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Cover of Engineering Advantage Magazine, Fall 2018 issue

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Smooth Sailing

Aerospace engineering students Patrick Chizek, far left, and Luke Bughman, far right, work with Professor Paulo Iscold on his sail plane, which features a 93-foot wingspan.

Towed into flight by a crop duster and controlled by a renowned, record-breaking pilot, a sailplane created by a Cal Poly aerospace engineering professor and his students soared 5,000 feet over the Castle Air Force Base near Merced this month.

The plane, named Nixus (“pushing forward” in Latin), is the fourth plane created by Paulo Iscold, who joined the Cal Poly faculty last year.

“I think it gave Cal Poly a little taste of what we can do,” Iscold said. “This first step is just a small step.”

Iscold, who has been part of several speed records, is also a race engineer and team tactician for Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss. In that role, he travels around the world with Chambliss, a former champ, competing in several international air races each year.

He began working on a sailplane in his native Brazil about three years ago as a personal project. But when he joined Cal Poly’s aerospace engineering faculty, he invited students to help.

“I feel really proud of that,” he said.

Paulo Iscold shakes hands with record-breaking pilot Jim Payne. Paulo Iscold, right, shakes hands with pilot Jim Payne, who succesfully flew Iscold's glider.

A sailplane is an aerodynamically streamlined aircraft also referred to as a glider. When aerotowed, as Nixus was, it is pulled behind a powered aircraft with a rope that the sailplane pilot releases after reaching a desired altitude.

Over a dozen students have worked on the Nixus project. And while several of them have had pilot lessons, this plane requires special skills to fly.

“This is not a flying activity for students,” Iscold said. “It’s about engineering.”

Knowing the plane would require an expert test pilot with specific skills, Iscold called on Jim Payne.

Last fall, Payne and Tim Gardner flew an Airbus-sponsored glider 76,737 feet high. That’s the highest altitude ever reached by humans aboard an unpowered fixed-wing aircraft -- only spy planes and specialized balloons have flown higher. A former Air Force pilot, who also taught Flight Test at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Payne has dozens of flight records.

Five students traveled with Iscold to Merced. There they were part of the pre-flight safety briefings.

“They had an opportunity to talk to one of the best pilots in the world,” Iscold said.

Roughly 15 students have been involved in building the plane, Iscold said.

“As a glider pilot who was first introduced to the sport through Cal Poly's soaring club, this is by far the largest, most technical, and hands-on club project I have been a part of during my last three years,” said Zach Yamauchi, an aerospace engineering student. “It was incredible to see an aircraft that I had helped build take to the skies last weekend.”

The plane features an impressive 93-foot wingspan. It can travel up to 170 mph, and its maximum take-off weight is 2,110 pounds.

“The wing is massive in person, but in the air, compared to the towplane, it is unfathomably massive,” said Bennett Diamond, another aerospace student, who is impressed with the engineering of glider planes. “These are the most efficient human carrying vehicles ever made. In calm air, we can travel exceptional distances without losing much altitude. Engines seems pretty loud an unnecessary after a while.”

Cal Poly professor Paulo Iscold and his students created Nixus, a sailplane designed to break records.Iscold's glider, Nixus, was towed into air by a crop duster.

While Iscold typically works with propeller-powered aircraft, the Nixus project offered students a unique opportunity to work on a different kind of plane.

“Gliders appeal to me because they are not only at the forefront of modern aerodynamic technology but also because they are built to work with nature in harmony rather than to beat it into submission,” said aerospace engineering student Wyll Soll.

Taking several safety precautions, the flight was preceded by one day of preparation and an initial low-to-the-ground flight, towed by a car.

“That way you have a feel for how the plane will behave,” Iscold said.

On the third day in Merced, Payne was towed by a crop duster and successfully flew around the Air Force base for about 25 minutes. While Iscold felt a sense of satisfaction, he said he tried to maintain his adrenaline level.

The students celebrated a little more.

“A first flight doesn’t happen that often,” Iscold said.

Despite the success of that initial flight, Iscold said modifications will be made to allow the plane to fly faster with more aggressive maneuvers. The team will also hone the airbrakes and data system.

Resiliency has been especially important with this project, Diamond said.

“Once an error is found, it's important to recognize the root causes and correct for that,” he said. “Nixus has been an excellent experience for learning from mistakes.”

Iscold expects Payne to fly it again in a couple of weeks. And, eventually, Iscold and his team of students hopes it will add to his list of broken records.

“So much work is paying off now,” Iscold said.

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