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Meet: Chris Sweeney

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Flight Simulation Engineer, Vertical Motion Simulator
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

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Who I Am
My job is part project lead and part flight simulation engineer. I work at the Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS) at Ames Research Center. The VMS is the world's largest motion simulator with 60' of vertical travel and the capability to move 40' laterally. It rotates 25 degrees in pitch, roll, and yaw on a cone-shaped post with a two-axis gimbal (ball). The facility has the capacity for the large motions and accelerations which are very good for handling quality studies with different types of aircraft.

My job involves putting different pieces of an aircraft together on a computer. If we are working with an aircraft that has not been simulated at the VMS, a brand new architecture, we receive a mathematical description of the model. This includes an aerodynamic database from wind tunnel tests, block diagrams describing the flight control system, equations describing the guidance and navigation system of the aircraft, and models of whatever means of propulsion the aircraft has, an engine for an airplane or a rotor in the case of a helicopter.

We simulate a wide variety of aircraft (which is one of the reasons why I like this job) and each engineer probably works on three to four projects a year. These projects can include fixed wing aircraft, like the space shuttle or high speed civil transport or fighter aircraft, like an STOVL, Harrier-type aircraft. They can include the tilt rotor, the military V-22 or civilian version (CTR) or helicopters like the Apache, the Comanche, and the Blackhawk. There are some unusual projects, too, including a blimp, a car, and a bobsled.

My Career Path
Coming out of high school and deciding I wanted to go to college, I tried to decide what I wanted to study. I was always interested in aircraft and flying and thought for awhile about becoming a pilot. When I applied to various schools, I applied to the Air Force Academy and other aeronautics schools to pursue my interest in flying and aeronautical engineering.

I attended the University of California at Davis because it was the only UC school with an aeronautics program. As I got into my studies, I found it was fun, because you get to work on a real product, something physical and tangible, that you can see and see fly, which is very exciting. In college, I worked on a project for an engine manufacturer and decided that was not really the area in which I wanted to specialize. We developed a propulsion lab at school, and I realized I was more interested in aerodynamics and avionics. I am still very much an aviation buff. I like airplanes and airshows. I graduated as an aeronautical engineer. I decided that I would like to work either for an airframe manufacturer or company which worked on flight controls where you get to work on a plane.

This job at NASA became available which involved software and computers as well as aircraft. It sounded very interesting so I decided to apply. I have been at NASA for ten years now. I started as a junior simulation engineer and now I am a senior project engineer (and I had couple of titles in-between).

What I Like About My Job
Working with the simulator is great fun. It's like playing a giant video game with real aircraft and you get to program what can happen. I get to spend time, seven to eight weeks for each project, in the lab getting hands-on flying time and checking out the aircraft. For half the year, I get to go in the cab every morning for half an hour and fly around to ensure the simulation is working properly. Most of the time you're flying fixed base but, we also have a motion base so it feels like you're really flying. That's a blast!

For example, the inside of the High Speed Civil Transport cab looks like a passenger aircraft with a set of four throttles, a stick, and pedals. When you look out the pilot's windows, instead of looking out at the real world, we have computer-generated imagery of an airport. Some of our runs will start on the runway and involve taking off and flying around to monitor the handling qualities of the aircraft.

As you're sitting on the runway, the pilot will put on the brakes, push the throttles all the way forward, hear the spooling up of the engines (audio generated by the sound model). When the pilot releases the brakes, he can feel the acceleration forward due to the six feet of longitudinal travel as well as pitching motion in the cab.

The only negative side of my job is that I don't actually get to see the finished product. Since we are a research and development facility, we work on many products to be developed in the future. Right now, I am doing a lot of work for a high speed research program for which the goal is to achieve a speed of Mach 2.4 in a civil transport aircraft that will hold 300 people, and go 5000 miles from San Francisco to Tokyo in four hours instead of eleven hours. It will be 2010 before it's built. It will be a long wait to have the joy of seeing the actual vehicle roll out and see it flying.

When I Was A Kid
I was interested in sports as a child. I read biographies, and many of the biographies I read were about people who were interested in flying and aviation. This motivated me to read more about aviation. As a kid, I attended a couple of airshows, which were very exciting. This made it more interesting reading about airplanes and flying, less like school work. I also remember going to the Exploratorium where there were exhibits about flying and the different things that helped such a heavy thing as an aircraft get off the ground. My parents encouraged me, my brother, and sister to pursue our interests.

Future Plans
I definitely would like to stay in the aeronautics/aerospace industry. I love what I'm doing in this job and I can see myself working for an airplane manufacturer or in the spacecraft/satellite industry.


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