Plane crash proves instructive for aero engineering team

Nothing taught Jacob John more about practising the profession of engineering than watching a plane crash.

The fourth-year mechanical engineering major is part of the UWindsor SAE Aero team, which competes in the Society of Automotive Engineers’ student aeronautic design contest. John and his teammates watched as their model plane fell out of the sky in the second phase of the competition.

“The vibrations shook loose a servo arm screw and we lost elevator control,” says John. “After that, we were helpless.”

John plans a career in the aerospace field and says the experience was sobering.

“I always picture people in the plane,” he says. “It really makes you understand why you have to double-check everything.”

The team’s plane was its capstone project, applying the knowledge gained in the classroom to a real-world assignment. It was one of 17 final presentations by graduating students in Mechanical, Automotive and Materials Engineering, Friday in the Centre for Engineering Innovation.

The topics ranged from the design of a lightweight wheelchair to a working compact hovercraft, from a more efficient airfoil blade to a solar-powered device that clears algae from pond surfaces.

Professor David Ting said the presentations help the students learn to explain their work.

“They must be able to present it in a way that non-experts can understand,” he says. “That is a key function they will have to perform when they enter the workforce.”

He said the day-long event also showcases the projects for other students.

“The students in earlier years must understand what is expected of them,” he says. “It also allows all the students to see the work their classmates have done, so they can appreciate the scope of the field.”

Robert Colagiacomo says his work with the Lancer Motorsports team on the Formula SAE vehicle helped to prepare him for a career in the automotive sector.

“The capstone project involves both aspects of it—you design your parts and you actually build them, and make sure they perform like they should,” he says.

Colagiacomo was proud that the Windsor vehicle proved reliable: “Nothing broke on us,” he says. “It performed how we wanted it to.”

And despite the crash his team’s airplane suffered, John says it also enjoyed many successes, finishing 11th of 40 schools in the SAE Aero competition.

“We wanted to set the basic groundwork for a team next year to follow us and make improvements,” he says. “Our goal was to stay our vehicle with a weight under 10 pounds, and it nearly was—it was five pounds lighter than last year’s.”