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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Editor’s Notebook

By Ernie Stephens

Wake Up and Smell the Calculus

The American Helicopter Association held its annual convention in Dallas this past May. And since the word "helicopter" is part of its name, someone from Rotor & Wing was going to be there to dig up the news, report the happenings and visit with readers and potential readers walking past our booth in the exhibition hall. And since I have never attended an AHS convention, I decided to go.

Like many of the other conventions and expos I have gone to, it was well attended by its organization members, as well as vendors who deal in helicopter stuff. There weren’t a lot of helicopters on static display at this particular gathering, but other than that, it looked about normal — at least until I went to one of the first educational sessions.

"There’s something about the mind of an aerospace engineer...."

You see, members of AHS are, by and large, aerospace engineers who specialize in rotorcraft design. And I’m not talking about "regular" engineers, either. I’m talking about the kinds of people who can do calculus in their heads, "guesstimate" the area under a parabola, and accurately predict wing loading tolerances down to seven decimal places. There were very few pilots or operators in the building, but the place was wall-to-wall with the men and women who spend their days deciding that the main rotor blade on your helicopter will work best if it has a 7.8888-degree negative twist instead of a 7.9-degree negative twist. These are the folks who decided exactly where the infamous flight envelope is.

The range of engineers was impressive. There were 70-year olds with doctorate degrees from M.I.T. and third-year undergrads trying to turn weird contraptions into practical flying machines. I saw some designs and working models that could only have come from the mind of a sheer genius or a certifiable nut. One in particular held me spellbound.

Have you ever seen the seed from an oak tree — that little pod with one feather-shaped leaf that makes it spin to the ground like a helicopter? Well, a University of Maryland student decided nature’s design for a one-blade helicopter could be made by man. He wasn’t the first person to think that. When I was studying aerodynamics, I saw a design from the 1950s (if I recall correctly) for a single-bladed helicopter. The working model was virtually uncontrollable and shook the contraption apart. But this young Maryland doctoral candidate built a composite version of nature’s single-rotor helicopter, stuck a tail rotor on the part that would be the seed pod, and flew it around the exhibition hall via remote control with a surprising degree of precision.

There’s something about the mind of an aerospace engineer, especially the young ones, who not only reject the notion that something can’t be done, but who have the newest materials and computers at their fingertips to do what was once labeled "impossible."

The most impressive computers at the convention were not the kind you can build from a bag of semiconductors and printed circuit boards. The computers I’m talking about were the minds of some of the youngest aeronautical science students there. Those 20-something year olds stared intently at tail rotor configurations, planetary gears and piezoelectric components; all in an effort to weigh what the state-of-the-art was and, from the look in their eyes, trying to find a new and better way to accomplish the same functions. I swear, you could almost hear the wheels turning in their heads!

The thing that impressed me the most was watching the interaction between AHS’ members. Engineers from Company X shared new testing procedures with engineers from Company Y, and researchers from University A explained the findings of their tests to the researchers from University B. All were willing and eager to share whatever non-proprietary knowledge they had gained in their respective laboratories and workshops in the form of technical papers and hand-scribbled drawings on the backs of business cards. Even students enjoyed a certain amount of notoriety for their classroom discoveries and notions.

Best of all, many of the engineers that I had the pleasure of meeting were far from the stereotypical Dr. Frankensteins the rest of the world thinks they are. Granted, their idea of a good joke begins with, "How many thermal physicists does it take to change a light bulb?" But otherwise, they were regular, down-to-earth men and women who have a passion for what they do. They understand that it isn’t just about building a better helicopter. It’s about building a better future for helicopters.

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