Aerospace engineering program opens up blue skies for PhD student

Since coming to the University of Windsor, Hart Honickman has taken to the skies in more ways than one.

A PhD student in Mechanical, Automotive and Materials Engineering, he’s one of the first graduate students here to focus his studies primarily on aerospace, as the university steps up its efforts to make inroads for more academic opportunities in that sector.

As it happens, he’s also a licenced pilot, who earned his credentials to fly small planes in March of 2011 after completing 58 hours of flying time.

“I’ve always been fascinated by aviation,” he says. “My father is a pilot, and I’ve been flying with him and attending air shows ever since I was a little kid.”

Under the tutelage of professors Jennifer Johrendt and Peter Frise, Honickman studies composite materials used in the aerospace industry, looking for ways they can be efficiently mass produced while consistently maintaining their most important behavioural properties. Specifically, he studies long-fibre reinforced polymer composites, those made from a mix of resin, aramid, and ceramic fibres.

“The beauty of them is they have a very high strength to weight ratio,” he explained. “Lighter weight means you get better fuel economy as well as better payload capacity and better performance values.”

The problem with many however, is their behaviour – they’re an anisotropic material, meaning they are directionally dependent, as opposed to isotropic materials, which have identical behavioural properties in all directions. Mass producing a composite part that has consistent behavioural properties throughout a production run can be tricky.

“Engineering a component out of a composite material that would behave the same way as a part made out of metal is much more challenging,” said Honickman, who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Queen’s University.

Honickman analyzes “stringers,” the long, slender reinforcing members of a skin, used in airplane wings, fuselage or other components. He does modelling, or finite element analysis to see how they behave – whether they bend or buckle under certain load conditions.

Thanks to a partnership between Connect Canada, a national internship program that links Canadian companies with graduate students and post-doctoral fellows for research placements that’s run by AUTO21, a massive national research network headquartered at the University of Windsor, Honickman landed a placement at Bombardier Inc.

Last year, he worked for 10 months at the aerospace company’s facility at the Toronto Downsview airport.  He said the experience was “phenomenal.”

“I got to work among the top stress analysts in the company,” he said. “It’s almost like they’re the professors of the company. It was an incredible resource for me.”

Adding to the experience was the fact that the facility has two Cessna airplanes on the property, which he could sign out and take for a flight on his lunch break. He took advantage of the opportunity, which he said was a great way to clear his head.

“I could fly up to Barrie and back, and be back in time for work in the afternoon,” he said.

Honickman hasn’t decided what he’ll do after defending his thesis, but says he’s leaning towards finding a job in industry.