It Begins

Hello airplane enthusiasts and welcome to the 2015-2016 Season!  Now that we’ve reclaimed access to our blog, we should become much more active.

Anyway, this year’s season is now in full swing.  We have a new executive board, new members, and a brand new challenge.  This year’s challenge requires the use of two planes, one called the production plane, which carries a 32 oz. Gatorade bottle.  The other plane then carries the production plane broken down into various sub-assemblies.  This should be a good challenge, and we’re really excited to see what we wind up doing.  Hopefully you, our readers, are as well.

Old and new members on our annual trip to the Intrepid last weekend.
Old and new members on our annual trip to the Intrepid last weekend.

The Year That Never Was

Some of you loyal followers may have noticed our complete lack of activity for the 2014-2015 Season.  My only excuse is that we were all too afraid to follow the mastery of our former blog runner after he graduated (and might have had issue finding the blog’s permissions).  Anyway, here’s what you missed on Columbia AIAA:

The 2014-2015 challenge was to construct a plane capable of carrying a 4″ x 5″ x 10″ block which weighed 5 lbs, and also capable of carrying wiffleballs, which were to be dropped off of the plane in a given zone, one per lap (this action, obviously, bears no resemblance to dropping bombs).

Construction of the Plane
Construction of the Plane

After a lot of consideration, we decided to design our plane to only carry one wiffleball, both because it would make flying the third mission easier (only one lap!) and because how quickly we could load and unload the block and wiffleballs was a multiplier on the rest of our score.

Also in an attempt to reduce our loading time, we decided to have a removable nose cone.  That prevented our usual single motor design, so we had dual motors on the plane instead.

Two motors means lots of electronics in the wing box.

After some testing and crashing in which we learned, among other things, that certain members of our team should not be allowed to video flight attempts, our plane was declared ready for competition.  We shipped it out and flew to Tuscon, Arizona to compete.

At competition in Tuscon, we had some issues, centrally the continued desire of our landing gear to part with the rest of the plane.  After a lot of rapid repair and four flight attempts, we made it through the first mission!  Despite never getting through the second (to fix our landing gear problem, we made the plane too heavy to take off in the required distance), we had a loading time of 16 seconds, which gave us a good enough multiplier to take 37th out of the 81 teams.  Success!

Our team and plane at competition!

Bylaws & Biplanes

The discovery of the AIAA Constitution. But will it pass?

The club delved too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of the Activities Board at Columbia… a terror of shadow and flame. We found our club constitution! Apparently  we have been operating for the last several years while totally unaware of the rules governing our own existence.

Naturally, they are full of amusing typos and exploitable loopholes. It will be an instructive exercise to highlight these issues, in preparation for our club’s drafting of a new constitution next week (with a top-notch spell checker). Formatting and errors are preserved in the excerpts below, with the addition of angry red text comments for the reader’s amusement.

Article I – Section 1.  The name of this organization shall be Columbia Chapter of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics hereafter referred to as AIAA. (I like to believe that the full name of the organization actually includes “hereafter referred to as AIAA” because there are no quotation marks to indicate otherwise.)

Top: Frodo Baggins
Bottom: Club Treasure

Article I – Section 2.  The officers of President, Vice President, and Treasure (Treasure? TREASURE?!?) shall make up the executive board of AIAA, hereafter referred to as the ‘Board’.  A secretary may also serve when such interest exists.

The President has this to say about the Treasure position:  It has been drawn to my attention that we currently have NO CLUB TREASURE, which is in violation of our current club articles. The club Treasure has no actual duties or powers mentioned in this constitution, but is apparently vital. 

Since the only other mention of requirements for Club Treasure is that they must 1. be a member and 2. be an undergraduate student in CC or SEAS, I will award until such time as the position is abolished or elections are held the position of Treasure to the first person meeting those requirements who calls dibs.

I called dibs. I am now the club Treasure.

