Rick Casson isn’t your typical airplane pilot. A student at the University of Saskatchewan and president of the U of S Aerodesign Team, Rick’s not actually behind the stick, and his flying machines are decidedly smaller than the real thing—less than fifteen pounds and remote-controlled, to be exact. But that doesn’t make them any less amazing than the marvels of engineering we fly on everyday. Just like full-size aircraft, it takes a dedicated team pouring over every wingtip and every wire to see their creation take flight.
We recently caught up with Rick and his teammates at SAE Aero Design West 2015, a mechanical engineering competition focusing aeronautical design, to to see if their plane could fly with the rest.
On becoming the next Wilbur Wright: “When I was about six, my dad started building a small two-seat airplane in our garage. That’s every boy’s dream—It was tough to not become interested in airplanes after that. As a teen I helped my dad build a second plane and started training to get my pilot’s license. I was hooked. Today I’m a licensed pilot and I hope to use some of the skills I picked up helping my dad in the shop to build my own airplane.”
On getting the U of S Aero Design Team off the ground: “After seeing some photos of old aircraft-design teams hanging on the walls of my university’s engineering building, I knew I wanted to resurrect the then-discontinued program. I recruited a few friends who were also interested in airplanes and after a few weeks had a new club up and running. Now we compete all over North America with other aircraft design teams flying scaled-down versions of real aircraft. These aren’t the rubber band-powered planes you find in a Cracker Jack box.”
On his club not being a weekend hobby group: “The team is organized in three different design groups: Electrical (motor, battery, wiring, and servos), Surfaces (wings and tail), and Airframe (fuselage and landing gear). This year, I was in charge of the Airframe group. I spent countless hours in 3D modeling software designing the fuselage and manufacturing tiny wood parts to be glued together.”
On learning from failure: “At SAE Aero Design West 2014 we stumbled a bit. First we had some issues with our landing gear, followed by an electrical failure mid-flight that caused our plane to lose radio communication. It’s not a fun feeling to watch a plane you worked so hard on take a nosedive into the ground and shatter into hundreds of pieces. But we worked through it, and amazingly we managed to get the plane back to a flight-worthy state using spare parts. That day taught us that anything can go wrong, and you need to be test for any contingency. And then test again!”
On what to consider when designing an aircraft: “Don’t rush things, because that’s how mistakes are made. And make sure you’ve got a strong group of designers, building these planes is a team effort. There is no way that we could have modeled and built our plane without everyone contributing.”
On Van Nuys being sketchier than Saskatchewan: “On the first day of competition at this year’s Aero Design West there was apparently a live gunman having a standoff with police just a few blocks away. Police helicopters were circling the area for hours before they finally got him into custody. That’s something that doesn’t happen in Saskatchewan.”
On whether he wants to go into aviation when he graduates: “What do you think?!”
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