AIAA Tours Skunk Works, Spring 2012
University of Michigan AIAA Students Embark on “Aerospace Engineer’s Dream Tour”
During Spring Break 2012, the University of Michigan (U-M) branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA) had 16 aerospace engineering students embark on an epic journey around Southern California to tour some of the most impressive aerospace facilities in the world. The trip was an extremely valuable professional development tool that gave the students a thorough understanding of the significant breadth and depth of the aerospace industry.
The trip masterminds were current AIAA President Steve Harris (BSAE ’12), former AIAA President and current Lockheed Martin employee Ben Marchionna (BSAE ’11), and former AIAA VP and current Edwards AFB employee Erik Larson (BSAE ’11). Drawing from the extensive network of the U-M AIAA, the trio set up a packed schedule that included tours of Boeing in Long Beach, NASA JPL, Northrop Grumman in El Segundo, SpaceX, the Lockheed Martin “Skunk Works”, Scaled Composites, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and Edwards AFB. The trip was ultimately made possible through the strong support of the College of Engineering and Professor Dan Inman, the Chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering.
Starting the week off was a tour of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena! JPL’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions and operates NASA’s Deep Space Network. Students saw the engineering model of the Mars Science Lab (MSL – pictured below). The actual MSL rover called “Curiosity” is in-transit to the surface of Mars, with an expected landing date of August 6, 2012. Its primary mission is to determine whether Mars is or has ever been able to support life. The picture below shows a technician using an iHandy app on his iPhone to check the inclination of the model! Tour stops also included mission control, the electric propulsion thrusters, and one of the many vacuum chambers.
Next stop was the Boeing plant in Long Beach, home of the C-17 Globemaster III production line. The C-17 is a large military transport aircraft with a unit cost north of $200M. It is 174-ft long, has a wingspan of 170-ft, and can carry 171,000-lb of payload with a maximum takeoff weight of nearly 600,000-lbs! The C-17 program manager, Bob Ciesla, personally toured the students around the large facility.
Many of the evenings were spent networking with recent U-M alumni that now work for the above-mentioned companies. The group went out with a number of U-M alum/SpaceX employees on Monday night, which turned out to be a great segue into the tour on Tuesday.
The first half of Tuesday involved a tour of Northrop Grumman in El Segundo. This is the home of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F/A-18G Growler. As the principal subcontractor to the program prime Boeing, Northrop Grumman is responsible for the design and production of the shipset – the center/aft fuselage section, twin vertical tails, and all associated subsystems. The Super Hornet is a twin-engine carrier-based multirole fighter aircraft with a 20mm internal Gatling gun and air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. Each aircraft costs $55M, can fly at Mach 1.8+, has a range of 1,275 nautical miles, and a service ceiling of 50,000-ft. After touring the production line, the group went through the Composites Lab to see the future of aerospace materials. Barnaby Wainfan, the NG Technical Fellow for Aerodynamics and a U-M Aero Adjunct Professor, joined in for the tour and gave the students a thorough technical background on the aircraft and lab.
The afternoon was filled with an exclusive tour of SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies) in Hawthorne. This is the company founded in 2002 by PayPal and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk. It has developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 space boosters, both of which are built with a goal of becoming reusable launch vehicles. SpaceX is also developing the Dragon spacecraft to be flown into orbit by Falcon 9 launch vehicles. It is the first privately-funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft. Students explored the production area (see picture below), peeked heads into the Dragon capsule mockup, watched mission control during a test run for an upcoming launch, and ate free frozen yogurt that the employees enjoy every day at the expense of a bet that Elon Musk lost. The Iron Man movie was also filmed here! Kiko Dontchev, a U-M alum and SpaceX employee, was immensely helpful in setting up this one-of-a-kind tour and networking the night before.
On Tuesday night, the group drove up to Valencia to have a big, family-style Italian dinner at Buca di Beppo with some more U-M alumni in the area before heading across the mountains and into the desert to check-in to the next hotel in preparation for the remaining tours.
