Sailplane Class Origins

 
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For the past twelve years, the Department of Aerospace Engineering of The Pennsylvania State University has offered in its undergraduate curriculum a rather unique flight vehicle design and fabrication course that attempts to provide aerospace-engineering students with a training that is comprehensive and applied1-3. The course has a strong "hands-on" component, with students designing and fabricating modern high-performance sailplanes. While enrolled in the course, the students experience the cooperative, multi-disciplinary team environment that is required for solving the problems related to the design of an aerospace vehicle.

The course concept is based on similar student groups at German universities, the Akademischen Fliegergruppen (Academic Flying Groups) or, abbreviated, the Akafliegs. The members of these groups concern themselves with the design, construction, testing, and flying of modern sailplanes. Although not part of the official curriculum at their respective school, the groups receive some logistical support from their institutions. In brief, their structure is similar to that of an American Greek-letter social fraternity, except that the focus of interest revolves around soaring. At eleven German colleges, these groups, some which have been in existence since the early 1920's, are strongly involved in sailplane related research, often with the support by the German Aerospace Research Center, DLR, which sees this as an effective and uncomplicated way of training future engineers.

Since their beginning, the Akafliegs have been a decisive factor in the development of sailplanes. For example, Fig. 1 shows the first, full composite sailplane, the Phönix that the Akaflieg Stuttgart brought to flight in 1957. Another example is, as shown in Fig. 2, the SB 10 by the Akaflieg Braunschweig that flew first in 1972 and, until recently, was the largest flying glider in the world with a wingspan of 95 feet. In this design, carbon-fiber composites were used for the first time in the primary structure of an aerospace vehicle.

Phonix
The first, full composite sailplane, the FS 24 Phönix, completed by the students of Akaflieg Stuttgart in 1957.

Throughout the history of the Akafliegs, many engineers in the German aerospace industry and at the different research facilities have come from these groups. For example, Theodore von Kármán was a founding member of the Akaflieg Aachen, whereas Alexander Lippisch came from the Akaflieg Darmstadt. Well-known airfoil designers, F.X. Wortmann and R. Eppler, were active members of the Akaflieg Stuttgart, as K.H. Horstmann and A. Quast, the designers of the HQ-airfoils, come from the Akaflieg Braunschweig. All the engineers and designers employed by the leading, German sailplane manufacturers are former members of these groups.

Each group has about twenty active members, who are mainly, but not exclusively, engineering students. During their active member time, they get involved into many aspects concerning the construction of a modern flight vehicle. Although one of the main motivations of the members is to actually fly high-performance gliders, the learning experience is very comprehensive and complements well the official university curriculum. Despite this and, in part, due to the independence of the Akafliegs, the student members do not receive any course credit for their activities, although projects and theses are often related to the current design projects.

SB-10
The SB 10 that was designed and built by the students of the Akaflieg Braunschweig, flew first in 1972 and, until recently, was the largest flying glider with a wingspan of 95 feet.

Although the flight vehicle design and fabrication course at Penn State was modeled after the German Akaflieg, several changes were necessary in order to adopt the Akaflieg concept to the higher-education system in the United States. One of the most striking differences comes from the relatively low tuitions required by German universities, and from that, the reduced pressure on German students to pursue a college degree in the minimum time possible. In addition, the German higher-education system tends to be less structured than that of American universities, which typically involves numerous homework assignments and frequent testing. Hence, the idea was to make the new project course part of the aerospace engineering curriculum at Penn State, such that students can substitute some of their sailplane-course credits for required course work. Over time, the course has evolved from its original concept as experience with the course has grown.