Aerospace Engineering for Future Pilots
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Episode Show Notes
Studying engineering might help you in your future career, especially if that future is in the Air Force. Today’s guest is a pilot who studied aerospace engineering for an undergraduate degree, and he explains how that education is still helping him now even as he learns to fly jets. He also gives ideas for what motivates students to learn about aerospace engineering, even if the content can sometimes be difficult.
Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.
Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Aerospace Engineering for Future Pilots
[Pius Wong] The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is made possible by pledges from individual listeners, including Jaime Jay Lara. He’s pledging to the show at the Engineer level on Patreon, covering streaming expenses, so that you, yes you, can listen right now. So thank you to all the donors and especially to Jaime. Help us keep up the podcast by pledging to my studio at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.
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[Pius] It’s April 17th, 2017. This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.
[Pius] I’m your host and resident engineer Pius. As always, thanks for tuning in, subscribing, and sending me comments about the show. Today’s guest is Titus Wong, a pilot in training for the Air Force who also studied aerospace engineering in college. In this interview, Titus talks about how studying engineering helps him be a better pilot and how teachers helped him stick with it even when the math was difficult.
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[Pius] So the reason why you’re on this episode is because we’re going to talk about aerospace engineering a little bit and also how it applies to your job. Can you describe a little bit of what you do and what you’ve been doing?
[Titus] I’m a captain in the United States Air Force, and I’m currently a pilot going through fighter pilot training here.
[Pius] As a pilot, do you think that your engineering education has come in handy?
[Titus] Yes, but not in the sense that most people think. It’s not doing mathematical formulas. You’re not doing derivatives. You’re not doing integrals. You’re not doing that high, complex-level math where you use a calculator or something like that. What you’re actually doing is taking all the basic science concepts that you learned in engineering, and you actually will use it as a pilot, because in order to be a good pilot and a military pilot, you have to understand the science behind what it is you’re doing in the airplane. That’s what makes you better at your job, by knowing the science, you’ll understand why pushing your left hand forward and pulling your right hand back will make you go higher in the airplane without losing airspeed. Something as simple as that will help you understand.
[Pius] So you’re telling me that you have been learning how to be a pilot with a whole bunch of other trainees, right?
[Pius] How many of those people have the same kind of education that you do?
[Titus] All of us are military officers, except our international friends who don’t have to go to universities. But of the Americans – We had 20 Americans in my graduating class, and of those Americans, only about half of them had engineering degrees. The others half had things as simple as business, and in one case, one of them had a history degree. So it’s obviously not required to become an excellent pilot to have an engineering background.
[Pius] So why do people get an engineering degree? And, by the way, are they all aerospace engineers?
[Titus] No, we have system engineers, computer science, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, environmental, biomedical sciences. So it’s not all physics-related. There’s definitely chemistry involved and biology involved. It’s not just one field of engineering. And we also have – One of our graduates is also graduating in mathematics?
[Pius] How do these other degrees help them become pilots?
[Titus] A lot of it, especially in flying an airplane – You can’t learn how to fly an airplane without using math. Math is all about the physics of how an airplane flies. For example, using the flaps on the airplane. It changes the airfoil and ultimately the lift characteristics of the airplane, so you can now stay in the air at a slower airspeed and also have a steeper angle of attack so you can make a steeper angle of descent without stalling your airplane. Or another case is like, trying to grease the landing so you’re not slamming into the ground. From a very basic, broad operating – like this exact moment, everyday flying, you’re not thinking about that. But what engineering has done is, as you’re learning about how these things work, I was able to see all the aeronautical diagrams, all the curves that you see, your lift and drag diagrams, the mathematical formulas that say, hey, this is why what you’re doing or how it works, I was able to see that and understand it immediately and grasp the understandings, whereas one of my business-major colleagues had no idea what these graphs were saying. He just knows, if I pull this lever and put the throttle in this position, this is what happens. So it actually ended up having, for him – things were coming very slow, whereas for me, things came really quickly as to understanding why.
