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Dream Vacation for an Aerospace Engineer

During spring break a group of 16 aerospace engineers took a grand tour of Southern California (SoCal), visiting 8 of the top aerospace research and production facilities. Known as the “Aerospace Dream Tour,” this event was organized by Michigan’s AIAA chapter, which leveraged its network to arrange tours at JPL, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, Lockheed-Martin “Skunk Works,” Scaled Composites, Pratt & Whitney Rockedyne, and Edwards Air Force Base. Details of this trip were documented on a blog the AIAA president Steve Harris kept throughout the trip. A day-by-day breakdown summarizing our trip is given below:

Monday: On Monday we toured NASA’s Jet Population Laboratory (JPL) and Boeing’s C-17 production facility. JPL is responsible for almost all of the deep space probes NASA sends to the other planets. Among other things, we saw where the new Mars rover known as Curiosity (the Mars Science Laboratory, currently on its way to Mars) was made. We noticed an engineer in a clean suit was using the iHandy app on his iPhone to find the inclination of the MSL engineering model. Later that day we saw C-17 Globemasters in various stages of their construction. It was humbling standing next such a large aircraft in its infancy. Some of the construction techniques were very unique, and we learned some surprising facts on the type of damage this military aircraft can take and still stay in the air.

Tuesday: On Tuesday we toured Northrop Grumman and SpaceX. At Northrope we toured the composites facility and walked down the F-18 Super Hornet production line. Looking at fighter jets never gets old for an aerospace engineer, and seeing their half build structure and

Iron Man thinks rockets are cool.

internal guts gave us all goose bumps. We then toured SpaceX, which pretty much blew the socks off the space geeks in the group (myself included). Everywhere you looked there was space hardware, including a new rocket engine the tour guide told us we should probably not be looking at. We stuck our head into that Dragon capsule mock up, watched their mission control room in action during a test run for the upcoming launch, and ate some of the free frozen yogurt the employees enjoy every day at the expense of a bet lost to Elon Musk. Did I mention the Iron Man movie was filmed here?

Wednesday: The mind-blowing tours continued on Wednesday when we took a very exclusive tour of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Programs facility, commonly known as the Skunk

Walt and an F-1 Engine

Works. This is where a lot of the top secret aircraft are developed and built. Most of us never thought we would have a chance to step foot in this facility without working for them. There we had a chance to get down and dirty with the P-791, an experimental aerostatic/aerodynamic hybrid airship. The day kept getting better with a trip to the Mohave Spaceport and a tour of Scaled Composites. One of the most interesting aircraft they developed and built is the Space Ship One spaceplane, a suborbital vehicle which won them the X Prize. There TBP members (Dan Becker and myself) piloted the suborbital flight simulator, launching the spaceplane to the edge of space.

Thursday: On Thursday AIAA members took a tour of two of Rocketdyne’s production facilities. Rocketdyne is responsible for building the F-1 rocket engine; the enormous monster that combined with four other engines put a man on the moon. They also built the Space Shuttle Main Engines, among others. If you want to see their handy work head over to the FXB.

Friday: Our grant tour concluded on Friday with a bang, literally. We were sitting in a conference room on the secure military base eating lunch and a loud noise, which sounded like someone dropping something on the roof, shook the room. It was a sonic boom! We had a

F-22 Raptor on the Flight Line

chance to shake the wing of a Global Hawk (a surveillance UAV) to view the vibrational modes,  and saw plenty of jets in the air, including tow F-22 raptors. We saw the F-35 (the new Joint Strike Fighter) with our own eyes, and got up close to an F-16 and it various tools of destruction.

There is no question that this trip is basically the best possible way an aerospace engineer can spend a week short of flying in a fighter jet or traveling into space. However, not everything was official business. There were a lot of conventional fun activities we did as well. For instance, on

AIAA For Life!

Thursday, after our tour of Rocketdyne, we piled into our inconspicuous 12 passenger white van headed to Santa Monica for some beach time. There we took a short walk to Venice Beach to do some people watching, check out the set of American Ninja Warrior, and get some tattoos. Needless to say, it’s a pretty crazy place! Once the Sun set we drove to Hollywood Blvd for dinner and some live

The Doctor is In

music at the Hard Rock Café. We also spent some time hanging out with employees from SpaceX and Scaled Composites and made use of the hotel hot tub. All in all, a perfect spring break trip. We are all extremely grateful to everyone that made this trip possible.

