Kings of the US airspace on the way to their next mission

They are the most decorated team in the history of the SAE Aero Design competition. They have won so many awards that they cannot tell the number themselves. Meet students of the Warsaw University of Technology who know aircraft design and construction in and out.

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Last year at the Florida competition, source: SAE AeroDesign Warszawa

It is quite untypical for a student research group to start working on a project already during the summer break rather than in October when the academic year starts. But this is how they do it at the SAE AeroDesign Inter-Faculty Student Research Group operating at the WUT Faculty of Power and Aeronautical Engineering. The aim is to have the structures ready in early spring for the next international competition for aircraft designers.

This year, SAE Aero Design will be held 6 through 8 April in Van Nuys, California. Our students are setting off to the US one and a half week earlier, on March 27. They will add the final touches and do the testing already on site.

They will compete in all three Classes: Micro, Regular and Advanced, which means that they have three aircraft prepared for the competition. Each of them must meet certain specific requirements. An additional challenge is an annual update to the rules for one of the Classes.

Aircraft 1: a complete novelty

This year we have a new set of rules for Micro Class, where the main requirement is that the structure is collapsible and has precise dimensions.

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A prototype of a micro airplane made of fiberglass, source: SAE AeroDesign Warszawa

“Previously, the aircraft had to be smaller and able to carry the largest possible payload,” explains Jakub Kazimierowski. “This year, the promoters have decided that the aircraft must carry a low-density payload, PVC pipes.” The aircraft system container is no longer a tube of a predetermined diameter but a cardboard box. This limits the maximum dimensions of both the payload and the aircraft itself. All must fit in that box after folding.

The WUT students have built a completely new aircraft. It looks similar to the last year’s one at first sight, but the wingspan is wider and the aircraft is longer and, above all, it is designed to meet the exercise specifications. “The last year’s structure was used for preliminary flight testing, to check the aerodynamics and how the aircraft operates with the full payload on board,” explains Jakub.

Aircraft 2: 14 cm too many

“For Regular Class, there is now a requirement for the maximum wingspan, which messed up our plans a bit,” says Urszula Gołyska. “Last year, we came first in that Class and by a wide margin. But after that modification was announced, it turned out our wingspan was 14 cm too wide and we had to redesign our aircraft. I do not know how much I can reveal… Let me just add that we have changed the arrangement of the tennis balls which play the role of aircraft passengers.”

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Source: SAE AeroDesign Warszawa

The challenge in this Class is that fiber-reinforced composite materials are prohibited. “The materials we use to build the aircraft are not that modern so the design must be a great deal more rigorous,” says Urszula.

Aircraft 3: ambition

Modifications to the work on the Advance Class aircraft are not an effect of alignment with the imposed requirements but a decision of our students. “So far, we have always relied on a super platform, but the drop system would tend to fail,” explains Oskar Kwitek. “And the rules include accurate dropping of humanitarian aid packages. We have always had some problems with the software, mainly because we are designers and not software developers. This year, one of us in the group has decided to learn more about software development and has created a reliable and consistent drop system.

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Lamination of the Advanced aircraft girder, source: SAE AeroDesign Warszawa

Plane dreaming

Our students can talk about aircraft for hours on end but their knowledge on the subject is truly impressive. No wonder. First, they spend long months preparing the best possible designs and then, two months before the competition on average, they focus on the very construction process. Then, they sit up in their workshop for 14 hours a day.

“Do you happen to dream about aircraft?” I ask.

“Yes, we do, unfortunately,” laughs Urszula.

“If we can find the time to get some sleep, anyway…” admits Oskar.

“Those are dreams or nightmares?”

“Nightmares would be a better word,” says Oskar. “I dream about those critical moments that can happen when aircraft is under construction. That something goes wrong and it has to be done again, and those are often very time-consuming and labor-intensive elements.”

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Test flights at the Babice airport, source: SAE AeroDesign Warszawa

Fresh mind rules

The sight of self-made aircraft on the runway is a reward for all the sweat and toil. The event is prestigious and the competition is tight. But, importantly, it is 100% fair play.

“There is a clear top in every year’s competition, some five teams in each Class that compete shoulder-to-shoulder,” says Ula.

“We do not compete against any other team,” adds Oskar. “We find motivation in ourselves. We try to keep improving things and approach each new competition as if it was our first, with a fresh mind. Otherwise, it would get boring and our group would lose the reason for its existence. We like the other teams and we have known each other for years and we help each other out if necessary.”

“Last year, we had problems starting the engine on the runway during one round and some US team rushed to us with their starter unit and helped us get going,” says Jakub.

This year, the following individuals will represent the Warsaw University of Technology at SAE Aero Design: Oskar Kwitek, Urszula Gołyska, Tomasz Gromski, Piotr Pacuszka, Kamil Molenda, Jakub Kazimierowski, Tomasz Raczkowski, Michał Nowowiejski, Daniel Pyś, Weronika Stolarczyk, Michał Modzelewski and Marcin Janoszuk.

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