Article II – Section 2.  The Board shall be charged with the responsibility of defining the annual goals of the organization (We’ve never actually done this.) and with acting responsibly (LOL) in pursuit of these goals.

Article IV – Section 2.  The President has the ultimate authority over the meetings.  However, as the group is really a team, that aspect must be honored.

This is the sort of ambiguity that leads to common law, and lawyers having to memorize previous cases to know how future disputes will be ruled by judges. I like it!

Article V – Section 1. Officers shall be nominated by the outgoing members molding the [positions on the Board.  Nominees must be confirmed by a majority of the current members. (This bracket is never closed. Therefore, the entire rest of the constitution is technically part of Article V, Section 1.)

Article V – Section 2.  Only members who are undergraduate students in Columbia College or the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science may hold the position of President or Treasure. (Sorry Barnard and GS students. And maybe Treasure isn’t a typo after all…?)  No single member may be BOTH the president and the treasure (GAH!) simultaneously.

Notice there is no restriction on being President and Vice President simultaneously. If the President is impeached, he can simply replace himself and then re-appoint himself as Vice President.

Article VI – Section 1.  By-Laws of the organization shall be established and altered by unanimous decisions by the Board and a 3-5 vote by the upperclassmen.



Until this evening, our President was the entire Board, and thus wielded dictatorial power. However, after I called dibs (see above) I, in my official though poorly defined capacity as Treasure of the team, have the chance to veto all of his decisions before they come to a general vote. Truly, the Treasure wields considerable power.

Article VI – Section 2.  By-Laws of the Board shall be established and altered by unanimous decision of the upperclassmen in the club.

Yes, the upperclassmen of the club can make the rules the board has to follow without the board having any say in the matter.

The Upperclassmen



Can’t Fly Me Love

I have resorted to aerospace engineering/British pop music crossover puns. Is nothing sacred?

First, you should watch this hysterical video of the disastrous first flight of our prototype plane. We were young and foolish then. [vimeo][/vimeo]

Seriously, we have come a long way this year. The final results are still being tabulated, but we expect to be 17th out of over 80 teams. This is a good 25+ places higher than last year. Considering that many of the other teams come from large engineering schools with actual aerospace departments, we are extremely happy with our improvement.

We met two, three, even four times a week all year. Rain or shine, midterms or Mondays, we worked anyway. The effort paid off, because our plane stood its ground against fearsome winds for all of its missions and came back for more. It was a bit on the heavy side, but that worked in our favor to keep it steady during rough conditions. Our brand new motor, supplied with 450+ W, had power in spades. Although its structural integrity was never tested by a crash or even a rough landing, we were very confident in our fuselage’s construction–a plywood frame with carbon fiber reinforcements in key areas.

All three flight tasks and the ground taxi mission were completed without a single crash. The only  repair we ever made was straightening out the rear landing gear after it bent. Our equipment worked so well, in fact, we found ourselves lending our transmitter to other teams, helping a rookie UC Berkeley team with their plane (THEY COMPLETED MISSIONS THEIR FIRST YEAR WOO CONGRATS), and passing out spare parts when needed.

That was probably my favorite part of the event, that it was more of an exhibition than a competition. It was a great chance to see teams of young engineers from around the world take different approaches to the same problems, and share solutions freely to help each other improve. Everyone wanted everyone to do well. Combine this with AIAA’s great organization of the event (now in its 18th year, so they’ve had some practice!), and we all had a tremendous weekend.

Summary: LIKE A BOSS

I’ve tried to avoid talking about myself too much on this blog, but I’m about to graduate and have to leave this team FOREVER AND EVER and I’m glad to be doing so on a high note. Two years ago, we didn’t even get to fly because of a tornado warning.

Side note, have another amusing video, this time of our foam practice plane being blown away in the windstorm that year:


Last year, we flew twice, but with serious electrical problems that caused devastating crashes. Ultimately our plane was too badly mangled to try flying on the last day. This year, we didn’t have to put a single screw back in place (although we did get lost trying to drive half a mile from Chipotle to our hotel). And I couldn’t be more proud of all our progress.


