Cal Poly's aerospace program took off during the early years of aviation

Aeronautics students work in a campus hangar in an undated photo from Cal Poly archives.
Aeronautics students work in a campus hangar in an undated photo from Cal Poly archives.

A year after Cal Poly’s aeronautics program began in 1927 in conjunction with the automotive department to teach students about maintaining and repairing aircraft, students built a plane from scratch — a six-passenger plane patterned after the Spirit of St. Louis flown by Charles Lindbergh.

Seven years later, in 1935, aeronautics students helped Amelia Earhart repair her Boeing aircraft, “as an example of the quality and fame of the program,” Cal Poly professor emeritus Russell M. Cummings wrote in a 75-year campus historical perspective on the program.

Now 87 years later, the program’s students and alumni continue to reach new heights, doing everything from designing commercial and military jets to creating small satellites that are launched into outer space to piloting some of the most daring aircraft ever flown.

From the university’s early days when mechanics was an emphasis, a strong tradition of aircraft education has continued over the decades at Cal Poly, whose aerospace program now offers astronautic (space-related) and aeronautic (aircraft-related) concentrations. The program was ranked fourth in the nation in the latest U.S. News and World Report list of the top university aerospace programs that don’t offer doctorate degrees.

And graduates have gone on to accomplish groundbreaking work for some of the nation’s most prominent companies in the industry — Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to name a few.

The program has also placed grads in prominent positions with younger companies working in the cutting-edge industry of private space tourism.

The two pilots involved in a Virgin Galactic test flight crash last month, 39-year-old Michael Tyner Alsbury and 43-year-old Peter Siebold, both graduated from Cal Poly’s aerospace engineering program.

Alsbury died in the crash. Siebold parachuted to safety but was hospitalized. “Both men have made Cal Poly proud working at the leading edge of their industry,” Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said after the incident.

Keeping pace with the industry

As the industry changes and evolves, Cal Poly strives to keep up with developing trends and seeks input from leaders in the industry on how best to shape curriculum.

Its aerospace engineering advisory board is made up of 17 industry representatives such as James Freitas, fleet support chief at Boeing Commercial Airplanes; Roman Fry, manager of structures and antenna systems, space vehicle and deployables at Northrop Grumman Aerospace; and Kenneth Schroeder, senior manager of aerodynamics and fluids at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.

Students have designed and created their own unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, and a team is currently tinkering with a sophisticated small-scale helicopter that could be used for a variety of flight missions. Their work applies to a growth area in the use of unmanned aircraft for private and government applications.

Cal Poly’s CubeSat program has prompted several other universities to follow its lead in developing miniature satellites. Satellite technology has industry applications for cell phone, television, and Internet devices.

Additionally, the university’s aeronautics research has included examining ways that commercial aircraft might operate more quietly and use shorter takeoffs and landings to improve air travel.

In short, its aerospace program is involved in dozens of innovative projects related to growing trends.

“When Cal Poly students come to work for us, they hit the ground running,” said David Bernstein, senior vice president for Space Systems/Loral, a Palo Alto-based provider of geostationary commercial satellites. “What’s built today is different than what’s built five years ago. Cal Poly students keep on learning, and they know how to keep themselves abreast of what’s going on and moving forward.”

A unique history

The Cal Poly program has a long history because of the university’s initial emphasis on vocational training.

In the 1920s, the program aimed to teach students about the maintenance and repair of airplanes and their engines. By the 1930s, it had expanded to include a wide variety of aeronautics subjects, including fabrication, propulsion and aerodynamics labs.

The notable “GlenMont” plane, which combined the names of faculty members H. Glen Warren and John Montigo, is believed to be the first airplane built by students in the nation. About 30 students helped develop the plane, which successfully flew in March 1928.

Its design and construction occurred just 25 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, and 18 years after a historic photo documented an image of a plane flying over San Luis Obispo in 1910.

“It’s impressive that they were able to build an engine from scratch, let alone a (full-scale) plane,” said Aaron Drake, a Cal Poly aerospace professor who specializes in aeronautics. Before World War II, Cal Poly aeronautics faculty provided flight training for 118 pilots, including 32 who enlisted in the armed forces, according to an article by campus historian M. Eugene Smith.

By the 1970s, Cal Poly was launching booster rockets from the same field where the group built the 1928 aircraft.

Cal Poly added the astronautics program in 1999-2000. After decades of focus on the study, design and manufacturing of airflight-capable machines below the Earth’s atmosphere, students now are able to concentrate on missions above that boundary. The concentration includes courses in spacecraft propulsion systems, space systems, and orbital mechanics among others.

In all, the aerospace major enrolls about 400 students. And it has graduated some prominent names in the industry — Burt Rutan among the most renowned. Rutan, who graduated from Cal Poly in 1965, was a pioneer in the development of light, strong, energy-efficient aircraft construction and designed the Voyager — the first plane to orbit the earth without a pit stop or refueling.

Rutan also helped design the privately operated SpaceShipOne project that sent a rocket ship to space twice in a two-week period, a joint venture with Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.