[Pius] There’s a lot of mental work that you’re doing when you’re learning to be a pilot.
[Titus] Yes. There’s a lot of time where, oh, I pushed the left rudder, and my airplane was going left, but then it started doing this other spinning motion. Why did that happen? Ultimately you can just do it over and over and over again, and think, OK, if I put my left foot down I’m going to start yawing to the left and start spinning to the left. But why does that happen? The engineering background helps explain that for me. It’s like, oh OK, that’s what I did to the wings. This is what I did to the lift and the aerodynamic flow over the wing. You have a better understanding. Now I know the academic side of it. Now actually go out there and fly, and actually do it. All that academic I had on the ground just kind of comes back to you. It comes full circle. Ah, OK, this is what I learned, and now I’ve actually seen it now, because I know the science behind it, and I know physically the mechanical motions, myself. I can now make a very calculated, precise movement my body to do this, in order to make the airplane do exactly what I want, whereas, if I didn’t have those understandings, and I just knew this did this, I would never come to the conclusion on the spot. I’d have to go through trial and error. In the Air Force we deal with a lot of – especially the fighter pilot world – You end up doing a lot of stuff with energy diagrams, learning about energy. Ultimately it comes down to energy. We’re talking kinetic energy, potential energy, and power.
[Pius] By “energy diagram” you mean the energy diagrams you’ve seen in your physics classes in high school?
[Titus] Way more complex, involving g’s and airspeed and power levels based on an airplane. Because we use those things to help compare ourselves to other airplanes so that if – Eventually we’re using these airplanes to fight. We want to know how we’re going to go up against another guy. Well, you can just say you’re better than another person, but when you actually put the numbers against each other, you can clearly see, oh, if I do this at this rate, if I’m at this airspeed pulling this number of g’s, this is what I need to maintain in order to ensure I can turn faster than this guy. And if I get slow in a fight, I want to get out of that slow range and get to my fast range, because I know my opponent works very well at a slower airspeed. So for someone who doesn’t have a science background, they see these mathematical diagrams and the formulas. They’re like, what does this all mean? It takes the experts who’ve studied this – some of them are engineers who studied this, and it comes naturally. And others who weren’t engineers who had to spend weeks fully figuring it out – it takes longer for these people who don’t have science backgrounds to understand these things. Eventually they’ll get it, and by all means some of them are phenomenal pilots, but it just takes longer and harder to fully grasp what’s actually happening.
[Pius] It sounds like a lot of what you’re saying is the strategy of flying once you’re up in the air – like, granted there’s this physical skill and mental skill of flying when you’re in there, but also you’re talking about knowing stuff about the planes that you’re flying against, or your plane versus other planes, and understand all that stuff. That’s where your engineering degree helps out a bit.
[Titus] Right, because it gives you that broad science background, knowing, OK, I know what the diagrams are. I know that the mathematics at these areas is what happens. So whenever I actually encounter them in the air, oh, this is what’s going on. OK, I need to do this maneuver, or I need to sit the aircraft in this position at this power setting in order to achieve the desired outcome, whereas if I didn’t have that background, oh, I’m just doing it because I know in the past it didn’t work, so I’m doing it again, or people told me to do this, so I do it. Granted, you can fly an airplane like that, but you’re going to come into a situation that you haven’t seen before. And if you don’t have that academic background, the science behind it, it’ll take longer for you to come to a conclusion about what you need to do.
[Pius] It would be like magic, I would assume, because there’s no explanation for why things are. You just fly, and that’s it.
[Titus] For guys who don’t have a science background, they say, yeah, they don’t know what it flies. It’s just magic.
[Pius] Like when you drive a car as a kid, and nobody tells you why.
[Titus] It just does. Whereas if you had a science background, you understand why it’s happening.
[Pius] OK. Talk about your engineering background. Did you see any of this stuff that you’re seeing now back when you were studying engineering?
