Cal Poly’s aeronautical engineering program didn’t always focus on building rockets and satellites, but was once a fully functional airfield complete with hangars and military flight training.
The program originally started in 1927 under the name “Engineering Mechanics and Aeronautics” due to its emphasis on airplanes. The campus also happened to be in a strategic location for a flying school.
“Cal Poly has the good fortune of being located in an area that always was interested in aviation,” wrote former aerospace engineering professor Russell Cummings.
The Cal Poly alumnus documented the history of the major in a report entitled “From Biplanes to Reusable Launch Vehicles: 75 Years of Aircraft Design at Cal Poly.” He stated that Cal Poly had a tradition of students making airplanes, starting with the construction of the Glenmont in 1928.
Originally the professors designed aeronautical engineering as a way to train students as aircraft mechanics. They also conducted most classes in the old airplane hangar, now known as the Research Development building (Bldg. 4).
“We spent most of our time up there, and it was kind of a dirty, dusty, jeans and T-shirts kind of a place,” Cummings said. “Now things are much more modern, (as well as) newer and cleaner. But the essence of the program hasn’t changed, especially the hands-on aspect.”
Cummings wrote that the construction of the Glenmont plane received inspiration from Charles Lindbergh and his “Spirit of St. Louis” that went across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. That was also the same year Cal Poly offered aeronautics to students.
“Originally aeronautics was more like technology programs,” Cummings explained. “The original department was a place where people came to learn how to be mechanics and to service aircraft and also to work in the brand new industry of aviation.”
Cummings noted that aerospace did not exist back then. The major simply focused on the aeronautics aspect, especially with learning about engines, structures, and basic aerodynamics. It also used to include drafting, maintenance, and repairs, which are no longer offered in the curriculum.
“Approximately 20 students participated in all aspects of the construction, including structures, electrical systems, and engines,” Cummings wrote.
The success of the Glenmont inspired other students to attempt to build a new airplane every year. Students designed and built a two-seat biplane in 1930 and later developed a monoplane with three wings in 1931.
The continued success of airplane construction and flight tests led the Department of Commerce to license the aeronautics department as “Approved Repair Station No. 84” in the early 1930s.
In its early years, the average aeronautical engineering student also learned things on the side as a result of being around airplanes, even though it was a three-year program.
“Many students remember learning to fly from their instructors, an unofficial by-product of Cal Poly,” Cummings wrote. “A large number of students from the 1930s went on to long careers as airline pilots.”
Like today’s aeronautical engineers, licensing and certification reinforced what students learned at Cal Poly. Aeronautic students needed to have a license to practice as an aircraft mechanic.
Even though Cal Poly designed the curriculum in the 1930s as a path to work as an airplane mechanic, many graduates from the program were allowed to work as engineers in the industry thanks to the unique education. That tradition continues to this day.
“Our student is the product, and that’s what private aerospace companies are looking for,” said aerospace engineering professor Faysal Kolkailah. “Sometimes they help us with money, while sometimes they help us with equipment.”
The reputation of the department became famous when Amelia Earhart landed her plane on campus in 1936. Her flight instructor knew the best place to repair aircraft was at Cal Poly.
“She heard of the reputation of the department, so she decided to bring her planes for repairs there,” Cummings wrote.
During World War II, the department played an integral part in the American war machine. Cummings noted that the U.S. Navy designated the campus as one of its 20 Naval Flight Preparatory Schools, where more than 3,600 naval aviation cadets completed their training.
The Army Corps of Engineers also built a runway on campus during the 1940s, thus enhancing Cal Poly’s status as a “fleet school” in 1943. That runway, located near Bldg. 4, has since been converted to soccer and baseball fields.
Cummings said that two-thirds of Cal Poly aero graduates from the 1940s became pilots. Many of them also witnessed the evolution of airplane technology as pilots.
“They started (flying) in propeller-driven aircraft,” Cummings explained. “One of them worked for Pan-Am, and he started with a flying boat. He went from flying boats to flying a (Boeing) 747 by the time he retired.”
Flying high, the 1950s to the present
By the 1950s, Cal Poly changed the department’s name into “Aeronautical Engineering.” Cummings wrote that this was a time period when Cal Poly emerged as a real university instead of a “junior college.” But Cal Poly’s engineering programs had to adapt to strict accreditation procedures.
While the program kept many of its classes that led to jobs as an aircraft mechanic, it added another year and introduced students to the science of aeronautics. These courses included calculus, physics and aerodynamics.
