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Seeking Future High-Flyers

Focus FAA Home

October 12, 2011 – For years, Christopher Muckle has been interested in flying. When he was 7, he played flight simulation games and he learned tips from his father, who is a pilot. His interests came in handy earlier this year when he and his classmates from Xavier High School in Middletown, Conn., won first place in the 2010-2011 Real World Design Challenge (RWDC). The students' design of a next-generation airplane wing that maximizes fuel efficiency and enhances performance was judged to be the best among 20 state teams.

The 2011 Real World Design Challenge winners from Xavier. High School in Middletown, Conn. From l to r: John Voelker, Miraj Rahematpura, Christopher Muckle, Andrew Moeller, Giovanni Sabato, and Mario Chris.

“I've always been interested in the aeronautical field,” the now high school senior told an audience yesterday during the kick-off event at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C. for the 2012 Challenge.

Challenge organizers are hoping to encourage more young students to develop their science, technology, engineering, and math skills while competing against their peers across the country. For this year's challenge, students will be paired with professional mentors from the FAA and other agencies and companies as they work to design an efficient, low-carbon emission and environmentally friendly personal light sport aircraft (LSA). The aircraft must accommodate two team members and fly 200 miles in fewer than two hours at a cruise altitude of at least 1,000 feet above ground level. The FAA approved the new LSA category in 2004. RWDC Director Ralph Coppola said technology and engineering education is critical for national security and to ensure the nation's ability to compete globally. Fifty-four percent of the U.S. aerospace science and technology workforce is over age 45, and a third of those workers are eligible to retire today. “We have a [workforce] pipeline that's narrow and leaky,” Coppola said.

Paula Lewis

FAA Assistant Administrator for Regions and Center Operations Paula Lewis said students can provide new ideas for aircraft design, methods to protect the environment, and other aspects of aviation. “We're looking for students to graduate and come into our workplace,” Lewis said. “We need people who are going to ask questions. We need your energy. We need your innovation.”

RWDC began in 2008 through a partnership among industry, government, academia, and non-profit organizations. The partners pooled $263 million in resources and enlisted state governors to bring attention to the program. The first year, 10 states participated in the Challenge. FAA engineers and volunteers make up 70 percent of mentors who assist students for the RWDC.

A team of engineers from government and industry, including the FAA, NASA, Cessna Aircraft Company, and others, designed the challenge program. More than 3,000 students participated in the challenge earlier this year at no cost to themselves or their schools. Industry, government, and academia partners have donated more than $1 billion to schools since the challenge began.

FAAers pose with Xavier H.S. students. From l to r: Donald Rexrode, FAA training program manager; Eastern Region Deputy Regional Administrator Diane Crean; Xavier H.S. teammates; FAA Assis. Administrator for Regions and Center Operations Paula Lewis; and FAA National Aviation and Space Education Program Manager James Brough.

For this year's challenge, participating students will first compete for a state-level Governor’s Cup. For the state challenge, teams will perform aerodynamic, propulsion, sizing, and weight estimation analyses to optimize wing geometry and minimize specific fuel consumption. Teams are required to write a 2,000-word essay on what they would see and do if they could fly their design across the country.

The team with the best aircraft design in each state receives an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in the national finals. The RWDC national awards will be given next year to first-, second-, and third-place teams, and a special merit award will be given to exemplars. The awards will be presented in April at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Xavier High School teammates said they will compete in this year’s challenge. Xavier senior John Voelker said the challenge taught him about what happens behind the scenes of aircraft design.

“I really got to know what really goes on,” Voelker said. “I think we all had a passion for what we were doing.”