Jefferson’s Airplane: Student Club Pilots 5 Flights Over Florida

March 12, 2020 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

The third time was not a charm.

On March 1, members of the University of Virginia’s Hoos Flying Club team conducted the third and final test flight of the unmanned airplane they built, days before an international competition they had been preparing for all academic year.

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The team caravanned to Milton Airfield in Charlottesville, cars disgorging students and airplane components and boxes of tools and spare parts.

The students clustered around wooden tables at the Milton landing strip, affixing the wings to the fuselage, connecting the battery to the one-horsepower electric motor that drives the propeller.

Grace Vidlak, a second-year aerospace engineering major, lay underneath a section of the fuselage to adjust the tail section, while the wing team carefully slid the wings onto the metal tubes that supported them.

Group of students surround a small built plane taking pictures of it
Hoos Flying teammates photograph and admire the airplane before its first test flight on Milton Field.

Once it was assembled, pilot Charlie Tilney-Volk, a first-year mechanical engineering student from Portola Valley, California, taxied the plane, which has a 10-foot wingspan and a 1,000-watt, battery-powered motor, around the runway. A heavy cross wind kept shifting direction.

Tilney-Volk revved the engines and takeoff went smoothly. The plane performed three loops around the field. When it came in for a landing, Tilney-Volk, fighting the crosswinds, opted to try to land it on the grass. But as it touched down, the right rear wheel on the landing gear caught in the dirt and the plane stopped abruptly, folding like a pocket-knife.

Tilney-Volk is not a novice. He has been flying radio-controlled airplanes since his early teens – but not planes like this one. “I’m used to flying acrobatic planes, which are light and powerful,’ he said. “The controls are the same, but this plane is totally different from the planes I am used to.”

He likened it to shifting from flying a highly maneuverable fighter plane to a bomber, a large heavy structure that carries weight and has to be brought in gently.

The team examined the bent plane on the field, looking for clues to what had happened, and then carefully carried it back to the wooden table, each team member replaying the end of the flight through his or her head.

In discussion around the table, they decided that the plane’s fuselage needed to be better braced. And it did not discourage them as far as the upcoming competition was concerned.

“Considering what happens in a crash, this is pretty good,” Tilney-Volk said, noting that much of the machine was still intact.

This team does not spook at crashes.

Last year, one of the club’s planes crashed several days before their competition in Texas and Hoos Flying still finished third, and first among the U.S. teams. 

The Club House

The Hoos Flying Club, which has about 20 active members, is like a co-ed fraternity for highly focused engineers. Lacy Hall is their clubhouse, with tools and space they need to hatch their dreams.

Opened in 2013 with a gift from Linwood A. “Chip” Lacy Jr., a 1967 chemical engineering graduate and 1969 graduate of the Darden School of Business, and his wife, Connie, a 1966 graduate of the School of Nursing, Lacy Hall is designed to promote student-run projects and experiential learning.

The club, entirely run by students drawn from three engineering majors, is divided into teams, each responsible for an element of the airplane: wings, fuselage, tail assembly, landing gear, motor. The club is supported by the Lacy Fund, the Parents Fund, Traveling and Activity Funds, Leidos, Rolls-Royce, the School of Engineering and the School of Architecture.

Late last fall, aerospace engineering students clustered in small groups on the top floor of Lacy Hall, each group intent on a project.

Jack Shea, Cooper Dzema, Andrew Metro and Brandon Ghang looking at their plane on a table talking
Jack Shea, Cooper Dzema, Andrew Metro and Brandon Ghang discuss the fuselage structure during a work session in Lacy Hall.

Lanky, bespectacled Jack Shea, leader of the wing team, carefully sanded the wing structure, made of balsa wood with heavier birch ply at the stress points. Once the wing structures were ready, the students in the wing team covered them with blue MonoKote, a strong wrap heated with an iron to shrink it in place.

Last year, Shea was part of the propulsion team. “It’s all an educational experience,” he said.

The Society of Automotive Engineers Aero Design East International Competition, in which the club annually competes, sets the specifications for entries every three years; this spring was the first year of the new cycle.

The flying club, many members of which participated in last year’s competition, had to come up with a new design for a new objective. While last year the contest called for an airplane that could transport passengers represented by tennis balls, this year it had to be able to ferry a payload of an inflated soccer ball and several steel plates.

Club president Huy Tran, an aerospace engineering major from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), said the club was an ideal way for students to apply knowledge they learned from the classroom. “This way we are applying theory to a real product,” he said. “We have to make engineering decisions and deal with problems you don’t see until you actually work on it.

“For us, there are no grades,” Huy said. “People do it in their free time. … This is industrial experience.”

Haley Knowles is holding a small wooden component in a workshop
Haley Knowles works on a plane component during a work session in Lacy Hall.

Huy, one of four fourth-year students who will graduate off the team in May, wants to enter aircraft design and he may pursue a graduate degree. He said that degrees earned in the U.S. are highly valued, but he said that there is no airplane industry in Vietnam.

“I want to design rockets and airplanes for Mars,” he said.

Vidlak, who would like to work for NASA when she graduates, led the tail assembly team this year.

“There is a lot of camaraderie on the team,” she said. “We help one another, and that is something that is passed down from the older students to the younger ones. We are close-knit as a team and we have become friends; we spend time together and work together.”

