Monthly Archives: April 2014

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.

All There Is To Know About the Flying Game

Staying in the air is important for airplanes.*

*Citation needed.

However, the most important part of being an airplane is making a successful landing, with as few explosions as possible. This way, you can continue being an airplane. Last year, our electrical problems played havoc with our attempted landings, causing serious damage to the plane each day. This year, we rely on first-string electronics (we ended up using backups last year) and our good karma to prevent such issues.

“Struggling” to hold back the plane as the propeller spins at 0 RPM.


Waiting... watching...
Waiting… watching…

0945: We are preparing our plane for technical inspection. The judges check to be sure we have appropriate failsafes (fuses) and that our plane is airworthy. Both are prerequisites for being cleared to try the main missions.

1010: One of our battery packs is mysteriously low on charge! Dedicated readers remember that we just charged last night. Is it leaking?

In the short term, we will attempt two fixes. We will of course recharge. Also, we will disable the low voltage cutoff on the speed controller. Normally, the plane would shut down when the batteries get too low. We can easily override this behavior, to continue flying to the last joule.

We haven’t even been cleared to fly yet and we’re already disabling safety features. Welcome to engineering, check your common sense at the door.

A full house!

1058: The team is hard at work playing cards while we await technical inspection. There are teams from all over the US, both coasts and everywhere in between, not to mention the international teams!

They have us sheltered in a hangar while we wait, protected from today’s vibrant sun. It’s great flying weather, but my Irish complexion is thankful to be in the shade instead.

Work hard, play hard.
Work hard, play hard.
Hanging around the hangar.
Hanging around the hangar.

1135: Batteries charged, and we are producing over 50 Watts/lb! Not too bad.

1202: 18 teams left until they call our number. Also, Mitchell says “I am a frisbee elitist.” I refuse to provide context for that quote on the grounds that it’s funnier without any.

1315: Did you know there are crucial differences between types of shrink wrap? Now you do! And knowing is half the battle! The other half, in our case, is struggling to resolve our battery issues before inspection. We are team 43 and they are on 31 now.

Drama! Thrills! Suspense! Keep mashing the refresh button until I update again, obviously.

1515: Bureaucracy, my old nemesis…

Our plane passes tech inspection, but we aren’t allowed to fly until we fill out the pre-tech inspection form… after tech inspection. Yes, you read that right.

Unfortunately this means we missed our first chance to do the ground taxi mission, but we will get another chance when our number next rolls around. The form has been taken care of!

1645: SOUND THE BELLS, WE ARE CLEARED! The plane passed tech inspection with flying (heh) colors. We will begin our ground test next time our number comes up. I will have a few more updates today re:how the test goes and any subsequent repairs.

1945: Our number never came up! Fortunately we should be just about first in line in the morning.

Tomorrow will come in a separate post. I hope you will be entertained by my slow descent into madness. Hopefully we will also be able to provide you with more pictures of the airfield–there are a lot of experimental planes and cool scrap parts around!

The road to the runway.
The road to the runway.

Handle With Care

Xavier disapproves.

DISASTER!?! Just kidding. Our plane suffered some minor damage from shipping. There is a crack in the tail, a break in the cargo bay top, and various scuffs and scratches. Nothing too serious, but it needs to be taken care of to prevent further damage. We especially need to be sure all of our electronics are in order, as last year our plane suffered from electrical problems. The batteries were too powerful, overloading the speed controller (which regulates power to the propellers), causing overheating and several spectacular unfortunate crashes.

Charged with anticipation.
Charged with anticipation.

We are also taking inventory of all of our tools, spare parts, and backup components. This is so, when everything inevitably goes horribly wrong, we will be able to quickly recover. Other preparations include scouting out driving routes, charging batteries, and spamming this blog with updates for you, dear reader.


Speaking of our burgeoning social media empire, I should give a shout out to our Twitter account, run by my esteemed colleague Mitchell. For those of you hanging on the edge of your seats, he should be able to provide you with more frequent updates than I can.

Can we repair the plane in time? Will we eat Chipotle again? Check back tomorrow for more hard-hitting aeronautical journalism!