JBU Engineering Student Helps Develop NASA Aircraft Design

John Brown University student Brian Plank’s autograph is on the wings of a NASA-designed aircraft that will be displayed at The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Plank, an engineering major at JBU, recently completed a summer internship at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) in California. There he worked as a research associate/project manager, testing flights of a subscale flying wing aircraft.

“He wrote the flight test plans, conducted the tests and managed the flight test schedule,” the AFRC stated in a press release.

The goal of the internship was to design an aerodynamic aircraft with lower drag that would decrease fuel consumption for a cheaper and environmentally safe flight.

“Lowering fuel consumption is a win for everyone,” Plank said. “You are not sacrificing safety, speed or convenience. This allows for airline companies to save money while reducing carbon emissions.”

The team encountered issues with the subscale aircraft over the course of the three test flight days. After some modifications they got the aircraft flying successfully and were able to record flight data.

“On our last flight day (the last day of my internship), we became the first group in history to prove that a wing could have a vortex anywhere other than the wing tip,” Plank said. “We had conclusive evidence that showed the vortex to be at approximately 70 percent or the wing’s length.”

The research gathered by Plank and his team will also be featured in “Nature,” an international online science journal.

Plank first heard about the internship just days before the application was due from JBU engineering professor Will Holmes. Plank received a $6,500 Workforce Development Grant, funded by the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium, to cover his trip costs and housing costs at the NASA Armstrong Center.

There is a possibility that Plank will return to the Armstrong center after graduation.

“Brian is exactly the sort of student that NASA is looking for — someone who is interested in aerospace and is looking for that next challenge, that next opportunity, that undiscovered research territory,” Al Bowers, chief scientist at NASA Armstrong Center, stated in a NASA press release.

On campus, Plank initiated the Eaglenaut Aerospace Club and is leading the JBU NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition team.

“Plank shows a lot of motivation and determination in establishing what would hopefully not only benefit him, but also JBU, for several years to come,” Holmes said. “As the systems engineer and project lead of the Lunabotics Mining Competition this year, his NASA internship and leader of the Eaglenaut Aerospace Club, he’s trailblazing his way into great things.”

“What you receive from your education is directly correlated to what you invest in it,” Plank said. “The more you want to learn; the more you will learn.”