Soar, Lion, Soar

I offer my sincerest apologies for my continually terrible puns. Alternate titles include a LOTR reference “This Day We Flight!” Don’t hit me.

Flight videos!!!111!!!

Today is the last day of the competition, and therefore the last day of BLOGSPAM 2014. I will try to keep you updated here as we attempt our final mission and wrap up events here.


The ground taxi and first two flight missions were perilous, nerve-wracking affairs. This morning, while awaiting our third mission slot, we watched the rainclouds slowly roll in, painting the sky in somber gray.

The wind, of course, continued. Several planes met unfortunate ends, tumbling from funereal skies to a tarmac coffin.

Ours, however, was unfazed. With the steady grace of a seasoned veteran, it took wing against the wind. This mission called for three laps with the same weight as the last, but in a new configuration.

One. An easy lap, sweeping smoothly through each turn.

Two. More difficult. A gust lifted the nose to vertical, but our pilot turned the flip into a loop and continued on.

Three. A struggle forward, as rain began to spritz the crowd. Finally, time to land, a few short seconds more difficult than the previous minutes of flight combined.

Our first pass was spoiled by a sudden crosswind that threatened a rollover. We doubled back, for a second run. There was no need for a third.

Do You Even Lift?


"Do we need these wings?" "Nah."
“Do we need these wings?” “Nah.”

Still the wind blew, and still we defied it. We changed to a new propeller and ensured the batteries were bursting, as we might need to wring every Coulomb of charge from them. The mission was simple, to fly three laps around the runway, but with the cargo bay full of wooden blocks. A further challenge–assemble the cargo and the plane within five minutes.

Xavier and Veronica did so with time to spare. But the plane was not to be outdone, soaring through the mission in less time than it took to assemble. Which is not to say that the fearsome winds gave up and let that happen. We took in a deep breath, and held it in anticipation.

The wind rustled. The propeller answered with a growl. The wheels rattled, bounced, and finally lifted. Tarmac waited patiently for one false move, ready to dash the frame to pieces if given the chance.

Being loaded to capacity meant greater stability, and the wings did not wobble as much as they had in the last trial. But, the challenge was to do three laps, and we had only done two in the last mission. Worse, our motor struggled to carry on, pulling forward only just faster than the winds were pushing back. Only just, but just enough.

The turns were easier, with with less fear of rolling over. The trip back, with the wind at our backs, was again the easiest leg of every lap. And again, it was landing that put gray hairs on all our heads.

Have you ever seen a propeller plane hover when flying against headwind? There is something inherently wrong about the sight. It seemed suspended, like a cartoon character that hasn’t looked down yet after walking off a cliff. Then it fell, too fast! But wait, the pilot jammed the flaperons just in time, and the plane squeaked away from a hard landing. Only now it was careening forward, inches above the tarmac.

Finally, a landing. Wheels scrabbled, rattled, and swerved. The rudder made a few final twitches as it guided the plane to rest in safety. The team collectively exhaled, not sure if we had breathed at all in the intervening four minutes. Yes, the mission was over in less time than it took to assemble the plane.

Tomorrow, once more unto the breach. We should have videos of our flights up soon as well.

The Boneyard: Cessna Field

Most of the photographs (Courtesy of our dashing cameraman Erik!) we have posted so far are close ups of the plane and the build team. But he has also captured some striking imagery of the backlot areas of Cessna Field.

These didn’t fit in anywhere else, so I decided to leave them here. The best description I can come up with is “beautifully post-apocalyptic.” Enjoy, and click on the pictures for gorgeous full resolution!


DSC_0788 DSC_0789 DSC_0787DSC_0792

Do Not Talk About Flight Club

No word on which one of us is Tyler Durden.

