Meet: Andrew Hahn
Conceptual Aircraft Designer
NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
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, advanced analysis
tools, 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.
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 put 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.
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 Personal Air Vehicles
(PAVs) as part of NASA's Vehicle Systems Program. This work is special
to me because trying to make small airplanes actually attractive for frequent
transportation has been a dream of mine for a long time. Contrary to popular
belief, we are not working on a flying car. We, as well as Boeing Phantom
Works, Cal Poly, and Virginia Tech looked at what it might take to make
a flying car and it just isn't attractive with any foreseeable technology.
These vehicles were not particularly good cars, not particularly good
airplanes, and cost more than both. Instead, we are focusing on eliminating
barriers to normal people using airplanes to get around. The top three
are to make airplanes easier to fly, environmentally friendly (noise,
emissions, and recycling), and much lower cost. While there are many more
barriers, these are the big ones with us.
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 well, 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
I finally got my Masters degree in aerospace engineering
and am applying all of my education on a daily basis. Learning more has
allowed me to do more.
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. It's exciting because I get to work on a lot
of very different airplanes. I also really enjoy taking time out to talk
to and mentor young people because they are so refreshing and excited
about my work. They are our future and remind me of why I started doing
this in the first place. 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 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.
I am married and have a daughter who is eight and a
son who is four. My family is the greatest joy in my life. We live in
the Hampton Roads I don't have much time for my hobbies now, but I can
ski, scuba dive, fly a real airplane, fly model gliders and ride motorcycles.