[Titus] Yes. As a pilot, yes. You will see the basic – This is the drag formula. This is the lift formula. This is thrust formula. This is your coefficient of lift. This is the lift versus drag diagram. You’re going to see all that. Then you’re going to see more. Like I said, the energy diagram. I never saw that. That’s comparing how an airplane performs against other airplanes. You usually don’t see that in the civilian world, but when it comes to fighting, it’s a game-changer, understanding how the science works. There’s other things, like the power curve when you’re flying an airplane. At a certain point if you get too slow, the amount of power you have at a certain configuration will never recover your airplane, and you’ll fall out of the sky, so you have to do something to change it. I didn’t understand that. That’s one of the things I didn’t learn about in aerospace engineering but I learned as a pilot. My science background – When I actually looked at how it works, it came really quickly, whereas my non-science background coworkers, it took them a long time, like: Why is that? I don’t understand.
[Titus] I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
[Pius] In the middle of cornfields.
[Titus] Cornfields, yup. Go Illini. I was in aerospace engineering getting my Bachelors degree.
[Pius] And so you did that for a couple years, and then what did you do right after you graduated?
[Titus] I went straight into the Air Force, initially not as a pilot. I did the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Illinois. I got my commission in the Air Force. I actually started as a radar controller, where you really didn’t use a lot of – in fact, I probably used zero of my aerospace engineering skills as a radar controller. I only started recently as a pilot to use it now. It actually helped reinforce those things that I learned back in engineering. It was like, oh, these iare why the formulas work the way they are. This is like the aspect ratio, why this airplane – I understood, this is what works, but you don’t really quite understand it until you go up into an airplane and physically control it. It’s like, oh, now I get it.
[Pius] Would you say that your undergrad degree – I mean it helped you become an officer, but did it help you get into doing those radar missions and everything you first started out with when you went into the Air Force?
[Titus] No, well, the undergraduate degree for me was my – It’s basically the key to get a commission in the military. That was really what it was. But along those lines, I wanted to study something that interested me as I got into that direction. That’s why I chose aerospace engineering, because I knew I wanted to do something with airplanes. I knew I wanted to understand why things were, so in case I never got into the Air Force, at least I could build airplanes.
[Pius] Are you still interested in the design aspect of flying?
[Titus] Now that I’m actually flying, probably not as much, because flying is more fun [laughing].
[Pius] Than sitting at a computer designing stuff?
[Titus] Yes. I would say I would definitely help design an airplane as the operator now. This is actually one of the things the Air Force does. When they have test pilots, every time the Air Force develops a new airplane, it has test pilots that are Air Force pilots, and each one of those test pilots have Masters degrees in some form of engineering, whether it be mechanical…
[Titus] Yes. All their test pilots have to be pilots with Masters degrees in science. So it’s mechanical engineering, physics, mathematics, aerospace engineering, electrical engineering. They are the ones that help give the direct feedback to guys at Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman. They’re the ones giving the feedback, saying, hey, this is what happens when I do this. I know this is what you guys told me, but here’s what’s actually happening. And they can use their knowledge of the science to give the feedback to the engineers, saying, “Hey, this is what’s going on. You need to fix this.” Or, “Hey, this worked extremely well when I did these things.” So obviously you can have all the math in the world that should say one results, but the pilot, he’s going to go up there and confirm that’s exactly what’s happening. Or disprove it, saying hey, no, this is what really happened. The math model was slightly off. And they can make their adjustments. In that sense, the engineering is vital to how the development of future fighter aircraft will be for the US military.
[Pius] So then when you’re done with your flying career years from now, you technically have the option to go into one of these other companies to help them design stuff and test things?
[Titus] Technically yes, but not as the off-the-street engineer. I’d more than likely not be the one who’s going to go on to MATLAB and start programming code for the next stability control thing. I more than likely wouldn’t be that guy running, you know, the wind tunnels. I’ve been so far out of it. But what I would be, should I decide to do something like it, is, I would be the liaison to give the engineers who’ve never flown an airplane, this is what’s actually happening, what the pilot’s thinking. This is the feedback you gather. This is how the airplane is performing. Most engineers never go in the airplane they design, so they never truly understand what it is they’re building. Yes, they see the numbers. Yes, they know it should do this. But they never fully understand it. And that’s where the pilot who has the science background – he can talk to them at that technical level language. Hey this is what was happening as I was doing it, and this is – You guys claimed it would be this, but this is what’s actually happening, and here’s my analysis of why, and they can help optimize the system, if you will.
