By LTC Richard Melnyk, MAJ Brent Pafford, CPT Daniel Brown, and CPT Drew Curriston: For decades, the academic flight program at the United States Military Academy (USMA) has operated nonstandard fixed-wing aircraft to promote excellence in aeronautical engineering. The mission of USMA is to educate, train and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the nation as an officer in the United States Army.
A Cessna 182 assigned to the U.S. Military Academy Civil and Mechanical Engineering Flight Section on the ramp at the end of the day. / U.S. MILITARY ACADEMY PHOTO BY LTC RICHARD MELNYK
To help support that mission, the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering’s (CME) academic flight program educates cadets on aerodynamic theory and flight laboratory experimentation, and inspires future aviators through mentorship and familiarization with Army Aircraft, and Army Aviation operations. Roughly a third of the students in the Mechanical Engineering program take courses in aeronautical engineering and somewhere between 15-20% of all Aviation officers who graduate from West Point every year come from the mechanical engineering program. As a result, the academic flight program has the opportunity to shape many of the West Point graduates that report to Fort Rucker every fall.
History of the CME Flight Section at USMA
West Point has had a significant role in the advance of flight and aeronautical knowledge since the early days of aviation. In fact, the first military aviator, 1LT Thomas Selfridge, was a 1903 graduate who went on to receive his flight training from the Wright brothers. Since the 1920’s West Point has included some type of aerodynamics instruction in the curriculum. Over the years, the way in which the material is taught has changed, but the intent has remained the same. Aerodynamics at West Point is a very practical topic presented as a way to prepare future leaders and aviators for the challenges of integrating aviation technology into the service. As far back as 1921, the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, General Douglas McArthur, wrote about the Academy’s Aerodynamics course that the “…instruction is made as practical as possible by using charts, graphs, models, results of wind tunnel tests, lantern slides, films, lectures and actual demonstrations of an airplane.” This focus on practical application remains a hallmark of the aeronautics curriculum at West Point to this day.
Cadets Chris Lee and William Spurgeon take measurements of the propeller on the airplane before taking data to predict drag on a propeller in power off flight. / U.S. MILITARY ACADEMY PHOTO BY CPT(P) DREW CURRISTON
To achieve the most effective level of hands-on instruction possible, the department began conducting fixed-wing flight laboratories in 1970 with three T-41 aircraft. In 1989, the U.S. Army replaced the T-41s with a Cessna 182Q and a Cessna 182R. The Cessna 182 is an excellent platform for performing the Flight Laboratories since it has the capacity to carry an instructor and two students, is stable, and can perform maneuvers over a large range of airspeeds and center of gravity positions. In addition to the fixed-wing courses and labs, a helicopter flight laboratory is conducted in the UH-72 Lakota.
Aeronautical Engineering Curriculum
Unlike the Naval and Air Force Academies, West Point does not offer an aeronautical engineering degree. Instead, the aerospace curriculum is a path within the framework of a classical mechanical engineering program. The department offers courses on both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aerodynamics. The two fixed-wing courses focus primarily on conventional, subsonic aircraft while the rotary-wing course covers conventional helicopter aeronautics and helicopter design.
Cadets Griffin Gerchman and Brandon Lloyd getting ready to participate in a flight lab where the instructors demonstrate aircraft controls, steep turns, stalls, and high and low-g flight. In addition, they will take data to predict the lift created by the wing based on angle of attack. / U.S. MILITARY ACADEMY PHOTO BY CPT(P) DREW CURRISTON
Cadets Chris Lee and William Spurgeon take measurements of the propeller on the airplane before taking data to predict drag on a propeller in power off flight.
Cadets who take both fixed-wing aeronautics courses will participate in three flight labs, one in ME387: Introduction to Applied Aerodynamics and two in ME481: Aircraft Performance and Static Stability. Each of the labs incorporates some demonstrations of aeronautics principles and some aspect of data collection to compare theory to reality. This second aspect of the labs is most important to create a valuable classroom experience.
The department also conducts rotary-wing flight laboratories to support its undergraduate course ME388: Helicopter Aeronautics. This lab reinforces the concepts of power required at various forward airspeeds, ground effect, effective translational lift, and control power. The lab is conducted in the UH-72 Lakota and is supported by the 2nd Aviation Detachment, the flight detachment that supports USMA for VIP flights and parachute demonstrations.
These labs conducted in flight all achieve the following goals:
- Provide students with quality, hands-on instruction one-on-one with their instructor in an actual aircraft.
- Build technical understanding of the aerodynamics and performance of airplanes and helicopters for both students and instructors.
- Validate theory presented in the classroom through hands-on application.
- Reinforce the test and experimentation aspect of engineering.
- Excite students about aeronautical engineering and inspire in them the desire for continued learning.
Perhaps the greatest value of the flight lab experience is best summed up by the students who participate in them. In the words of one student who was an aspiring Army aviator, “When we did the flight labs, a lot of concepts started to click as soon as I was able to look at and touch the wings of the airplane. Being able to put my hand on something and ask very specific questions was a great help.” Another student said, “Much like Physics classes that have labs, or Social Science classes that visit the United Nations, it is very useful to see the actual system that you spend years learning how to model. For me, flight labs helped me to better understand the capabilities of the aircraft, as well as believe what I hear in class.” Finally, another student summed it up best when he said, “Sitting there having it explained while the aircraft is in flight allowed me to finally understand the more esoteric concepts covered in class. It was like a light bulb would come on and I couldn’t help smiling at finally understanding what the instructor was saying. Making the flight lab a session where the pilot basically teaches a lesson while the cadets are engaged in a hands-on flight experience is by far the best way to learn anything.”
The CME Flight Section
The Cessna 182s operated by the Flight Section are fully Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) capable and have been modified with additional equipment including three-bladed propellers, four-place intercom systems, digital fuel consumption rate indicators, digital engine cylinder temperature monitors, Garmin 530 navigation system, and an Aspen EFD 1000 display. The Fixed-Wing Project Office provides logistical support and manages the aircraft as part of the nonstandard fleet.
To operate these aircraft safely and provide in-flight engineering instruction, CME is authorized five rated Army Aviators under the Table of Distribution and Allowances (TDA). The four junior faculty have completed their key and developmental position as captains, are Army Aviators who are selected to pursue a Masters of Science in Aerospace Engineering, and typically serve a three-year tour at USMA. The senior Army Aviator is an Academy Professor having earned a Doctorate in Aerospace Engineering and will remain on the faculty until retirement providing continuity for the Flight Section. All of the aviators complete the Army’s Fixed Wing Multi Engine Qualification Course (FWMEQC) before arriving, but typically come from a variety of rotary wing airframes. This range of experience helps the Flight Section mentor and inspire future aviators as they compete to branch Aviation and to determine what aircraft best suits their personality. A key aspect of the program is that the same instructors who teach in the classroom, operate the aircraft and demonstrate principles in the air. Therefore, the cockpit becomes an extension of the classroom.
The West Point academic flight program remains a strong and vital part of the Mechanical Engineering program inspiring cadets to gain a better understanding of aeronautical principles, aircraft systems, and Aviation operations. With a legacy of over 100 years of involvement with flight and aeronautics at the Academy, along with the Black Knights chapter of AAAA, the Aviation branch representative, and members of the 2nd Aviation Detachment, it helps develop many of the cadets who go on to be leaders in our great branch.
LTC Richard Melnyk is an academy professor, MAJ Brent Pafford the flight section OIC, and CPT(P) Daniel Brown and CPT(P) Drew Curriston are junior faculty all assigned to the United States Military Academy Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, West Point, NY.