If you are interested in joining Michigan’s AIAA chapter (and you should because AIAA regularly does awesome field trips and flies planes around AA at almost no cost to their members) please contact umichaiaa@gmail.com and ask how you can be a member. All majors welcome!

Written by: Nathan Mckay

UofM AIAA at the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne facility.


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My Day at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works

One of the most anticipated tours of our Southern California tour series was to Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), otherwise known as Skunk Works. Being a Michigan student, we are engulfed into the legend of Kelly Johnson. Going into our 5 x 7 wind tunnel building is always a stark reminder of why I chose to go to Michigan for my aerospace engineering studies. So as you can imagine, this was a dream come true.

Our destination was a close one. We departed from your hotel in Lancaster and made the 15 minute drive through the desert to Palmdale. With blues skies, sand, and mountains all around us, it was easy to spot the beautifully plain white and blue building that housed the Skunk Works. The entire group was excited for a trip that seemed very impossible.

The Legend of Kelly Johnson

I don’t think anyone in the group could of ever imaged being able to see such an icon of american aviation. The SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, and the Lockheed U-2 spy plane were just a few of the many secret aircraft to be designed here. This moment had an especially large effect on me because of my profound interest in Kelly Johnson. I’m still awe struck that we were able to go inside…

Enough reminiscing… At 7am we passed a few security check points to make sure there were no terrorists on board. After everything checked out and we parked the vehicles we made our way to our first event of the morning. A group picture in front of Skunk Works! The 16 students and our host posed for a couple shots as we braved the apparently uncommon chilliness that Southern California was experiencing.

Our second activity for the day was to gather in one of the Skunk Work’s meeting rooms. As we walked through the hallways down to our destination we were surrounded by amazing pictures on the wall of past and current projects. In one of the larger entrance rooms we were presented with one of the coolest displays of the day, the six Collier Trophies, which is awarded annually “for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year.” My particular favorite was their most recent trophy, which was won due to Pual Belivaqua’s design on the F-35 JSF engine design.

During our time in the meeting room we had some great talks with leading engineers at the company, including one of my favorite aircraft designers, Leland Nicolai. We got a taste for what the Skunk Works looks for in new graduates as well as some rich history of Lockheed Martin.

F-22 Raptor

Our first big tour of the day was especially amazing! The group was guided though the hallways to one of the large hangars, were we were getting an up close look at some new work that was being done to the F-22 Raptor. I’ve been on the production line at Mariette, GA for the F-22 (which was amazing, by the way), but this was a completely different experience. Instead of a bunch of F-22’s everywhere, there were only three, but intricate work was being done to them on the inside. Like no brain surgeon could ever image, panels from this beautiful bird were taken off and the Raptor’s intricately detailed interior was exposed. The room we were in was insanely clean, and unlike production lines, this room was relatively quiet.

P-791 Hybrid Airship

After spending some time with the Raptors, we moved on to an area, which was much more accessible and less “secret” than the F-22s. It was time for the P-791 Hybrid Airship! Most people may think that blimps are dead, but I can assure you that their resurgence into the aviation field is in full swing.  Using the principles from buoyant lift and aerodynamic lift, this aircraft is ultra-efficient… as long as you’re going under 100 mph. I’ll talk more about the P-791’s applications in a later post, for now check out the great video below.

X-55 All Composites Cargo Aircraft

After spending a healthy hour all with the P-791, we were off to the X-55 ACCA. I was excited to see yet another experimental airplane on the same day! The Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA) is an experimental twin jet engined transport aircraft. Its primary role is to demonstrate the new cargo-carrier using advanced composites. On this part of the tour we didn’t get to just stand behind some hefty red tape, no we were going inside! I think the coolest part of being inside the ACCA was seeing and touch all of the composites on board as well as being able to see the pulley system, which controls all the flight flight

controls. We learned that during flight tests the inside of cargo area gets extremely loud. We definitely noticed this, while we were exploring this beauty.

Being able to be at the Skunk Works was great! A trip that I never thought possible. We learned  one important thing from the Skunk Works that day, and that was a quote:

I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution. –Wernher von Braun


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Aerospace Dream Tour Group Photos

I thought it would be fitting to make a post with all of the group photos we took at each of the companies that the University of Michigan AIAA Student Chapter took while in Southern California.

University of Michigan group picture in front of JPL

We had a great tour of the C-17 production line. What an amazing airplane and impressive facility.