[Pius] So a lot of teachers in high school or in junior high and elementary school might be listening. If they’ve got kids in their classes who are interested in aerospace engineering, what would you encourage these teachers to do to help foster their interest?
[Titus] Obviously aerospace engineering encompasses large areas, fields of study. It’s not just airplanes. It could be space. It could be rockets. It could be control systems, fluid mechanics, aerodynamics. So obviously there’s a whole plethora of areas of science that – It’s not just an airplane. What I would suggest – and this is the one thing that, no fault to the University of Illinois – They’re aerospace engineering program is highly theoretical. I would say 90% of all my classes was theory. Math theory.
[Pius] You were in school more than 10 years ago.
[Titus] I graduated back in 2007.
[Titus] So almost ten years ago.
[Pius] So hopefully the education is a little different today, but I bet a lot of it is the same.
[Titus] My understanding after talking to several aerospace engineering graduates from different universities is, yes, it’s highly theoretical.
[Titus] As expected from a prestigious engineering university. But at the high school level, what I would say, what would get students to this level is: Show me the end product of what it is aerospace engineers do. Build gliders. Bring them out to airplanes. Send them out to areas where they can physically experience the end result of the engineering. We see it every day in computer science, like iPads, iTouches, cell phones, Xboxes, Playstations. We see that end product every day. In aerospace engineering, we see it because we see private airplanes, you know, Cessnas flying around, or like jumping out of a Boeing 747. But they need more exposure to that. They need to go expose them to like the everyday, here’s an airplane. Here’s a golf ball. There are dimples on the golf ball for a reason. They need to get these kids to experience the end product of the science, and then from there, draw them back.
[Pius] Into the theory.
[Titus] Into the theory. That’s how you’re going to get people interested in aerospace engineering. And you see that a lot in aerospace summer camps. A lot of aerospace summer camps, they always have a rocket launch, a little plastic model rocket with those basically firecracker engines, and you shoot them into the sky, open a parachute. Cool. That’s the kind of stuff that will really get them into engineering. But if you really want to get them further and deeper, you’ve got to build on that. You can’t just do that one thing. You actually have to take them on a flight, or – obviously that would be really hard, or a glider or something – those things cost money. But, like, show them the videos. You’ve got to show them – What really worked for me was, of all the math classes I had in college, here’s the math behind the physics of what’s going on. Great. To me, all that stuff is just a bunch of letters and numbers and formulas and stuff. But what helped me was, like, OK, now one of my professors was like, all right, we’ve done that. Here’s a video now of exactly what I’m showing you. And here’s exactly what’s going on. Now I got to see all the math. Now I got to see the actual video of, that’s what the math actually means. Oh. OK. They need to draw those kinds of connections. At the high school level, it doesn’t have to be airplanes. You can do it with cars. You can do it with skateboards. Bikes. Your helmets.
[Pius] Anything with aerodynamics.
[Titus] Anything aerodynamic-related, which is pretty much everything.
[Pius] Or fluids.
[Titus] Any kind of fluid dynamics. Even structural science. A lot of aerospace engineering has to deal with material science. It’s simple. Taking balsa wood, taking styrofoam, taking pieces of metal, and showing this is what happens when you deform it and put it under pressure. Look at this. Throw a little math formula. What you’re seeing in this bend here is this math formula. But make it interesting for the students. Don’t just bend the piece of metal. You’ve got to relate it to things students see every day, like their chair. Probably made out of steel. Cool. Here’s an example of the steel bar the student is sitting on, then you break it. This is how much force it’s equal to. One of my high school physics teachers explained – I had this questions: What exactly is 100 Newtons of force equivalent to? And he didn’t understand my question. Well, I could say, I know what 100 pounds of force is equal to. It’s like me pushing myself up or me falling at this distance. But what is 100 Newtons actually? He’s like, imaging taking a 10 kilogram baby and me throwing it at your face. That’s what 100 Newtons of force would feel like.
