California State University, Northridge’s Aero Design Team worked for nearly two semesters to complete The Dragon, a 7-foot, 8-inch tall aircraft with a 13-foot, 3-inch wingspan — a major highlight to cap the mechanical engineering students’ college careers.
When the team of graduating seniors traveled to Forth Worth, Texas, to present their plane at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International Aero Design West competition in March, the 18 CSUN students competed against other teams from top engineering schools around the globe. Little did they know they would win second place in the competition — beating institutions such as the University of Michigan, the University of California, Berkeley and several international technology-focused institutions.
“We knew we had a really good plane,” said Pablo Diaz, one of the CSUN team members from CSUN’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. “Our advisor told us that compared to previous years, we had a winning plane. But we knew we had to really strive for it, and it wouldn’t be that easy.”
Of 71 registered teams, only 20 teams qualified for the competition, which required the aircraft to pass a safety inspection by multiple judges. The objective for the remaining competing airplanes was to drop multiple two-pound humanitarian aid packages from a minimum of 100 feet above the ground within a designated area. CSUN’s Dragon was able to lift 55 lbs., which impressed jurors and members of fellow teams, according to the CSUN students.
“We were the underdogs going in,” said CSUN team member Kendall Rettig. “People asked, ‘CSUN, who? C — what? Where are you guys from?’”
But soon, all participants learned about the CSUN team as they took the lead in the competition, Rettig said.
“I was emotional after some flight rounds,” he added. “You always want to be confident and hope you can win, but when it became apparent that we actually could win, we felt fantastic.”
Even though the CSUN team was leading throughout the competition, the team from Georgia Institute of Technology scored better in the last round and won by just a few points.
“They had a trajectory calculating system and were very accurate with their drops. On their last drop, they hit all the payloads in the bullseye,” said CSUN team member Tyler Keppel.
In the end, the CSUN team was more than happy with second place, Keppel said.
After the competition, the team celebrated at their hotel and woke up to a new surprise in the morning. This time, it wasn’t a pleasant one: The trailer that housed their winning airplane, including the truck that hauled it, had been stolen from the parking lot where it sat overnight. Not only did the team lose the plane (valued at more than $15,000), equipment and tools, but the $19,000 truck and trailer belonged to team member Eddie Rodriguez and his family — and was not insured against theft.
“My first thought was that they [the team] were messing around with me and moved the truck,” said Rodriguez, who initially thought the disappearance of the truck was a prank. “I sent a group text to everybody asking if somebody moved the truck because I had the keys on me, but everybody responded ‘no.’ So I went outside and walked around the parking lot, but there was no truck. That’s when it hit me that somebody stole our truck.”
After alerting the police, who showed up two and a half hours after Rodriguez’s call, the team’s hopes to find the stolen property faded.
“Texas is a big state. Trucks like that are common for workers and farmers,” Rodriguez said. “It could be anywhere.”
The devastated team had to return to California without their winning plane — the product of months of hard work.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Rettig said. “That’s not something you would be prepared for. I still can’t believe it.”
To reimburse Rodriguez’s family for the loss of the truck and trailer, the team created a fundraising page at https://www.gofundme.com/recouplosses. The students said they plan to rebuild the plane with a new name, The Phoenix, to pass on to future CSUN mechanical engineering students and to remember their achievements at the 2017 SAE Aero Design West Competition.
“The team did an amazing job this year, it was absolutely incredible,” Keppel said. “Together, we had the confidence to compete among the best engineering schools worldwide. Without this confidence, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did.”