John “Tyler” Despard earned his civilian pilot’s license while still in high school in Bristol, Tenn., but he has other plans in the U.S. Air Force.
“I’m taking a different path from the other grads. I’m not going to be a pilot. I like academia and I want to teach,” said Despard, one of six graduates of the United States Air Force Academy working on their two-year master’s degrees in mechanical engineering
(MECH) at Rice University.
The six graduated from the Academy in Colorado Springs last May, and were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Air Force. The others enrolled in the master’s program in MECH are Brandon Cambio, Jon Clegg, Tyler Ketron, David Lee and John Potthoff. All graduated with a major in aeronautical engineering and plan to become Air Force pilots.
“An engineering background isn’t necessary for being a pilot, but it doesn’t hurt. As hopeful future test pilots, we’re better positioned to help the engineers. We can talk their language,” Lee said.
Air Force Academy graduates wishing to pursue a master’s degree generally must graduate in the top 10 percent of their class and typically attend Rice, MIT, Purdue or Washington University for engineering majors. Pilots agree to serve at least 10 years in the Air Force after graduation.
“At Rice, we received full scholarships. That’s generous and Rice’s academic reputation is very high,” said Potthoff, who hopes to be a helicopter pilot. Air Force pilot trainees are assigned a specific aircraft “track,” such as fighters and bombers, or cargo planes and refueling aircraft, before qualifying on an individual aircraft.
Cambio, the only Houston resident in the group, works in the Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces Lab of Marcia O’Malley, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “Robotics is increasingly important,” he said. “The Air Force is very interested in integrating robots into aircraft and elsewhere. Professor O’Malley has been a great help.”
Potthoff works in the research group of Andrew Meade, professor of MECH, who focuses on experimental and numerical aerodynamics. He partners with NASA to help develop force-balance calibration software for the wind tunnels used in testing aircraft.
Lee has joined the lab of Pedram Hassanzadeh, assistant professor of MECH, who works in fluid dynamics and heat transfer in both complex natural systems — climate, for instance — and engineering systems. “Data drive modern fluid systems,” Lee said. “With Professor Hassanzadeh, we use numerical and other kinds of models to understand various systems. The laws of fluid dynamics apply to any scale.”
Ketron grew up 40 miles from the Air Force Academy. His paternal grandfather served as a military police officer with the Air Force and his maternal grandfather was a Navy pilot. “I always knew I wanted to fly. This way,” he said, “I get an excellent education and I get to fly aircraft.”