Engineers take to the skies for capstone project

As the semester comes to an end, seniors are frantically working to finish their capstone projects. These projects are intended to reflect the culmination of their college education. The WAZZU SkyCougs, a team of mechanical engineers, wrapped up their project in Fort Worth, Texas at the Society of American Engineers Aero Design competition.

Nicholas Rains led the team consisting of Cristian Compton, Artyom Klochkov and Nicholas Saunders. The VanCougar first featured the aeronautical exploits of the group in February. Since then, the team has been busily working on making the final parts, balancing and optimizing the plane and of course, finalizing the cosmetics “to make sure that she looked good,” said Rains.

The team members definitely felt pressed to complete the aircraft on time. The decision to use carbon fiber as a building material meant that building parts was far more difficult than if the team had used conventional balsa wood. A few of the parts had to be remade multiple times. When asked if there was anything that they would go back and change, Rains said “Perhaps make the plane out of balsa! While composites are amazing to work with, the learning curve was so steep that it consumed a huge amount of time in both prototyping and final construction.” Composites can take up to a week to cure and can only be taken out of their molds after 24 hours whereas balsa wood can be used immediately.

The team received very little sponsorship and not all four members were able to attend the competition. Compton recommends to future students who may take on such projects to “seek sponsorship early.” According to Compton, “the school is not going to help you. Look for both material and cash donations.”

Rains explained the team’s preparation for the competition as “not being ready, but being ready enough.” The team intentionally arrived at the competition as early as possible to avoid feeling overwhelmed by watching other planes fly first. The group said the event was buzzing with energy and excitement, as many teams were working to put theoretical engineering into practice.

The team did a lot of research to make sure the plane was designed within competition specifications. The judges performed a technical inspection for safety and to ensure that it conformed to the technical design that they had originally submitted as alterations would incur penalties for the team. Two small discrepancies were found but were easily remedied.

Arriving early allowed the team to be the second to compete. Although the plane before theirs flew successfully, it was very unstable. Prior to the competition, the team only had time for three test flights with limited loading. “There were more unknowns than knowns. [I wondered] would she fly?” Rains said.

At the competition, a professional remote control pilot flew the plane. After providing the pilot some information about landing, she was off! For the first five flights, there was no damage to the plane. “Even with the high speeds at landing, the plane never had any issues. The carbon fiber really proved its worth in this regard,” Rains said.

Between flights the team would examine the plane and complete a checklist to make sure that each component was ready for the next flight. When the plane successfully flew with 2.6 pounds of payload for a total loaded weight of 3.8 pounds, the team was excited to step it up a notch.

On the sixth flight, the payload was increased to the maximum of 3.5 pounds for a total loaded weight of 4.7 pounds. Although the plane launched well, the right wingtip stalled as the pilot was trying to counter a slight roll to the left. As a result, the plane crashed hard. “At 30 mph and 4.7 pounds weight, that’s a lot of momentum,” Rains said. “The energy from this crash broke the carbon fiber nose and tail of the fuselage. These areas had been lightened significantly by removing material and so it was no surprise the plane failed at these locations.”

The plane crashed on its last scheduled flight. Despite the crash, the team was impressed with the aircraft’s performance. When asked how he felt about the performance, Rains said “Not shocked – relieved.”

The WAZZU SkyCougs competed against 24 other teams in their design class. Overall, they placed fifth. The team said this accomplishment was even more impressive considering the schools who placed above them such as Georgia Tech and the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas have dedicated aerodynamics programs. They received the high score for their 2D drawing and placed second for their presentation. They also placed fifth both for most payload carried and for payload fraction.

Next year, another team from WSU Vancouver may liftoff on the same project. Rains recommended to “start building early… [and to] have a trained pilot fly the plane. Doing so takes a lot of pressure off of the team for this and allows the engineers [to] be engineers. Leave the flying to the pros.”

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