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Meet: Don Durston

Photo of don durston

Aerospace Engineer

What is your area of expertise?
Airplane aerodynamics, fluid mechanics, and wind tunnel testing.

What do you do?
Most of my work is done at my desk—doing project planning, making test plans for wind tunnel or water tow tank testing, analyzing data, writing and presenting technical papers and reports.  When I'm in testing, I'll usually work for several weeks (if not months) straight in the wind tunnel or at the tow tank.  My work is always interesting because I do different things every day.

How did you first become interested in this profession?
I have always loved airplanes, and I knew from my earliest days in school that I would either fly airplanes for a living, or study them for a living and fly them for fun.  I have been doing the latter since my college days, and I really enjoy having a good working knowledge of how airplanes fly as I take friends and family up in my airplane for sight-seeing tours.  I have also been an avid fan and supporter of the space program since my youth, and every mission has been a source of inspiration to me to dream big and be a part of NASA's spirit of exploration.

What helped prepare you for this job?
It all started when I was a kid.  I built model airplanes and hung them from my bedroom ceiling.  I read books about airplanes and rockets, and I launched model rockets out in the desert.  As my skills and knowledge grew, I flew radio-control model airplanes and sailplanes.  Then in college I turned my flying dreams into reality by taking flying lessons in a Cessna 152.  All of this hands-on experience helped me tremendously as I studied aerospace engineering in college—I felt like I had an intuitive familiarity with the equations of flight as I learned them for the first time in my classes.  My fascination with things that move through the atmosphere and space fueled my imagination of possibilities of neat things to work on.  Now that I have a career in NASA, I look back and see how blessed I've been to have worked on so many interesting things.  A saying that epitomizes my career is, "Little boys don't grow up; they just play with more expensive model airplanes." So far, the most expensive model I've played with is the five-million dollar HWT model I tested in the 12-foot wind tunnel.  I look forward to seeing what's in my future.

Who were your role models or inspirations?
My dad was my greatest role model and inspiration.  He encouraged me to pursue every dream I had, and he was very active in helping me with my hobbies.  Legends like Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong showed me that one's possibilities are endless if one puts his mind to it.

What is your education and training?

1979 — BS Aerospace Engineering, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (aka Cal Poly Pomona)

1985 — MS Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering, Stanford University

Describe your career path?
I have worked at NASA Ames Research Center continuously since graduation from Cal Poly.  The major projects that I have worked on in my career are:

1979–1988: Supersonic V/STOL fighter aerodynamics—conducted low- and high-speed aerodynamic tests of several advanced fighter configurations in three different wind tunnels at Ames (11-foot, 12-foot, and 9x7-foot)

1988–1991: Acting Assistant Branch Chief of Advanced Aerodynamic Concepts Branch (RAC)

1991–1993: Sonic boom propagation and loudness predictions—worked with team doing wind tunnel testing and predictions of sonic booms from new supersonic transport designs

1993–2000: Project manager for High Wing Transport Project—conducted a test in the12-Ft Pressure Wind Tunnel of a semi-span C-17 model with two turbine-powered simulators (TPS units) on the wing

2000–present: Project manager for wake vortex alleviation studies—doing tests in a long water tow tank (60 m) to study the roll-up and interactions of trailing vortices from the wing and tail of airliner configurations.  The goal of this research is to get the vortices to break down sooner than normal so they won't be as much as a hazard for following airplanes and so that airplanes can be more closely spaced together, thus increasing airport capacity.

What do you like about your job?
Having a good variety of fun projects to work on.  I started my career testing supersonic fighter models and studying their overall aerodynamics—I always felt like these were really "cool," and I loved having the inside scoop on how they flew.  Now I'm focusing more on the details of aerodynamics as I consider the vortices left in the wakes of wings and tails of aircraft, and I've shot some really fascinating videos of the vortex interactions.  I get a kick out of presenting these videos to an audience and watching their faces light up in wonder.

What don't you like about your job?
All the paperwork required to get things done.  Fortunately, much of that is being streamlined now by doing things electronically, but there is a fair amount of administrative overhead associated with every job.

What is your advice to anyone interested in this occupation?
Let your imagination run wild and lead you to pursue your interests.  If you get your training and education in something that fascinates you, it will all come much more easily to you.  Your vocation will seem "alive" to you if you have a genuine interest in it.  Your knowledge and skills will be gained through your spirit of discovery.  I still wonder how something as big as a 747 can ever get off the ground, how we actually sent 12 men to explore the moon and brought them back alive, and how those little Mars rovers got to be so smart and how much fun they are having.  Air and space provides great venues for discovery, and I want to be a part of what mankind is learning by living and working in them.

What kinds of skills are important to have for this position?
A strong math, science, and engineering background is essential for this type of work.  If you're not a wiz in this stuff, don't worry.  I wasn't, but I took the classes and I've learned a lot on the job.  The sharing of knowledge and expertise among co-workers enables one to build skills throughout one's career.  For working with hardware and doing testing, it is helpful to have good hands-on skills.  Good people skills are a must, since one rarely works alone, and in the stress of a testing environment, getting along with others while the pressure is on is the only way to make progress.  One must also be willing to always learn new things, and taking extra classes and training beyond the formal schooling enhances one's career.

What are your interests outside of work?
I love to fly my Cessna 172 for sight-seeing or taking trips.  I also enjoy snow and water skiing, hiking, cycling, and traveling.  But my greatest involvement outside of work is with my church—I want to do all I can to help other adults and kids understand who Jesus Christ is and what life is all about, and how to live life to the fullest as Jesus desires for us.

What is your favorite scientific fact or words of advice?
Don't let anyone tell you that you don't have potential!

Last Updated: July 6, 2005

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