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Meet Chad R. Frost

Senior Research Engineer

Army/NASA Rotorcraft Division
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, California

Who I Am
As a Senior Research Engineer, I design new flight control systems for aircraft, primarily helicopters. Control systems make aircraft easier for pilots to fly, and allow computers to fly unmanned aircraft. Most of the work I do is on computers - I create mathematical models of the aircraft and flight control systems, and analyze them using a variety of software tools. If a tool I need doesn't exist yet, then I write the software to do the job. After the control system has been thoroughly analyzed on the computer, it is tested in a flight simulator, and then maybe on an actual aircraft. Some of my research is conducted to understand how to make existing aircraft fly better, some of it is done to make a brand-new aircraft flyable at all, and sometimes I'm trying to figure out how to fly a futuristic new design that exists just on the computer.

My Career Path
I knew I wanted to work with aircraft pretty early - a news helicopter landed at our school when I was about 12 years old, and the pilot let me sit in his seat and he told me all about the helicopter. I was hooked! I took math and science classes in high school, and chose a college with a respected aeronautical engineering department. In college, I joined the student chapter of the American Helicopter Society, and helped design, build and fly the world's first human-powered helicopter. I also worked as a co-op student (like an internship) at the McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Company (now part of Boeing) in Mesa, Arizona; there, I learned first-hand about how military and commercial helicopters are designed and built. From my co-op experiences, I knew that communication skills were important, but that a lot of engineers were not very good at communicating their ideas; so I took a lot of technical writing classes.

When I graduated with a bachelor's degree, the aerospace industry was in a big slump. The aircraft-building companies weren't hiring, so I took a job at a very small aircraft component designer and manufacturer, as a project engineer. Because the company was so small, I was able to learn a lot of skills very quickly. Later, I worked for a larger company as the program manager for spacecraft structures. The job was challenging and I had a lot of responsibility, but I wasn't learning anything new technically - all my time was taken up as a manager. I decided to return to school for my master's degree, and the opportunity to change the direction my career was going.

While taking master's classes, I became involved with a project at NASA's Ames Research Center that was developing a sophisticated software tool for designing flight control systems. That led me to focus my Master's course work on flight control design, and to a graduate fellowship at Ames while I worked on my thesis. I've continued to work in the flight controls field at Ames ever since.

What I Like about my Job
I love to be outdoors, but my job keeps me inside almost all day. I compensate by riding my bicycle to work, and spending a lot of time outside on the weekend. But I really love my job: I get to work on incredibly challenging, cutting-edge projects, with very smart and capable people. The things we develop make aircraft safer and better, and I know that I'm making a lasting contribution to the world.

As a Child
Legos! As a kid, Legos were my creative forte. But I really don't know: did I play with Legos because I was destined to be an engineer, or did I become an engineer because I played with Legos? I've always enjoyed books of all varieties, and I learned to program on one of the very earliest home computers available. I didn't start building radio-controlled gliders until I was in college, but they really helped my understanding of aeronautical engineering and definitely reinforced my career.

First, be sure that you are working towards a career that you will love. Talk to as many engineers as you can, and ask them what they do - most people have no idea what engineers really do!

Take all the math and science and programming classes you can find in high school; take them at a junior college if your high school doesn't offer enough. Even if the teacher doesn't offer real-world examples of how the course material is used, find out for yourself - you will remember it, and the math and science will seem much more relevant when you can see how they are really used. But don't overlook the need to develop good communication skills; writing and public speaking are important, too.

Grab every opportunity to participate and learn: In high school, take part in engineering, science, and public speaking contests (even if you don't win, you will learn a lot in the attempt!) In college, join student chapters of professional societies, and jump in to help with one or more of the many student project teams, like solar-powered vehicles, high-mileage cars, mini-Baja racers, human-powered vehicles, etc.

In the Future
I hope to continue working in the field of flight control system research and design for some years to come... the learning process is constant, and I still have a lot that I want to learn! Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have become an important new topic of interest, and the advances we make while working on UAVs will someday make piloted aircraft easier to fly, safer, and more accessible to the ordinary person. Someday I would like to teach, so I can return some of my knowledge and enthusiasm for aircraft.

I grew up in a tiny town high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and I have always loved to spend time outside - hiking, mountain biking, back-country skiing and exploring. I like to work on my 1972 Volkswagen camper, and take it on adventures in the mountains or in the desert.


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