[Titus] Oh, OK. Totally weird.
[Pius] But you remembered that.
[Titus] I remembered that because it brought the science to something I could relate to.
[Pius] What would you do differently, if anything, if you could do your education all over again since you were a little kid? Is there anything you would do over, or pretty much everything was pretty golden?
[Titus] I don’t know. There are multiple ways of getting to the path I came to. I was never strong in math. Here’s another thing for teachers out there. I was never strong in math to begin with. The only reason why I powered through all the math and stuff is because I really liked what the airplane – I really thought it was cool to see how it operated. So I had a motivation. Something was motivating me. It the end product there was motivating me. So I don’t know if I’d do anything different. There are so many ways. It would be very difficult for me to say what would have been better. Probably studying math better more.
[Pius] That’s fair enough.
[Titus] But I mean there needs to be something motivating the student in that realm, because it’s very, very, very discouraging – The world of mathematics and science is very discouraging if you don’t get it, and it’s very easy to quit, because it’s difficult. Some things extremely long time to understand for certain people, and others, it comes really easy for them. So for those where it becomes difficult to understand, they need something that will help drive them to continue to study it, whether it be money, financial reasons, or whether it be solely, purely just the development of sciences, whatever cause for humanity, or just developing the field of technology. Something’s got to keep them motivated. That’ll be the breaker, or the breaking point for students, if they want to continue in aerospace engineering, for example.
[Pius] And then finally, do you know if in your experience, does the Air Force want engineers for any particular reason?
[Titus] Yes. My understanding is that the Air Force always wants engineers. For example the Air Force Academy, they have multiple fields of study, but the majority of students that come out of there have a science degree, because the Air Force has a culture of science and technology. It leads the fight through innovation in technology. And I’m not saying that just because that’s what the Air Force advertises itself as, but if you look at all the other services and you look at all of our Gucci toys, we seriously have the top-of-the-line world of technology. Because we have science everywhere. They want that technical background. That’s what they’re looking for. They want the technical background because a lot of things the Air Force does is technical. There’s a lot of science and technology behind it, and they want people with that background of understanding so that they can better operate it. At the same time they’re grooming them to become managers and leaders. So there’s a whole other world that they’re teaching you in addition to just science and math.
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[Pius] Do you know anyone whose career was influenced by studying engineering? Let me know. You can tweet the show’s Twitter @K12engineering, or tweet me @PiusWong. Subscribe to and share the show on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast player, and give us your reviews and stars, too. That’ll help others find the show and join the discussion. Get the latest show links and info at the podcast website: www.k12engineering.net.
[Pius] Our closing music is from “Late For School” by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution license. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs, and you can support Pios Labs at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.
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[Pius] Another new update from your nerdy host Pius. This update is about a new little business initiative that I’m scoping out, and it’s related to that book and that workshop that I mentioned before, too. Remember my book is called Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games, and people can find it publicly off Amazon and a bunch of other places. And that workshop I did was with my colleague Rachel Fahrig. We both went to South by Southwest back in March, and we ran this workshop with forty different engineers and developers and designers and artists, and we taught them how to play some improv games and theater games and drawing games and coupled that with research-based design methods, like brainstorming or something called C-sketching. And it was really cool. I got great feedback. The games helped people get into the flow of these different design techniques.
[Pius] If you’re interested in taking a workshop like that, I am asking you to just let me know. I’m doing some market research, essentially. Just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact me some other way, and say, hey, I’m an educator, or hey, I’m a mechanical engineer, and that workshop sounds cool. If enough people contact me, that’ll help me tailor that workshop towards specific audiences. You don’t even have to be around Austin, Texas. Just let me know if it sounds interesting to you or your organization. That is it, and I’ll keep you updated. Thanks.