Today we have to do something unusual. We have to prevent our plane from taking off! The mission is to roll along a corrugated sheet analogous to a dirt runway. We have to maneuver around a few obstacles, but the plane has to remain grounded! This is trickier than it sounds, as the plane is driven by the propeller and must have the wings attached for this test. We had to balance a short take off distance (there is a minimum requirement for later missions) with the ability to taxi without liftoff.

We should be called for the mission soon after the competition managers finish setting up. It’s a little chilly out here but it will only get hotter as the day goes on.

The plane has no issues (nothing has gone wrong because nothing has happened yet) so we are anticipating a good run. Our wheels fit almost exactly between the corrugated sheet ridges, which does make it difficult to accelerate over them. However, there is a plywood “on ramp” we start on, to gain up speed. We have easily cleared the sheet in practice runs using a similar tactic.

Since the taxi mission has little chance of damaging the plane (except now I’ve cursed us by saying that) we should ideally get to fly today as well.

I will provide updates here until we start flying, then link to the next post! (Three guesses what the next title is.)


0930: Did we complete our taxi mission? It’s vitally important, as it acts as a multiplier for the rest if our score. Read on, out loud and in your best dramatic voice.

It was a chilly, overcast, and blustery morning at Cessna Field. Sustained 20 MPH winds buffeted planes and flight crews on the ground, and gusts swatted unlucky planes from the air during their flights. Our task was simple, roll along a corrugated sheet, around two barriers made from lumber.

In calm conditions, our plane had been more than up to the challenge. But when our number came up, we were allotted five minutes. Three hundred seconds, breeze or gale.

On each attempt, the wind howled across our wings, driving the plane back or sweeping it out of bounds. We didn’t dare keep the propeller on full throttle for fear of taking off and failing the mission.

Tick. Two minutes.

Success? The plane navigated both obstacles, but a gust kicked the rear landing gear just off the edge of the track as it crossed the finish line. We looked to the judge. “Sorry.” He said simply.

Tock. One minute.

A scramble to recover the plane and reset it at the beginning again. A reckless drive for the finish, like something from the Dukes of Hazzard, during a lull.

One last gust, throwing the rear wheel into a collision with the final obstacle. It bent, now useless, but the plane would not be denied. A desperate lunge for the finish before time out or the wind returned, the propeller screaming as it dragged its mangled landing gear…

…over the line! A successful end to a nerve wracking ordeal.

Summary: They see us rollin’, they hatin’.

Gonna Fly Now

We made an inspirational montage as we prepared the plane for the flight mission. Unfortunately it consists of one clip, us straightening out the mangled rear landing gear.

We will have to—


This plane arrived to deliver the news.
This plane arrived to deliver the news.

Our number came up again so quickly that I didn’t even have time to finish writing before we went to the first flight mission. Please put on your best dramatic reading voice again:

Late morning. The sun had scorched away most of the clouds, but the wind remained. Its temper had settled, and the gusts were less frequent and less intense.

But, while our cargo bay was full for the taxi mission, we had to fly unloaded here. The plane needed to survive four minutes in the air, and reclaim the earth on its own terms, without crashing.

But first we needed to take off. We switched propellers and tweaked our electronics, upping our power output to a startling 450 Watts.

It almost wasn’t enough. Stiff wind blew us into the air as much as we flew forward to take off. Thirty pulse pounding seconds later, the plane clawed through the wind to the first flag.

Going the other way was easy; we couldn’t slow down with such a strong tail wind, even if we wanted to. This process repeated, a struggle one way and a reckless sprint the other.

Four minutes elapsed, time to land. The terrifying part. We turned into the wind one more time, slowing until the plane almost hovered. It drifted down to earth, looking almost graceful. But all the way, it was on the verge of being blown backwards and tumbling to a crash.

Finally, the wheels touched down. Bump, bounce, skid. Two laps, no damage. Lighter, less powerful planes were not so fortunate. But we returned, victorious.

Not to mention FABULOUS.
Not to mention FABULOUS.
Our adoring public.
Our adoring public.