Last weekend, teams from around the world converged at Wichita, Kansas for the annual Design, Build, Fly competition organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. After its successful initiation last year, the Hopkins team returned with high hopes and a greatly expanded roster.
The team was tasked with creating a remote-controlled plane capable of performing three missions. First, the plane must fly as many laps as possible around a 2000 foot circuit in a four minute window. Second, the plane must carry a payload of eight aluminum bars, simulating passengers. Lastly, the plane must carry two liters of water and climb to 100 meters as quickly as possible. Once the 100 meters is reached, the plane must automatically dump all of the water.
"The most difficult part was the water drop mechanism," senior pilot Ben Goldberg said. "It was such a heavy payload and the weight of the plane changes during flight, affecting the flight characteristics dramatically."
With the support of donations from the JHU Alumni association, the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Professors Joseph Katz and Charles Meneveau, the team built an aerodynamically optimized plane to complete all three missions while maximizing total flight score.
The first day of competition went relatively smoothly for JHU. The plane, in its makeshift crate, survived the trip to Wichita and the Cessna facility serving as the competition site. The Blue Jay 4 (fourth major design iteration since the inception of the team) passed technical inspection with only a few minor hiccups, but missed its first time on the flight line as a result. When its turn came up again, the plane completed five laps, an above average mark.
"We weren't sure how it was going to turn out," junior Rick Fenrich said. "I think we built a plane that flew quite spectacularly... We had put in so much work over the course of the semester. We spent countless hours manufacturing and designing, that to see it fly in its glory in Kansas was incredible."
On day two, things started to go downhill. Severe weather had been predicted for the weekend, and although everyone involved hoped for a change, the winds came in full force. The flight line was closed at noon, and at 2:00pm, everyone was ordered off the premises.
Later that night, tornadoes were spotted heading right towards the city. The projected path had the tornado led right towards where the JHU team was staying, causing an anxiety-filled drive to the hotel and a rush to the basement shelter.
At the last minute, the storm changed course to the other side of the city, hitting the Boeing, Spirit Aerosystems and Cessna facilities, including the Design, Build, Fly flying field.
"It was a heart-racing Kansas experience," Goldberg reflected, though "finding the severity of the damage the next day put a damper on the competition and it was disappointing that we weren't able to complete the missions."
And thus the 2011/12 competition came to an end. Although few teams were able to complete all three tasks, awards were given based on standings at the time of closing. First place went to San Jose State University, and Hopkins came in 21st, having completed only one mission.