For the love of flying

Dr. Steven Brandt leads the Academy's Aeronautical Department's aircraft design class here. (Amy Gillentine)

Dr. Steven Brandt leads the Academy's Aeronautical Department's aircraft design class here. (Amy Gillentine)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Dr. Steven Brandt has been in love with airplanes since he was a small child.

In first grade, his best friend collected model airplanes and Brandt's father, a World War II fighter pilot, constantly talked about flying.

As an adult, Brandt combines both influences: He's a former fighter pilot who also leads the aeronautical design class at the Air Force Academy.

"It almost didn't happen that way," he said. "I went to college to be an engineer, but joined ROTC to help pay for it. Because of the Vietnam War, I had to learn to fly. I didn't expect to love it as much as I did. "

Brandt's office, his classroom space and his hobbies reflect his dual lifelong passions.  Model planes of every type fill his classroom in the Aeronautics Laboratory, products of cadet design attempts and the technological advances of the Air Force.

The overflow fills his office shelves - B-52 bombers, Navy fighters, hobby planes.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about planes and working with planes," he said. "I volunteer with the Boy Scouts from time and time, and it's usually something to do with airplanes."

He combines his zeal for sleek airplane design with his love of the Air Force. He was commissioned in 1975, after a three-year ROTC program at Iowa State University. Retired in 1992 as a lieutenant colonel, Brandt spent time as an instructor pilot and fighter pilot, flying F-4s as a captain and F-106s as a major.

"That's why it's so great to work here," he said. "The Air Force Academy is a wonderful place. The leadership is supportive; we're a family.  The cadets are second-to-none, the best undergraduates in the nation. I'm proud that I'm part of it."

His enthusiasm is contagious. Cadets in his senior capstone design course are designing their versions of next-generation bombers, planes that fly alongside the F-22 to provide additional firepower on the ground and in air-to-air battles. 

Another project involves aircraft and missile designs that can reach anywhere in the world in four hours.

The projects are part of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's service academy competition, which asks for innovative projects that aid the warfighter. 

Winning the competition is a step forward from the capstone projects in 1990, the first year he taught at the Academy.

"When I first got here, we were doing projects straight from the textbook," he said. "There was a canned answer and it wasn't very challenging. Now we have customers who expect solutions to real-world problems."

Brant said the challenge ignites cadets' imaginations and motivates them to go the extra mile for their design projects.

"Knowing they are coming up with solutions for the Air Force, before they graduate, that's a big deal to them," he said. "Watching them stretch - that's a big deal for me."

Brandt said cadets leave the Academy with a firm footing in aeronautical engineering that will aid them as they become pilots or engineers. 

Still, he believes some historical knowledge needed for airplane design and engineering is in danger of being lost. It's one reason he invites retired aeronautical engineers to help cadets with their projects.

"We don't know the same things we knew 50 years ago," he said. "Engineers are making mistakes that wouldn't have been made back then. We're losing decades of knowledge as engineers retire, and I'm not sure we're replacing them."

It's an interesting time to be an aeronautical engineer, Brandt said.

As airplane design moves from stealthy piloted crafts to increasingly smaller unmanned vehicles created for reconnaissance and intelligence missions, knowledge of how things used to be done is increasingly important.

"The physics really change when aircraft get smaller," he said. "It's an interesting problem, and we're still discovering how small we can go with UAVs. We're also working on unmanned craft that will do other things to aid in the fight."

Technology makes teaching easier and provides the opportunity for cadets to do more and to do more quickly.

"What three machinists could do in half a semester, one can do in 48 hours now," he said. "Computer-assisted design and 3-D printers make all the difference. We can do a lot of testing before we need a model, and we can create models in two days."

Brandt credits the leadership at the Academy for embracing technology and allowing cadets to create projects with the potential to change the way the Air Force fights future wars.

"We have the best wind tunnel facilities of any academic institution," he said. "We have access to them, even if the project doesn't have a paid sponsor. That's highly unusual in an academic environment and it sets the Academy graduates apart, even from graduate-level work."

There's no place he'd rather be, he said.

"Who could ask for more than a supportive leadership, excellent students and the best facilities?" he asked, with a smile.  "I'm a pretty lucky guy."

Brandt's lifelong dedication to the aeronautical engineering field is being recognized by his peers. He's a nominee for a national-level educator award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.  He'll find out if he won this spring.
He waves off the honor.

"I've spent decades doing what I love," he said. "That's the biggest reward."