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Aerospace engineering takes off at Leicester

14 October 2013 Leicester, University of

A University of Leicester Professor has taken science practicals to a new level—by taking the controls of a Piper PA28 aircraft and flying the students himself.

Professor Chris Binns, of the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, who also has a commercial pilot’s license, is running a new module designed to teach students about the practical aspects of control and navigation systems.

The module, which runs from this year, will see three students at a time taken on one hour long flights from Leicester Airport to Coventry, during which Professor Binns will demonstrate the principles of navigation and flight controls. The plane used for the flights is equipped with a variable pitch propeller, retractable landing gear, autopilot and the instruments required to fly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC): that is, when low visibility makes flying by eye impossible.

“We believe it is very important that engineers develop an in-depth understanding in real applications of the engineering principles they are taught in lectures,” Professor Binns says. “This is particularly true in aerospace engineering. We all put an enormous amount of trust into the design of aeroplanes and it is better that they are designed, maintained and repaired by engineers who have an intuitive feel for how they behave in practice and what a pilot demands of them.”

There will also be a one-hour measurement test flight, allowing students to measure wing angle of attack as a function of airspeed and other factors required to calculate wing lift coefficient—essential for understanding the factors affecting how a plane climbs and stays in the air. During this flight, Professor Binns will also demonstrate the primary, secondary and tertiary effects of the controls. After the flights, a three hour activity session will allow students to collate data gained from the flight and calculate the wing lift coefficient.

The flights and on-hand experience will be supplemented by lectures on instruments, autopilot, and navigation by radio, GPS and INS (Inertial Navigation Systems).

“The flight instruments, radio navigation electronics and autopilot systems that are presented in lectures will be seen working in practice so the students can see their importance and also their limitations in real situations,” Professor Binns says. “In addition, the students will get a full training on the primary, secondary and tertiary effects of the flight controls so they will get an in-depth understanding of how the aircraft controls interact with each other. Finally they will get the experience of making measurements in the air, which they can analyse back on the ground to extract important parameters of aircraft performance. Of course, we also hope that they enjoy this part of their training! We have a fortunate set of circumstances in Leicester that allows us to offer this training at particularly low cost. We have a licensed airport with an excellent flying school just five miles from the city and they have been very supportive in setting up these flight practicals.”

The course will provide tangible benefits for students as they move through their degree and into work: “This module will give students a competitive edge when applying for jobs in aerospace engineering,” says Professor Binns. “In addition, much of the course is closely aligned with the ATPL (Air Transport Pilot’s Licence) ground school that is given to commercial pilots. These days it is not unusual for pilots to be graduates, and if any of the students wanted to train as a pilot, the course will be very beneficial to their ground school and also an important addition to their CV.

“I am sure our students are really excited about starting the module,” Professor Binns says. “I can’t wait to meet them and get them in the air!”

Karim Shawki, a third year Aerospace Engineering student, adds: ”This will be my first time in a cockpit and seeing all of the equipment we have been learning about. I am really excited as it means we will be able to incorporate the theory we have been learning in such a practical way. It is always much better to see what we’re learning in real life.”

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