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
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,
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
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.