“Our goal is to set a good milestone,” Huy said. “We are here to learn and study, and if we win that is fine, and if we don’t that is fine. If we finish anywhere in the top 10, that will be a success.”

First Flight

As Spring Break began March 5, the Hoos Flying Club took its radio-controlled airplane to Lakeland, Florida, to fly in this year’s East International Competition.

The three-day competition focused on technical details of the plane, how it compared with the contest specifications and how well it flew with a payload.

Ryan Keough holds the plane in place on the tarmac while giving a thumbs up to his team
Ryan Keough holds the plane in place, waiting for pilot Charlie Tilney-Volk to rev the propeller.

During the first flight on Saturday, the plane took off and flew well, but again was buffeted by cross winds as it came in for a landing. Tilney-Volk brought the plane around for another loop and another landing attempt. But on the approach, a gust of wind hit the plane; the left wing dropped and the plane lost altitude. Tilney-Volk almost recovered it, but there was too much force and the wing sheared off.

The plane crashed.

“It was heart-clenching to see something you have worked on shattered,” Vidlak said. “We put a ton of time and work into building it.”

Luckily, the team traveled to Florida with three airplanes, a stockpile of tools and spare parts. They salvaged the wreckage of the damaged plane, got out the spare plane and got back into the game.

“This team handles adversity well,” said George Cahen, an emeritus materials engineering professor and a team adviser. “There was no bickering. They work well together.”

Tilney-Volk said he was stressed out by the crash, but he was under a lot of pressure. Friday’s competition sessions had been devoted to technical presentations and the team leaders had 10 minutes to present the specifications of the airplane.

They ran four seconds overtime and were docked five points.

In the flight portion of the competition, the team had multiple flights and could select their top three. Now the first flight was a bust, garnering zero points.

The second flight of the day went well, but the landing gear was damaged when it came down, which also cost them points.

“On the third flight, I was nervous,” Tilney-Volk said. “The wind had already messed me up and so I decided to fly more aggressively. We had to take off within a hundred feet. I took off in about half that distance.”

That third flight of the day, in the second airplane of the day, was a success. Smooth take-off, smooth flight, smooth landing.

Still, the team would be scored on its top three flights and so far, the team had flown one “good” one.

Under Pressure

On Sunday, the team had to get in two perfect flights before the competition ended at noon. The team members got up early, made seemingly earlier by the onset of Daylight Savings Time. After deliberation, they increased the payload weight, from 13 pounds to 16 pounds, agreeing that it would be too much of a risk to go to the maximum of 18 pounds.

“There was a lot of frustration and pressure,” Tilney-Volk said. “We’d been docked points on little things and the flights were worth 20 points.”

The two Sunday flights were good and solid, with the wind having died down some from the previous day. The plane bounced a little on one of the landings, but there were no infractions because it landed and nothing fell off.

“I was stressed every flight because I knew it was important,” Tilney-Volk said. “But the whole team encouraged me. They were not worried about me. They are awesome.”

“Charlie was fantastic,” Cahen said. “Watching those planes fly, he truly had one of the most stable flights. If they were giving points for style, we would have been a top-three plane.”

The Hoos Flying Club finished sixth among all the competitors in the flying portion of the competition, and third for flying among the U.S. teams. UVA placed sixth overall among more than 30 teams and third among the U.S. teams.

Orange, blue, and white plane flying in the air
The earliest version of the battery-powered plane soars over Milton Field.

“I’m disappointed, but we achieved what we wanted,” Tilney-Volk said. “We did pretty darn well this year and that has left us in a good place for next year.”

“We did better than expected on flight, but not as well on the technical stuff,” Huy said. “I’m satisfied with what we did. This is a young team and they did great. They have two more years with these contest standards and they have energy and enthusiasm.”

In the Beginning

Perhaps the best moment the team experienced this year happened outside of the competition altogether.

Cooper Dzema, Ryan Keough, Jack Shea, Andrew Metro and Grace Vidlak carry a orange, blue, and white plane
Cooper Dzema, Ryan Keough, Jack Shea, Andrew Metro and Grace Vidlak gently carry the airplane to the runway at Milton Field.

In December, the flying club arrived at Milton Airfield for the plane’s first test flight. Once the plane was assembled, several team members gently carried it on to the macadam section of the landing strip, underneath a cold, bright, winter sun. The team advisers had already marked out the runway, setting out orange cones. The plane had 90 feet to take off.

 Two drones were flying around the field, chasing each other, sounding like loud, angry hornets, while higher in the sky, several buzzards floated on the breeze, wings outstretched to catch updrafts.

Ryan Keough, a second-year aerospace engineering major from Richmond, held the plane in place while Tilney-Volk performed a throttle check and several team members agreed that it sounded correct. As Tilney-Volk got revved the throttle, getting the propeller to a certain speed, Keough released the plane, which sped down the runway and was airborne.

After a little over two minutes of circling the airfield, Tilney-Volk brought it in for a smooth landing.

Ryan Keough and Andrew Metro hug in mid-air and Jack Shea, left, and Grace Vidlak run onto the field after a successful flight of their plane
Ryan Keough and Andrew Metro hug in mid-air after the first successful flight while Jack Shea, left, and Grace Vidlak run onto the field.

The team members, who lined one side of the airfield, tense, breathing shallowly while the plane was aloft, suddenly let loose with whoops and shouts and they raced onto the field, high-fiving each other and hugging and jumping in the air. 

“You don’t expect much on the first flight,” Huy said.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications