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Meet: Brent Wellman

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Aerospace Engineer

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What is your area of expertise?
My area of expertise is in vertical flight in its various forms. I have focused on the non-traditional and experimental forms of this art. I have concentrated on compound helicopters, tilt-rotors, and ducted fan aircraft, as opposed to simple helicopters.

What do you do?
Well, I type a lot at the computer. I used to program one daily to get the answers I needed for my work, but good application programs in the last decade or so have made that unnecessary. Excel is the most versatile of these, but I use a wide variety to get my job done such as PowerPoint, Mail, several graphing programs, Photoshop or X-Plane (right now, I'm using Word).

I wind up at quite a lot of meetings, because I consult with a lot of ongoing projects in one capacity or another. I also serve on a number of committees. Each year, I produce a video of our division's work during the year.

I periodically spend intensive periods in the lab or the wind tunnel, collecting data so that I can go back to the office and type some more about it. ;-)

How did you first become interested in this profession?
I always had had an interest in flying. I can't remember not being interested.

My father was an engineer. I never assumed I'd be anything except an engineer or a scientist…

What helped prepare you for this job?
Well, life prepared me for this job. Studying hard in school and getting the best grades I could didn't hurt. But going into the military instead of college also prepared me, just in different areas. Likewise, my starting a business (and likewise having the business fail...).

For me, the non-academic training was every bit as important as the academic. The secret was in learning from each experience, and the key was in putting all the experience to work.

Who were your role models or inspirations?
I had a teacher who influenced me a lot. He wasn't the kind of nice guy, take-ya-under-my-wing, nurturing sort of teacher you think of when you look back fondly at school. He was strict; he was tough. He was the teacher everyone hated to get. But he had a discipline about him and required the same discipline from his students. I found it inspiring.

What is your education and training?
I am a mechanical engineer by training, holding a BSME from San José State University.

I have done graduate work at Stanford, continued my training through USC, RPI and others thanks to Ames' commitment to continuing education.

Much else is learned on the job and through conferences with colleagues and peers.

Describe your career path?
I started at Ames as a project engineer for four years for the Rotor Systems Research Aircraft, RSRA, a compound helicopter. It had both airplane and helicopter controls and wings and rotors, and could test very high-risk rotors; if ever there were trouble, the RSRA could blow the rotor off and fly back on its wings.


After RSRA. I became project engineer and later the team leader for the XV-15 tiltrotor project here at Ames for about seven years. A tiltrotor is an aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter, but which flies like a plane. "My" XV-15 now can be viewed in the Smithsonian Institution's exhibition hall at Dulles airport (it's next to the Concorde, if you ever go there…).


This early work resulted in the V-22 Osprey, scheduled to enter Marine Corps service in 2006, and in the Bell-Agusta 609, soon to be certified by the FAA for civilian use.

I have also been project manager for a computer program called the Second Generation Comprehensive Helicopter Analysis System, 2GCHAS (which we called simply "Too-gee-charlie"). This code modeled the internal loads and external aerodynamics of general rotorcraft. It is now a commercial product, called RCAS.

I have lately taken on the study of other vertical lift systems, most notably ducted fan vehicles. Ducted fans place a shroud around their rotors to get around some of the problems of an un-shrouded rotor. I served as a project engineer for a company that wants to produce the flying pack seen in the movie "Agent Cody Banks." I have also evaluated flying cars for the military, and even developed a concept for one myself.

As well, I've done "educational outreach" projects specifically aimed at getting young people interested in rotary-wing aviation, aeronautics and research. I was technical coordinator for the "Robin Whirlybird" web site (http://rotored.arc.nasa.gov/) for younger children. I'm currently technical advisor for a site for older and middle school students with the same objective.

What do you like about your job?
What is really great about working at NASA is that there are so many opportunities to do interesting, stimulating, and just plain fun things. I decided to work at Ames, although I was offered more money elsewhere, because of that opportunity. The chance to do great things and use cutting-edge technologies was the real draw.

What don't you like about your job?
Well, there is the money thing.

[Don't get me wrong. I am well paid. Nevertheless, if I had wanted monetary riches, I'd have gone into investment banking, made a pile of cash, and been very, very unhappy…]

What is your advice to anyone interested in this occupation?
Go with what interests you. Don't do what everyone else is doing or what nobody else is doing or what pays well. Do what you love. I do; can't you tell?

If you do that, you can overcome any obstacles in your way.

Of course, studying hard and getting good grades doesn't hurt.

What kinds of skills are important to have for this position?
As I am trained as a mechanical engineer, I have a firm grasp of a wide range of fundamental disciplines important in aerospace engineering. As well, my experience base includes a number of non-technical disciplines that I can draw upon. I am far less specialized than my cohorts, and this versatility has worked well for me. It fits my personality.

I have coworkers here who have devoted their entire careers to the focused study of a single problem, like whirl-mode flutter, or individual blade control, or pilot symbol recognition, and that works just fine for them. Their successful careers are built on their honing their skills to a fine edge.

Works for them, but not for me. Over all, this is a good thing, because with specialists and generalists working together, we accomplish greater things than we could alone.

We all have different but successful skill sets. As they say on the internet, TMTOWTDI ("tim towdy"), there's more than one way to do it!

What are your interests outside of work?
I really enjoy hiking and camping. I try to go caving at least once a year. One really can't appreciate the world unless out in it.

I'm also recently fascinated by genealogy, the study of one's ancestors. It's relaxing and rewarding detective work for those stormy months when hiking and camping are impossible.

I'm also a cub scout leader in my "spare" time.

What is your favorite scientific fact or words of advice?
Did you know that if you took all the whales harvested in one year and laid them nose-to-tail across the Sahara Desert they would smell to high heaven?

Believe in yourself! Just don't be too easily convinced!

Brent has written a paper on Bumblebee aerodynamics.

Learn More from My Chats


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