Iowa STEM Blog

Tuesday, October 10, 2020

Featuring Megan Runyan, Student Trainee (Engineering) at United States Air Force and Student Adviser of the Iowa State University American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Every Fall, STEM professionals and enthusiasts celebrate National Aerospace Week. This celebration recognizes the innovation that led to human flight, both here on Earth and into outer space. In 1903, the Wright brothers launched their first successful flight. In the 117 years that have followed, fascinated scientists, evolving technology, hardworking engineers and curious mathematicians have taken us to new heights. Flights became safer, faster and more widely available. And eventually, the science behind flight brought us to space. 

Flight has become a regular part of our lives, so much so that many of us don’t consider the STEM skills it takes to help thousands of flights that happen across the world every day. Megan Runyan, a student studying aerospace at Iowa State University, knows exactly what it takes. Below, she tells us more about her studies—and even how to experience aerospace principles at home.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a senior in aerospace engineering with a minor in political science at Iowa State. I'm from Nebraska. Outside of school, I love to play piano and guitar, paint and explore the outdoors.

During my time at ISU, I've had the chance to explore my passion for aviation. Through classes and clubs, I helped design and build a radio-controlled plane for a competition, spoken with congressmen about STEM policies, toured industries and met professional aerospace engineers.

I've been fortunate enough to have four internships, one at Duncan Aviation, a family-owned jet modification business, one with the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, and two with the 416th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base.

In the future, I plan to continue my career in flight test and evaluation, where I can do meaningful work and be on the cutting edge of aerospace technology.

What sparked your interest in aerospace? 

I think I have always been in love with aerospace. My parents like to tell the story of me as a toddler asking why I couldn't hear a distant airplane while we were driving. They tried to explain how the noise from the car was too loud to hear the airplane over, but as a future scientist, I had a hypothesis.

I knew when my toys went silent, if you replaced the batteries, they'd start making noise again. I was certain that the airplane just needed batteries. I’ve been fascinated with everything air and space ever since, and nothing was more exciting to me than the idea of flying and riding rockets.

What were the most helpful subjects you studied in elementary and high school for what you study now?

In elementary school, definitely science! The space unit was always my favorite. In high school, the math courses were helpful, but so were the vocational classes like drafting, welding and anything manufacturing related. When you're designing a new component or testing a new system, it's so important to keep in mind the process to make your designs a reality.

What are the basic concepts you study in your major?

In aerospace, everything is about forces. To overcome the forces of gravity, you need to reach a certain speed and have more power and thrust than the weight of your airplane or rocket.

This breaks down into lift (the force going upwards), drag (the friction of the air going over your vehicle slowing you down), thrust (the ability to go forward/up), and weight (where gravity comes into play). In testing, there's also seeing how much force your aircraft or spacecraft can take before it breaks. We have to make it safe enough to withstand the worst conditions it could face.

Who inspires you in your chosen field?

My hero is John Glenn. He was the first American to orbit the earth, but he was also a veteran, test pilot and congressman. He combined his love of aerospace with public service. We can all learn from his quote: "We are more fulfilled when we are involved in something bigger than ourselves." I think there's a lot of truth to that.

I've also had many mentors, coworkers, professors and friends who have inspired me. Many of the people I've had the honor of working with and learning from are helping to shape the future of aerospace, and I'm incredibly grateful that they invested in me. Their mentorship has inspired me to try to be a mentor to others.

What would you tell students who are interested in studying aerospace?

Start looking up! Find out what gets you excited and then chase after that. Go to air shows, watch space movies, look to the stars. There's so much you can learn about aerospace—some by reading and studying, and some by experiencing.

When you are inspired by what you do, all the hard work is worth it. This is the field where you can challenge what was previously thought possible. Dream big, because in aerospace the sky, and beyond, is the limit.

While you usually can’t experience flight at home, paper airplanes can give you a little taste of what it takes to make planes fly. Here are some tips from Megan to get your planes off the ground.

The basics of flight are the four forces: lift, drag, thrust and gravity. Gravity pulls the plane down, while lift makes it fly. Drag allows for steering and thrust gives you power.

If you were to draw an airplane from the side with the nose pointing to the left of the paper, you can visualize these forces by drawing an arrow pointing up for lift, to the right for drag, down for gravity and to the left for thrust. These arrows show the forces acting on your paper airplane, like a string tied to it at that point and pulling in the direction of the arrow. The bigger the pull, the more the airplane moves in that direction. 

To fly smoothly, I would first decrease the amount of drag on your paper airplane. This means making the surface as smooth as possible with sharp creases in your folds. The next step is to make both sides of your aircraft even. If one wing is bigger, it will create more lift and more drag, making your flight choppier. Finally, a stiffer piece of paper will also help, as the lift forces could bend the paper a little bit, making your wing shape change. This will give you the same problem as an uneven wing. 

To go further, you should live by the motto of my propulsion professor: “In thrust we trust.” This means giving your plane a little more oomph when you toss it. But that brings us to another important thing to consider in flight: your angle of attack—or the angle at which your airplane flies compared to the ground. If you point the nose up a little, your plane will fly higher, but also create more drag. This makes your flight a lot shorter. For best results, keep the angle of attack low. Throw from a high point and point your nose down a little, or keep the angle even or barely different from the ground, probably no more than three to five degrees.

To have a smooth landing, do much of the same as going further. The further you throw it, the more it slows down, making it land easier. Having a flat bottom and strong, straight nose also helps. It increases the chance that your plane will handle a crash better, and more importantly, land with the nose pointing forward instead of at the ground. 

If you wish your paper airplane was more of a fighter jet, you must get some aerobatics in. There are tons of cool tutorials online, but the basics are to make your plane have unbalanced forces on purpose.

Want to do a loop? Put more weight towards the nose and have big wings so you get a lot of lift. Want it to fly in circles? Make one wing have more drag than the other, maybe by bending part of the wing down. Want it to do barrel rolls? Make one wing bigger than the other so it has more lift.

You’ll have to experiment with your folds and the way you throw it, but once you understand how the forces work, you can build your plane to do whatever you want!

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