The University of Michigan group in front of Northrop Grumman's facility in El Segundo, CA.

The group inside the SpaceX lobby.

Group shot in the Scaled Composites Lobby

UofM AIAA at the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne facility.

UM Students in front of the Global Hawk at Edwards AFB

University of Michigan with Cal Poly Students at Edwards Air Force Base.

AIAA at Edwards Air Force Base

I’m still waiting on some official photos from Edwards and Rocketdyne. Once they’ve cleared security, I’ll post the update here.

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Aerospace Dream Tour Day 6: Edwards Air Force Base

Today was the last day of tours for our trip and we ended it with a BANG! Quite literally! Since our hotel was close to Edwards Air Force base the group was able to wake up a little later then normal. This week has been filled with early mornings and late nights. Due to LA traffic most of our journeys started at 7am and usually didn’t wind down until after 9pm.

Journey Through the Desert

Being stuck in a 12-person van for the entire week has most of the group on edge at this point. All I can say is image having 11 back-seat drivers critiquing your every move, music choice, and volume level. It really wears down on a person (but I’d still do it over again in a heart beat).

Once we got off the express way and towards the final few miles before the entrance of Edwards, all one can see is the brown and very dry scenery. We turn on the dramatic sounds of, “Flight of the Valkyries,” to set the mood. Large dry lakebeds and a few cacti are all one can see in the distance towards the mountains. Out of nowhere we spot some looping contrails in the clear blue sky. We weren’t sure if we were seeing top-secret technology or not. One moment there would be twirls and loops of contrails and then one moment later, the contrail would disappear.  Now the mood was really set! With out theme music still blasting at full volume we passed the Edwards AFB sign and finally met our escort at the front gate.

We shared this tour with Cal Poly students and all in all I think it was a healthy group. We all boarded an eerie-looking beige bus and started heading to our first leg of the tour. Everyone was very excited and due to the poor weather the last few days, it was evident that flight time was trying to be made up today. Planes were out in full forth. We immediately started seeing T-38s (the air forces main trainer aircraft and the same trainer used in the awesome movie, Top Gun) as soon as we departed from the front gate. Unlike the passed days of our tour we were getting to see airplanes fly!!


Our first scheduled tour was in instrumentation. We got to see how the instrumentation folk built equipment and displays for testing purposes. The building was littered with orange painted metal boxes with cool displays and wires. We learned that this orange signified that the pieces were testing equipment. Good old-fashioned metal fabrication was used for these displays so that the equipment can handle the high-G environment of a fighter jet.

Electronics is great, but we had a large group of aerospace engineers and we wanted to see planes! We finally got our wish and entered a HUGE hangar. Inside we found a few KC-130 tankers, some T-38s, and a beautiful B-1 supersonic bomber. We’ve all seen these aircraft before, but what made this so cool was that many of the plane’s panels were taken off, displaying to us their complex insides. A frenzy of wires and orange boxes could be seen inside each of the planes.

We ended this segment of the tour by drooling over the exposed B-1 for a healthy amount of time. At this point we are loving the tour, but we keep hearing fighter jets roaring passed the hangar. Every time one flies by our suspicions increase that top jets like the F-35 and F-22 are flying around us and our strategically timed tours are keeping our eager eyes from seeing them.


JSF (F-35) Introduction

At this point we were introduced to the F-35 via PowerPoint presentation. We would like to thank Edwards for the great Subway sandwiches we were served for the JSF presentation. We thoroughly enjoyed the pictures and bullet points about the JSF, but we could tell some of the students were starting to get sleepy from the food (none of course were Michigan students, GO BLUE!) and then it happened. BOOM!!! The conference room we were in shook violently. We had experienced our first sonic boom!!! Everyone immediately pepped up. What a cool experience. If only we could have been outside for it, but I’ll take what I can get!

Global Hawk

Most of us have seen a Global Hawk hanging above us in the National Air Force Museum, but to be able to touch and explore this baby up close was a million times better!! The tour guides gave us as much info as they were able, but the repeating hymn of, “That’s classified,” is what we heard most. I really don’t care though, it was great just to be in the large UAV’s presence. We took our group photo in front of the Global Hawk as well (waiting on Edwards to clear it and send it my way). After a little over an hour with the Block20 and Block30 Global Hawks, we were off to the flight line!!!

To learn more about the Global Hawk check out the military facts sheet here.