In this same period the airstrip soon had a hangar and an annex that housed most of the department’s activities.
The curriculum became even more complex by 1960.
“Courses had also been added in fluid mechanics, stress analysis, chemistry, electrical engineering, gas dynamics and rocket propulsion,” Cummings wrote.
However, the department also eliminated some courses as it changed to meet current standards. Cummings mentioned some classes once offered by aero.
“Sheet metal for aircraft and radio installation service (courses) are gone,” Cummings said. “The big difference is the big tech courses they took back then. There was even a class for painting (airplanes).”
The aeronautical engineering program finally received accreditation in 1969.
In spite of its newly acquired seal of approval, Cal Poly stuck to its early aeronautical roots, setting it apart from other universities that pursued engineering programs strictly based on science.
“The department maintained its earlier emphasis on construction and design of aircraft, something that would make Cal Poly fairly unique for the following decades,” Cummings wrote.
Other colleges that primarily compete with Cal Poly’s aerospace engineering program included Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, University of Kansas and Iowa State. That rivalry has lasted to this day.
That decision to stay with its roots produced many graduates that went on to excel in the field of aerospace. Some of these people included Burt Rutan (founder of Scaled Composites) and Robert “Hoot” Gibson (former NASA Chief Astronaut). But other people were unlikely aerospace graduates too.
“There are people that have gone on to other careers but graduated from the same department,” Cummings said. “For example, Alex Spanos, the owner of the San Diego Chargers, was a Cal Poly aero grad. People have come on to do all kinds of things.”
Cal Poly maintained its unusual balance of aircraft design with the engineering aspects during the 1970s. The college also hired professors with graduate and Ph.D. degrees as well as people from the aeronautical industry itself, and that led to even more developments.
John Nicolaides became the aeronautical engineering department head in the 1970s. During his time here, he tried to find ways to practically apply parafoil. It is made of a strong yet light fabric, shaped like an airplane wing and can be used as a kite or a parachute.
The legacy continued in the 1980s and 1990s, when a few students from the department worked on a project involving the world’s first human-powered helicopter. They kept a human-powered helicopter hovering for 6.8 seconds in 1989, a certified aviation record.
“They learned so much from working on those aircraft that it goes beyond what they learned beyond the classroom, (including) textbook material and concepts,” Cummings said. “When they go out and build it, they learn for real what those things mean and learn limitations.”
Because of the increasing demand for engineers with experience in space-related issues during the 1990s, Cal Poly changed the name of the aeronautical engineering department to the Aerospace Engineering Department. But that change came slowly.
“Many programs had renamed themselves ‘aerospace’ in the 1960s and 1970s,” Cummings explained. “Cal Poly resisted such a change until the facilities and faculty was in place to offer students a true astronautics option for their education.”
The major now and its future
Today, aerospace engineering students can also work on building satellites and rockets in addition to aircraft. However, department chair Jordi Puig-Suari said that the program will stick to its early roots.
“We have always been a design-oriented place,” Puig-Suari said. “In order to design an airplane or spacecraft we need to have a big picture view of the system as a package that brings it all together.”
Though the department has grown in leaps and bounds over the years, there is still much to be done to keep up with an ever-changing industry.
“There are new classes that need to be added,” Puig-Suari said. “There’s lab equipment and projects, and we are hiring more space faculty.”
Aerospace engineering senior Wenschel Lan said there differences between aeronautical and aerospace engineering. Lan noted that they are allowed to choose between the aeronautical and aerospace concentrations as part of the major.
“Aeronautical focuses on any and all types of aircraft, and spacecraft focuses on interplanetary missions and satellites,” Lan explained.
Aerospace engineering senior William Whalen noted that the only thing lacking in the curriculum was the rotary, or a lack of a helicopter program, at Cal Poly. He later described the purpose of CubeSat and PolySat.
“We essentially organize the launches,” Whalen said. “A company comes to us and wants something tested. Since our satellites are small and cheap, we can test components for companies and also do our own testing at the same time while we get paid for it.
Based on its lively past and its current projects, Kolkailah thought that the aerospace engineering program has a bright future at Cal Poly.
“I’m very pleased and very optimistic of the future of our department,” Kolkailah said. “We are on very solid ground, and I see nothing but going up.”
Cummings thought that the aerospace program has managed to withstand the test of time.
“Some things have changed, and some things in good ways haven’t changed,” Cummings said. “The aero department traditionally was very hands-on.”