Archive for Saturday, August 17, 1991


August 17, 1991


Real-life television scenes of astronauts walking in space.

The Persian Gulf military briefings showing the pinpoint accuracy of Stealth bombers.

And even movies like "The Rocketeer" blasting off at theaters.

These images all help fuel the desire of many young people to go into the field of aerospace engineering where they, too, can learn how to make things fly.

"Our students have a fascination with it, which helps them to perform well," said David Downing, professor and chairman of Kansas University's department of aerospace engineering and flight research laboratory. "Those that stick it out to graduation have been fascinated by things that fly for a long, long time."

Downing, who came to KU after working 11 years for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said most of his colleagues feel the same way.

"THE VAST majority of people who practice in our field just love what we're doing," says Downing. "We really are, somewhat, fanatics."

That's evidenced by looking around in Downing's office in Kansas University's Learned Hall, where models of different aircraft accompany aviation texts.

"Aerospace is kind of a glamorous field, even if people don't understand what it is," he said. "It's pretty easy to get excited about it. The difference comes in after the students arrive here and they find out that in addition to being glamorous, it's a pretty demanding program, with regard to the math and science that's required."

The department has about 270 undergraduates and 40 graduate students.

"Probably about half of our students are interested in airplanes and the other half are interested in space applications," he said.

He said the department experienced an enrollment surge two years ago. Because there is a larger number of undergraduates now than it would like, the department has been given permission to impose an enrollment limit, starting in the fall.

DOWNING IS now in the process of upgrading a 10-year-old text used in an introductory aerospace course, which is an overview of the profession and some of the technology.

"One of the objectives is that when they leave that course they'll really understand what's expected of them for the rest of their four years," he said. "We're hoping it will be of use in similar courses at other schools."

The department has added a 10th faculty member, Ray Tagavi, who came on board in July from NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

"Being a small department, the addition of one more member has a tremendous impact on what we can do," Downing said. Tagavi will teach in the area of fluid dynamics, which is the science of being able to predict the behavior of fluids (or air) over surfaces.

THE PERSIAN Gulf War taught those involved in aerospace engineering that preparation and investment are important, Downing said.

"The airplanes that were used, except for the Stealth airplane, had all been designed and initially developed back in the 1970s," he said. "Without that kind of investment at that time, then we would have not been able to pursue the gulf war like we did, successfully."

The war also demonstrated the performance capability of the F-117 Stealth bomber, of which little information previously was available because of secrecy surrounding its development.

"I think we were all amazed, even those involved in the industry, at the accuracies that were achieved, both with the cruise missiles and with the smart bombs, the laser-guided bombs," he said. "The experience from the gulf war showed that the high technology really does have payoffs. And hopefully that will be evident to more people than just those of us in the industry."

HISTORICALLY, most of the advances in aeronautics have been funded primarily through the Defense Department. And as technology is more refined, it is picked up for commercial use, he said.

The government subsidizes the aerospace industry through the military and through NASA funding, he said.

Currently, the industry is in a state of transition, so graduates will have more trouble finding jobs, he said.

"We tend to go through cycles," he said. "Probably 20 years ago, a lot of them went to Wichita and worked for Cessna and Beech and Learjet companies."

But there has been a recession in that industry, and many graduates had been going to work for defense contractors, such as General Dynamics, Lockheed and McDonald-Douglas.

"THESE DAYS, most of our students are going back to the commercial end of things," he said. "So we've placed a lot of students recently at Boeing in Seattle."

Downing said that during the next year, the commercial side will be the most active for graduates.

Boeing is in the process of trying to produce a new commercial airliner, he said.

"We also see an upturn in the activity in Wichita," he said. "Cessna and Beech are both starting to hire again, producing primarily their larger model airplanes."

He said he hopes to place students studying astronautics, or the space side of aerospace, either with NASA or with one of NASA's contractors. The outlook for NASA funding is uncertain, because a long-range commitment is needed, he said.

WITH THE JOB market being down and cuts being made in the industry, many parents tend to steer their children away from aerospace careers, he said.

"But we will always have a cadre of people who just love airplanes and will do it irrespective of what the opportunities are going to be," he said. "Normally the best time to come into our field is when it's a downtime. It will take four to five years to graduate. And by the time you graduate, it will be an uptime. So the opportunities are probably the best."

In the future, the aerospace engineering field probably will see more refinements than major breakthroughs, he said.

"I think the big strides in the future, at least on the commercial end, are not that we're going to fly faster, but we're going to fly more economically," he said. "There is hope we will be able to develop a supersonic transport."

DOWNING SAYS that aerospace engineering is still far away from some science fiction ideas of being able to travel George Jetson-style to the office in your own personal flying car.

"We've been dreaming those dreams for a long time," he said. "We would like to produce a small airplane that does not require the expertise that is required now."

He said one of his department's faculty members, Jan Roskam, had a group of aerospace engineering and electrical engineering graduate students look at the application of electronics that would make such an idea more feasible.

"That would allow an individual to almost treat the airplane as you would a car," he said. "You would have to be able to fly anytime you want anywhere you want in all weather for it to be a useful business tool. And to do that now requires a lot of training. . . . That would be a quantum leap for light airplanes."

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