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Meet: Andrew Hahn

Conceptual Aircraft Designer
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

My Journals

Chat Archive

Who am I

I am a conceptual airplane designer. What this means is that I, and other members of my branch, design airplanes at a very basic level. We don't get into the nuts and bolts details that are necessary when someone actually sits down to build an airplane. Instead, we use previous designs and engineering judgment to estimate what we think a particular design is capable of doing. In a way, it is like trying to tell the future. We start with a set of requirements to get a basic idea of what the airplane should look like. We think about how big the wings are, whether the wings are swept, what kind of engine to use and other pretty basic questions. Our job is to take a look at all of the requirements and constraints and see if we can fit in technologies that make sense, considering things like cost limitations. In the end, we come up with the basic configuration of an airplane.

We have a joke that most of the airplanes around have been designed on the back of napkins at coffee houses. Actually a lot of the design starts that way. People just start trying to convey what it is they're thinking by making simple drawings and sketches. That's actually the fun part, but obviously there is a lot more to design than that. There's a big non-fun part which is having to do the work of deciding whether or not those sketches make any sense. It's interesting work but it is also very difficult and intense. You have to know a lot of math. You have to have a lot of computer skills. You have to be able to use physics on a daily basis. One of the things that takes getting used to is that there is no "right" answer. When your teacher gives you a problem to solve, it usually has only one answer and she or he can look it up in a solution guide. My job is challenging because we are trying to find the best answer we can from very many possible solutions and there is no clear way of knowing how good the one we wind up with is. On top of that, the difference between a good design and a very good design may be only a few percent in drag, weight or cost.

Tools Used

We use a bunch of computer codes that range from something that's just text driven, not a lot of fun to look at, all the way to computational fluid dynamics, which is a lot of fun to look at. Each code solves a different part of the design puzzle, and we then combine all of the individual answers into one over all solution. Not all of our work is on individual airplane designs though. A lot of our work is intended to improve the tools of design, to make airplane design more accurate, faster, and easier. We have a lot of person-years of development into our computer programs. One of the programs we are working on right now has been in development since 1960s. It's almost as old as I am.

Who Do I Work For?

Our customer is first and foremost the American people. Our research helps people both directly and indirectly. We help people directly by participating in large projects, like the ERAST program, that build airplanes for atmospheric science. These airplanes will allow scientists to fly their instruments to places they have never been able to so they can study our atmosphere, its weather, and pollution. We help people indirectly by doing basic research that individual aircraft companies really can't do by themselves. This spreads the cost and risk of trying new ideas over the entire industry which will benefit everyone who hops on a plane to see family for the holidays, who is defended by our armed forces, or who flies light airplanes for fun. That sounds like just about all of us.

Past Projects

In the past, I have worked on Buoyant Quad Rotors (blimps with helicopters attached), jet transports, fighters, bombers, and Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) airplanes. Some of my work is for civilian use and some is for the military. For example, my group once did a study for the Navy. They wanted to know what the future Navy should look like, and the way to do this was to design a bunch of future navies and to try them against each other. We supplied the airplanes for those potential future navies.

Right now I am doing work on the ERAST program which is for very high altitude airplanes. We have four companies that are tasked to build airplanes that will carry an atmospheric science payloads to as high as 85,000 feet. My job is to support them because their design capability doesn't completely cover the range of flight conditions that these planes will see. To give you an idea of how hard this mission is to do, the altitude requirement is about two and a half times higher than most airliners cruise at and is about 10,000 feet higher than the U-2 spy plane can fly. The only airplanes capable of flying at this altitude for any length of time have been big, expensive, and way too fast for the instruments to work. These design problems are really complicated and specific to a mission that has little commercial value, so we can't expect private companies to each have the same capabilities that NASA has. It would actually be wasteful in terms of resources and could bankrupt them. It is much better for us to each work on the part that we can do best and share what we know. NASA is in a really good position to share because we are not in competition with anybody and so we try to help all of the companies that work with us.

Career Path

I grew up in Buffalo, New York. I have had a basic interest in airplane, car, and boat design since I was small. Besides having the basic interest, I needed a good foundation in science or math and English. I tried very hard in school because I knew it would give me the best chance of achieving my dream of designing airplanes. I did pretty good, and I went off to college, not knowing how difficult it would be.

Luckily, I managed to get through my undergraduate work. My degree is in aerospace engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona Beach, Florida. It's named after Mr. Embry and Mr. Riddle who started teaching flying and mechanics just 22 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight.

Getting the job at NASA was really an accident. I wasn't looking for a job at the time, but my roommate had a job and he asked if I could come with him. NASA said yes and two days later we left Florida to take co-op positions at the Ames Research Center in Northern California.

Career Likes and Dislikes

Job satisfaction is one of the things that keep me getting up in the morning. It's very important to enjoy what you do. My job requires creativity, enthusiasm, curiosity, and interpersonal skills as well as the more obvious technical skills. I like the people I work with and have a lot of freedom to choose the projects I work on. I especially like to learn, and working at NASA provides both the opportunity and the means to learn many things. Unfortunately, a lot of engineering can be boring and drudgery. This job really isn't like that. My work is far enough from the details that need to be worked on when you actually try to build an airplane that it doesn't become a drudge. It's exciting because I get to work on a lot of very different airplanes. There are always parts of your job you don't like. Sometimes you're forced to work hard on certain details that are not particularly interesting, but you need to work on them in order to be able to prove that you are right. Sometimes there is time pressure because either you owe somebody some analysis or they owe you and the deadline is getting close. Of course, there's always administrative problems that seem to take too much time to work out.

The Early Years
I was kind of a nerd when I was a kid. I used to ride my bike over to the library an awful lot. I read just about every book they had on airplanes and boats and models. I have actually built many airplane and boat models. I also enjoy flying model gliders. I've flown real airplanes, too, but I haven't finished getting my license. While there weren't any adults who nurtured my interest in airplanes, I have had good science and math teachers who made a difference. They helped me learn the things I needed to. While I don't find math and science really interesting by themselves, they allow me to pursue the work that I do find interesting. It's kind of like getting excited about a wrench. You don't get excited about the wrench itself, but when you can take the bolt off and fix your bike, then you're happy. You need to have the tools to be able to do the job.


Follow your heart. It doesn't matter if it's airplane design or anything else. You will spend a lot of your life working so it is really important that your job be a rewarding part of your life. Sometimes this will require sacrifice. Sometimes you will not get what you want, but you have to try. If you try for something, you might achieve it. If you don't, then it is guaranteed that you won't achieve it and you will always wonder if you could have.

Personal Information
I am trying to get my master's in aerospace engineering at Stanford University part time. It is really hard, but I decided I needed to know more to continue doing good work.

I have a daughter who is almost two now. She is the greatest joy in my life. I don't have as much time for my hobbies now, but I can ski, scuba dive, fly a real airplane, fly model gliders and ride motorcycles.

Chat Archive
March 31, 1998
November 8, 2000
May 18 - 23, 2001, Design a Mars Plane forum
May 22, 2001 Design a Mars Airplane webcast


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