When the sun made its way over the desert horizon on Wednesday morning, the group was at the gates of the Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs, known as the “Skunk Works”. The Skunk Works is the legendary and highly-secretive aircraft design division of Lockheed Martin, known for a number of famous aircraft including the F-104 Starfighter, U-2 Dragon Lady, SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning II. Ben Marchionna, the former U-M AIAA President and current Skunk Works employee, played the role of tour guide for the day. The tour began with an overview of the Skunk Works and a discussion on “What the Industry Expects of New Graduates” from Lee Nicolai, the LM Fellow for Aircraft Design and a U-M aero alum. Next, they visited the Flight Simulation labs and saw the brand-new X-56A aeroelastic testbed that will be investigating active control of flutter effects. Everyone had a chance to sit in the cockpit of the X-35 simulator, where all of the training for the predecessor to the F-35 was done. Students were also able to get up-close-and-personal with the F-22 Raptor in the special modifications area. The P-791 Hybrid Air Vehicle was the next stop. A highly-innovative, multi-mission capable airship, it uses both hydrostatic and aerodynamic lift to operate and has an air cushion landing system that allows it to launch and land easily in open fields, parking lots, or even water. The last stop at the Skunk Works was the X-55A, or Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA). Here, the group was able to examine the interior of the X-plane and see the advanced composite skin that makes up its fuselage with all of the experimental instrumentation still hooked up.
Following the Skunk Works, everybody jumped into the vans and drove even further into the desert to visit Scaled Composites in Mojave. Known simply as Scaled, it was founded by Burt Rutan to develop experimental aircraft, but now focuses on designing and developing concept craft and prototype fabrication processes for aircraft and other vehicles. It is known for unconventional designs, its use of composite materials, and for winning the Ansari X Prize. The tour began with a presentation from the VP Engineering and the tour allowed everyone to stick their heads inside SpaceShipOne, White Knight Two, SpaceShipTwo, and Proteus, among other things. Most exciting of all, they all got to personally fly the SpaceShipTwo flight simulator from booster ignition to the edge of space and back to a landing in Mojave!
On their way to the beach on Thursday, they stopped by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR) for a tour in the morning. PWR designs and produces rocket engines that use liquid propellants. Vehicles that use PWR rockets include the Saturn I, Delta IV, Atlas V, Titan, Space Shuttle, and X-51 hypersonic demonstrator. The F-1 rocket engine that was one of five that powered the Saturn V to the moon and the Space Shuttle main engines were particular highlights on the tour, which also included a thorough demonstration of the manufacturing facilities.
Having completed seven tours with just one to go on Friday, it was time to go to the beach! They headed down to Santa Monica and did some shopping in the Third Street Promenade before getting a delicious lunch at a local Asian fusion restaurant. Afterwards, they hit up Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach for a very relaxing afternoon. To top it off, they stopped by Hollywood Blvd on the way back, grabbed some Hard Rock Café, and enjoyed the hot tub at the hotel.
Friday arrived – the last day of touring – and boy, was it a good one! Driving back into the desert, the vans headed for Edwards AFB, often described as “God’s Gift to the US Air Force”. Edwards is home to the 412th Test Wing, the USAF Test Pilot School, and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. Almost every US military aircraft since the 1950s has been at least partially tested at Edwards and it has been the site of many aviation breakthroughs. Coming over the desert towards the Edwards security gate, the van blasted “Ride of the Valkyries”, which was a fitting choice for the tour that ensued. After going through the instrumentation engineering facilities and getting directly underneath a B-1 bomber, they were sitting in a conference room listening to a briefing on the F-35 JSF over lunch. All of a sudden, there was a loud BANG and the room shook – they had just experienced their first sonic boom (a regular happening at Edwards)! In the afternoon, they learned about the RQ-4 Global Hawk and were shown the vibrational modes of the wing as they moved the wingtips up and down. Then, they spent some time with the F-16 Fighting Falcons and touched some of the many dummy bombs used for testing in armament engineering. The day concluded with two F-22 Raptors taxiing and taking off right in front of them and a rare sighting of the F-35 sitting on the ramp. It was a fitting end to an epic week that included the most exclusive tours and complicated logistics of perhaps all student organizations!