Mizzou AeroTigers fly past the competition in breakout season

January 09, 2023

Graham Bond, Ian McDonald, Trent Kempker and Bryce Taylor working on a plane part. They are part of the Mizzou AeroTigers, an aviation-focused club at Mizzou Engineering.
Graham Bond, Ian McDonald, Trent Kempker and Bryce Taylor working on a plane part

A group of Mizzou Engineering students is getting ready to take flight this spring at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) “Design, Build, Fly” competition. The Mizzou AeroTigers are halfway through their first year of being an official student organization and are already flying past the competition across the state and country.

“Until we were founded this year, there wasn’t an aviation-focused club at Mizzou Engineering,” said Landon Toler, a junior in mechanical engineering and the president and co-founder of Mizzou AeroTigers. “The Mizzou Space program provides great coverage of space and rocketry, but, until now, an airplane design group didn’t exist. We’ve recruited a lot of new students to join, and everyone brings a unique perspective to building the aircraft.”

And the AeroTigers have had a rapid rise to success. Last year, some of the AeroTigers members competed in the “Design, Build, Fly” competition as part of the Mizzou chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). After submitting their written proposal, they barely made the cut for the flight competition.

“We jumped from the bottom five teams [out of 110] last year to being 38th in the world this year [of 135 teams], so it’s quite a jump,” Toler said. “We’re super proud of the work we’ve put in and are hoping that this year we’ll actually be able to fly our plane.”

Graham Bond (left) and Joe Jenner (right) using masking tape to hold wood together temporarily so that glue could be applied.
Graham Bond (left) and Joe Jenner (right) using masking tape to hold wood together temporarily so that glue could be applied.

The AAIA “Design, Build, Fly” competition consists of three phases. First, teams write a proposal to fit the mission brief. Then, the teams who pass the first round work to build a plane to fit the challenge specifications. The season ends in the spring when teams from around the world travel to the competition, either in Wichita, KS or Tucson, AZ, to fly their planes.

The challenge this year is called “Electronic Warfare,” and teams need to build a plane that can carry heavy electronics payloads, disassemble to fit into a suitcase-sized crate and carry a jamming antenna on the end of one wing.

Graham Bond, a junior in mechanical engineering and the AeroTigers’ manufacturing team lead, helped spearhead the proposal-writing.

“In our proposal, we outlined the team’s organization, our conceptual design approach and our plans for manufacturing and testing,” he said. “One of the biggest issues we ran into while writing is being able to fit as much detailed analysis as we could within the 5-page-limit, which definitely put our technical writing skills to the test.”

The team’s efforts paid off, with their proposal scoring the highest of all Missouri teams. They also scored 3rd best in the SEC, behind only Texas A&M and the University of Florida.

Now, the team is moving onto building and testing the aircraft. Toler’s connection with Hussein Nassar, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, means they can use a laser cutter to manufacture parts in-house. They’re also using 3D printing to create pieces of the aircraft.

“We work with other student orgs like Mizzou SURF (Students’ Underwater Robotics Foundation) and ASME to gain access to tools like the 3D printers,” Toler said. “But we’re hoping to build out a full shop for ourselves as time goes by and we learn more about what machines we need.”

Aside from using specialized machines, the AeroTigers are relying on each other as a team to build their plane. Joe Jenner, a senior mechanical and aerospace engineering major and the structures team lead, says being able to create the plane with his friends is what he’s most looking forward to.

“My favorite parts of being involved in the org are the friends I’ve made and the application of the engineering theory I have learned in class,” he said.

Even with the competition being months away, the whole team is excited to see the plane fly.

“I’m very excited to just see an airplane built by us, the Mizzou AeroTigers, fly at competition,” Toler said. “They say, ‘engineering is that cross between math and art.’ It’s being able to come up with a creative solution to a problem. We’re really proud of the work we’ve done this year and the methodology behind our design. I can’t wait to see it in action.”

Want to build an airplane with your friends while you earn your degree? Choose Mizzou Engineering!