UM Students in front of the Global Hawk at Edwards AFB

Flight Line

As we made our way to the flight line from the Global Hawk hangar we were pleasantly surprised to see two F22 Raptors taxing extremely close to us on their way to take-off!!! It looked like we were finally going to get our wish of seeing some advanced planes in the air. After a few f16 escorts were in the air and the final clearances were given, we witnessed the two beautiful F22s take off into the distance. It was great to hear how much louder the Raptor was than the Falcon. So awesome!

F16 Armaments

One of our last stops was at the F16 armaments hangar. He we were able to explore quite a few F16s as we were given a tour of the different bombs that are used on the F16 as well as some future bombs that are currently being integrated for use into the F16.

One of the most interesting weapons we saw was the CBU-97 sensor fuzed cluster bomb. This weapon rains fury onto the battlefield as it spits out molten metel, which melts through tank armor. Check out the video for a demonstration.

This marked the final location of our tour. As we rode the bus back to our vehicles we took a leisurely route passed the F35 and F22 hangars to see if just maybe there were any out. With a little luck we witnessed two F35s out and although they were from a distance, it was still breathtaking! It’s feels great to be one of the few people who have every laid eyes on one of these beauties.

Blackhawk Museum

Before heading back to our hotel for the night, we made a quick excursion to the Blackhawk museum located in Palmdale. I got a great shot of the A-12 and SR-71 side-by-side. Lots more pictures to come on my flickr account: Aeroscholar

This was one of the most exciting and truly unique days of the tour. It was great being able to see the JSF and being present for a sonic boom. I don’t know how we made it through the day without a change in underwear.

The SR-71 (left) and A-12 (right) side-by-side at the Blackhawk museum.

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Aerospace Dream Tour Day 4: Skunk Works & Scaled Composites

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

We were able to get down and dirty with the new hybrid blimp project at ADP. The Lockheed Martin P-791 is an experimental aerostatic/aerodynamic hybrid airship developed by Lockheed Martin corporation. The first flight of the P-791 was on 31 January 2006 at the company's flight test facility on the Palmdale Air Force Plant 42. It has a unique tri-hull shape, with disk-shaped cushions on the bottom for landing. As a hybrid airship, part of the weight of the craft and its payload are supported by aerostatic (buoyant) lift and the remainder is supported by aerodynamic lift. The combination of aerodynamic and aerostatic lift is an attempt to benefit from both the high speed of aerodynamic craft and the lifting capacity of aerostatic craft.

The Lockheed Martin X-55 Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA) is an experimental twin jet engined transport aircraft which might demonstrate new cargo-carrier capabilities using advanced composites. A project of the United States Air Force's Air Force Research Laboratory, it was built by the international aerospace company Lockheed Martin, at its Advanced Development Programs (Skunk Works) facility in Palmdale, California.


Scaled Composites


Our visit to Scaled Composites in Mohave, CA was unlike any other. We were able to get up close and personal with a number of projects here. You can really see the passion in each of their engineers. Loved seeing their newly aquired 747, which will be used for the new Stratoluanch project.

The Xprize

The group just outside of the Scaled Composites facility.

We want to sincerely thank both Lockheed Martin and Scaled Composites for two of the best tours of our trip to SoCal. More to report when time permits.

Time to finish my coffee and head to the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne facility. We’re meeting right outside an F-1 rocket!! Life sure is great!


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Aerospace Engineering Dream Tour

Companies being toured by the University of Michigan

Over the next seven days I will be keeping a detailed log of the University of Michigan AIAA tour of Southern California’s premier aerospace companies.

Day 1: Travel to LAX

 – The adventures of flying United and American Airlines!

Day 2: JPL and Boeing (Long Beach)

 – Electric propulsion and C-17’s!
– Learn more about JPL and Boeing

Day 3: Northrop Grumman and SpaceX

– F/A-18, Space Park, and lots of ROCKETS!!
– Learn more about Northrop Grumman and SpaceX

Day 4: Lockheed Martin Skunk Works and Scaled Composites

– Revolutionary airplanes and blimps day! I can’t wait!!!
– Learn more about Skunk Works and Scaled Composites

Day 5: Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne

– The J-2X rockets and lots of beaches!!
– Learn more about Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne

Day 6: Edwards Air Force Base

– JSF and much much more!!
– Learn more about Edwards AFB

Day 7: Travel back to Ann Arbor

– The exhausting trip home plus the shear sadness of leaving aerospace paradise.


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