The team of BYU-Idaho students who competed in the SAE contest.

The group had a goal carrying four pounds with their airplane-which weighed slightly more than half a pound.

May 22, 2017
Writer: Dain Knudson

Students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering recently took an opportunity to not only show their passion for aerospace design but also for their faith. In April, eleven students, accompanied by faculty member David Johnson, joined groups from all over the world in an annual competition put on by the Society of Automotive Engineers in Lakeland, Florida. 

The competition involved designing, building, and flying an airplane, with the goal of carrying as much weight as possible, comparative to the weight of the plane. 

"The entire aircraft must fit inside a 6-inch diameter tube. The shorter the tube is, the more points you get," Johnson said. "Not only are we judged on the length of the tube, but on a design report that is submitted before the competition, an oral presentation at the competition, and obviously how much the plane carries proportionate to its weight." 

The group had a goal carrying four pounds with their airplane-which weighed slightly more than half a pound. Out of twenty entries, BYU-Idaho took fifth place after carrying a weight of three and a half pounds. 

"It was respectable but not as good as we had hoped to do," said Johnson. "We ended up carrying less than we expected, due to some weird problems that we didn't expect. We had flown it here in Rexburg and it did fine, but something happened in Florida that we didn't anticipate."

While the students encountered issues, Spencer Ochsner, a senior who was part of the team, said that the learning that took place throughout the process made their final product better. 

"We created about four or five prototypes throughout the year, which we tested and then took back to the design board each time and made different design decisions based on how it went," Ochsner said. "This process brought us to our final iteration and we were confident that that was our very best product."

Students also found that this competition provided them with opportunities to meet with professionals in their industry. 

"This competition also connects us with professionals in the field," Ochsner said. "One of the sponsors for the competition is Lockheed Martin, one of the prominent defense contractors for the United States government. We were able to meet their recruiters and hand out resumes. In fact, after the competition, we went out to dinner with a handful of Lockheed Martin employees to socialize and network with them."

The competition presented challenges beyond flying for the team of students. The competition, which took place from April 21-23, had groups scheduled to fly their planes on Sunday.  

"Our guys have chosen not to fly Sunday, so they usually take a hit on their points because of this," Johnson said. "But they also get to talk to students and officials at the competition about why they make this choice."

While this choice impacted the points the team received, they still managed to perform well enough to place fifth overall and second in the design report. They look forward to next year's competition and have already made some changes to increase their chances to win. 

"We learned that this time around we need to distribute leadership better throughout our team," Johnson said. "Now we are going to have teams that are in charge of certain aspects of the project, and the leaders will coordinate with one another, but for the most part, smaller groups will work on more focused tasks."

Despite the challenges the team encountered, their experience provided learning that they can now build off of and strive to better next year.