a greasy turbine engine, trying new methods to determine when bearings wear out.”This is the only college in the world where undergraduates would get their hands on an (airplane) engine,” she said with a smile.

Capt. Devin O’Dowd, who teaches aeronautics, said the laboratory differs from mainstream colleges by having its students work on real problems for the Air Force and NASA, rather than focus on hammering home textbook theories. He said having them problem-solve with lab experiments motivates them and expands their minds in a way textbooks cannot.Inside a noisy room packed with a variety of engines, cadets Derek Strang and Joe Walker said they’re living proof of O’Dowd’s statements.

“We can learn something in the classroom and we see here how things are actually done,” Strang said while standing near a four-cylinder motor used to propel Predator unmanned spy drones.Strang and Walker are entrusted by the Air Force with helping to figure out how to make the Predator use less fuel so it can stay in the air longer. The spy plane could spend more time overhead ferreting out enemies and protecting American troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.”We’re learning a whole lot about engines and testing techniques,” Walker said.To make the engine more efficient, Strang and Walker have tried a series of modifications, from changing out turbochargers to modifying the intake that allows air into the engine.

They’re hoping to find a fix that can extend the plane’s range by 15 percent and can be easily used by the Air Force. Knowing their schoolwork could help fight the war drives them to spend more time on the project.Jerry Stermer, director of testing in the lab, said that’s the point.”Everything we do here has an impact in the real world.”

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