In a 2010 interview with the online forum “BigThink,” Rutan said working toward the viability of privately operated space travel will offer unprecedented, high-volume public access. “It’s important to do that and to do it as soon as possible,” Rutan said. “That will breed the investment to go out and solve the other problems, so that people can afford to go to that resort hotel on orbit in the earth and take that shore excursion, which is a trip to swing around the moon and then back.”

A project-based approach

Gus Samios, a senior who concentrates in aeronautics, said that in virtually every class that he has taken, a final project is assigned, which he appreciated more than just learning theory.

Samios said projects are typically done among teams of students, similar to how other engineering projects at Cal Poly work and how the real working world functions, and provide the hands-on training that will correlate with his future profession.

In his senior design class, Samios and other students are working on design versions of a C-5 military transport jet.

Each year, seniors in aeronautics alternate between designing a commercial or military plane — culminating in a presentation to industry professionals who critique their work. “We’ve had students present to Northrop Grumman, JPL, Boeing, the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base,” Samios said. “Some Cal Poly students have been hired on the spot for their presentations. We’re getting practice and exposure. Hopefully, from their perspective, we’re future employees.” Morgan Yost, a senior who concentrates in astronautical engineering and one of the few women in the program, recalled her first-year experience of having to fashion a miniature rocket from a Pringle potato chip can, which they launched from a sling shot in an attempt to keep a payload of eggs from breaking.

“Basically, we didn’t know anything at that point, and they told us ‘OK, go build a rocket,’” Yost said. “… I knew I wanted to do some sort of engineering. Others sounded boring. Aerospace seemed really cool.”

Eric Mehiel, the aerospace department chair, said that the innovative work being accomplished at Cal Poly includes work on unmanned aerial vehicles, space environments and orbital debris, aerodynamics, deploying small satellites from rockets in outer space, and autopiloting.

“We feel we’re developing a program that’s unique and competitive with any top-notch school in the country,” Mehiel said.

He cited Cal Poly’s CubeSat program in particular as one area of focus that has set Cal Poly apart.

Begun in 2000 by Cal Poly aerospace professor Jordi Puig-Suari, in collaboration with Stanford University, the CubeSat program has launched several mini-satellites into orbit by attaching them to rockets.

The small size and design of the deployer, which acts like a jack-in-the-box with springs that eject satellites from the capsules while in space, are now used by dozens of universities and organizations.

“If you want to work on CubeSats, this is the place to do it,” Mehiel said.

Another fascinating device that students can work on is a $200,000 remote-controlled helicopter, with a 10-foot rotor span and a 75-pound cargo capacity, donated to the university by Northrop Grumman in 2009. The plane was originally designed for crop-dusting purposes.

The chopper can be programmed as a drone or operated manually by remote control. Currently, a team of aerospace students — Brandon Barry, Max Heald and Eric Belfield — are working to gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the planes in the airspace around Cal Poly, led by Drake, who has specialized in unmanned aerial vehicle research in the industry, including 11 years at Northrop Grumman.

“This (unmanned aerial vehicle) can be used for a variety of purposes, and we’ll be working with other departments at Cal Poly to determine applications,” Heald said.

They hope to get it operational by the end of this quarter in December. “Eventually we’ll have live data streaming, and be able to get readings on RPMs, pressure, altitude and temperature,” Barry said.

Drake said conversations already have taken place with teams from other disciplines, such as Cal Poly’s agriculture and biology programs, to determine what applications they might collaborate on. The experience that students gain can be very attractive to companies.

“Companies are increasingly interested in UAVs, and there are a multitude of applications,” Drake said. “If someone has gone through the FAA application process for flight approval, and they understand the paperwork and bureaucracy, that can make them very attractive to industry.”

Where Cal Poly ranks:

Cal Poly’s aerospace engineering program ranks No. 4 in the nation among university programs where no doctorate is offered: 1. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University 2. United States Air Force Academy 3. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Prescott 4. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo Source: 2014 U.S. News and World Report

Notable Cal Poly aerospace grads:

  • Burt Rutan (1965): Designed the record-breaking Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling, and SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded spacecraft to go into space twice in a two-week period.
  • Robert “Hoot” Gibson (1969): Retired captain and aviator in the U.S. Navy and retired NASA astronaut. Flew five space shuttle missions with NASA from 1984 to 1995; served as chief of the NASA Astronaut Office from December 1992 to September 1994, the most senior leadership position for active astronauts.
  • Bob Wulf (1963): Former Northrop Grumman engineer, who was chief engineer during the development and flight testing of the B-2 Stealth Bomber — which he worked on from scratch in 1978 to delivery to the U.S. Air Force in 1993.
  • Beth Anderson (1985): Vice president of supply chain rate capability for Commercial Airplanes Supplier Management at Boeing Commercial Airlines; active member of Cal Poly’s President’s Cabinet. Paul Martin (1968): Principle and member of the board/managing director-aerospace for Oxford Performance Materials.