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Pete Zell

Facility Manager of the National Full-Scale Aeronautics Complex
Ames Research Center

Who I Am
I am the Facility Manager for the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex, NFAC, which has three main facilities including the 40 by 80 foot wind tunnel (the dimensions refer to the size of the test area in feet), the 80 by 120 foot wind tunnel, and an outdoor static (no wind) research facility. As facility manager I am concerned with making sure that the customer's requirements are being met for testing activities. I manage a staff of people who work on test operations, test instrumentation, test software and data acquisition systems, and the facility engineering tasks required for the test. In general, I am responsible for monitoring the day-to-day operation of the facility.

My Career Path
I started as a test engineer in the NFAC. I was first assigned to do integrated system testing and the flow calibration of the two empty wind tunnel test sections. I was fortunate to be assigned some pretty high profile test programs, the E-7 which was a vertical take off demonstrator test in the 40 by 80 and 80 by 120 with a live jet engine. Then I worked on the F-18 test in the 80 by 120 tunnel, where we went to a very high angle of attack. I also worked on a big Pratt and Whitney engine in the 40 by 80. Running those tests and getting the experience made it possible for me to apply for the facility manager position.

The wind tunnel has been down for a couple of years for the construction of a new facilities project. We have added a new acoustic liner all around the 40 by 80 wind tunnel test section. This thick acoustic section absorbs sound. The ability to absorb sound means that we can test for reducing the sound of jet engines and helicopters and things like that. This gives us a new research capability. We've also changed our controls for the fan drive to make it quieter and installed new controls for positioning the model and how we run our fan drive speed control.

While this has been going on I have been planning for how we will run the facility when it becomes operational again at the end of the summer. During the preparation for this project we discovered that the fan blades were cracked and this repair has been taking place parallel to the facilities modification. Hopefully now we have a facility with acoustic capability, good fan blades, and are ready for full operation.

My Career Path
My dad was a furniture maker and I grew up in a little town called Petaluma, California. I used to go into his shop after school and build models of things with his wood scraps. When I was about 10 years old, I started building models of airplanes and my dad helped me develop that interest. My dad would take me up to the Nut Tree, a shopping center where there was a big airplane bookstore and he bought me lots of books about airplanes. By the time I was twelve years old I knew that I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. In high school I focused on the sciences and I ended up being accepted at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obisbo. I went through the aeronautical engineering program there. Then I got a position as a student intern while getting my Masters Degree at Cal Poly. It involved working at Ames in the wind tunnels for 9 months and then going back to study for my Masters degree for 9 months.

Why I Like My Job
I really like large scale wind tunnel testing. It falls into the aircraft design cycle when the concepts are pretty far along. You are dealing with real stuff that is going to be out there flying yet there are still breakthroughs to be made in the wind tunnel. I like the fact that this wind tunnel is the biggest in the world and it is so unique and there isn't another one like it anywhere. Everything we do here is one of a kind. That is a real positive for me.

The negatives are that there is a lot of paper work and bureaucracy. I came into engineering thinking that I would be an engineer 90% of the time and a people person 10% of the time. The reality is you deal with people 90% of the time and do engineering 10% of the time. I've matured to the point now where I realize that is the fun part of life. There is a lot of satisfaction dealing with people.

As a Child
Both of my parents came from Europe, my mom is Swedish and my dad is Swiss. As children, we often traveled to Sweden on airplanes in the summer. I can remember being eight years old in 1969 in a Boeing 707 flying over the North Pole on Scandinavian Airlines looking for polar bears at the North Pole. I think that excitement encouraged my interest in airplanes.

I would encourage kids to spend time building models and developing their drawing skills. It's great to be into computers but don't let that discourage you from working on models, cars, machines, and model airplanes. Those physical things give you a deeper knowledge, which is beyond the virtual experience you can have on a computer. People who work in wind tunnels need to have a physical or kinesthetic understanding of geometry, how a machine works, and how to use a tool. You get that understanding from the experience of hands-on lessons.

Future Goals
Short term I am really interested in making sure that this facility becomes highly productive and the staff is happy and enjoys what they do, almost like a family environment here. That's our tradition, we are a close knit group that gets the job done.

Long term I'd like to stay with NASA and continue to keep meeting new challenges.

I have two kids, a six-year old son Ian and a three-year old daughter Annie, and a wife Claire. We live in Moss Beach. It's a quiet, small town place with an ocean view. We have remodeling plans for our house and I also do a lot of woodworking. I play volleyball and hike.

Archived QuestChats with Pete Zell



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