Alumnus mentors engineering Hokies through takeoff
Six Virginia Tech engineering students designed, built, and flew a solar battery-powered aircraft during their three-month internship with Electra.aero. Virginia Tech alumnus JP Stewart helped guide their ambitious project.
When JP Stewart was an undergraduate aerospace engineering student at Virginia Tech, he never could have imagined that his 10-year plan would include motivating six Virginia Tech interns as they designed, built, and flew a solar battery-powered aircraft in three months. But now as the vice president of Virginia-based Electra.aero, Stewart is charting his path through newly developed technologies that make electric aircraft more efficient. And he’s doing it with the help of the next generation of Hokies.
When Electra enlisted college interns last summer to develop its Dawn One aircraft, most of them were skeptical that the heavy workload behind designing, building, and successfully flying an airplane could be accomplished in three months. The cohort was determined to meet the challenge. Among the 15 participants, Virginia Tech was the university most heavily represented, with six interns, including 2022 graduate Kenneth Nguyen, seniors Madeline Hower and Sam Elder, juniors Erika Hausladen and Calvin Siemers, and sophomore Joseph Gould.
In the early hours of Sept. 9, after months of hard work, Stewart, a team of Electra employees, and the interns successfully flew Dawn One, a solar-electric hybrid research aircraft developed in collaboration with Professor Jim Anderson of Harvard University, for atmospheric and earth science research as part of the Stratospheric Airborne Climate Observatory System (SACOS) program.
The company primarily focuses on hybrid-electric, short-takeoff and landing airplanes that will transport nine people, or 2,500 pounds, up to 500 miles as part of an $85 million program with private investment and the U.S. Air Force. These aircraft can start operations from existing airports but have the capability to take off and land from small spaces such as a parking lot by flying as slowly as 35 mph, enabling operations from places previously inaccessible by flight. Using hybrid-electric propulsion and aerodynamic integration also reduces noise pollution, so surrounding communities are not as affected.
During the SACOS program, “there wasn’t a single intern doing busy work,” Stewart said. Electra had started the aircraft design work before the interns arrived, but the interns were still responsible for working with the team to complete the design, build the aircraft, and operate a successful test flight. The interns worked from assembling aircraft parts in Manassas to navigating a Federal Aviation Administration inspection, to finally test-flying the 90-foot wingspan unmanned aircraft system they created.
Company vice presidents rarely move their computers and office supplies into a hangar. But one month before flight day, Stewart did just that. As team members were busy finalizing the aircraft, Stewart remained present to build their confidence and help them over any walls they hit.
Reflecting on the summer’s most memorable moments, the first flight attempt jumped out for Stewart. He vividly remembered waking up at 4:15 on a blustery morning to pilot the unmanned aircraft.
The Electra team and interns flying Dawn One for the first time. Photos courtesy of Electra.aero.
Hower, who's majoring in aerospace and ocean engineering, was responsible for helping push the plane out to the runway, running alongside it as it took off, and catching the airplane once it landed. She recalled the mix of emotions that first day.
As team members began set-up, everyone eagerly anticipated the moment when they would find out if the airplane they had put their blood, sweat, and tears into would fly successfully. But when Stewart walked into the hangar to announce it was too windy to fly, the mood shifted to disappointment.
“Luckily, the next day the winds were much better and it looked like the flight was going to happen,” said Hower. “I think a lot of us were still worried that the flight might not happen until we were taking off.”
Their emotion changed to exhilaration once Dawn One lifted from the ground. Hower and her fellow interns tracked Dawn One’s flight from the bed of a truck. “Watching the plane fly over us was just a beautiful sight,” she said.
Building a strong network
Flying remote-controlled model airplanes as a child positioned Stewart for a future career in aviation.
“I’ve loved airplanes for as long as I can remember. I just fell in love with them,” Stewart said.
Even before he came to Virginia Tech as an undergraduate, Stewart worked on air and ground vehicle research and testing with Associate Professor Kevin Kochersberger and the Unmanned Systems Lab through a high school independent study program.
Virginia Tech Professor of Practice Pat Artis knew from Stewart’s first year in the department that he would be a leader.
“He had remarkable intuition about the solution to complex aerodynamic problems,” Artis said. “Furthermore, he could inspire others to help realize his vision.”
These qualities led Stewart as a student and two others to help create the Virginia Tech Aerospace and Ocean Engineering Alumni Mentoring Program as a student. The program offers each student a one-on-one relationship with an alum who provides both encouragement and support for the student’s professional and personal goals. Stewart said Artis and Professor Pradeep Raj showed him what great mentorship looked like through professional development experiences and campus speaker events. Stewart wanted other people to have those same opportunities.
Stewart also was a member of the Virginia Tech Design, Build, Fly (DBF) team as a student. His senior design project won second place in the DBF competition, which he has attended for nearly 10 years as either a student or competitor.
After completing a summer internship, Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation asked Stewart to come back as part of its co-op program between his third and fourth years at Virginia Tech. Aurora is an aviation and aeronautics research subsidiary of Boeing that specializes in the design and construction of special-purpose unmanned aerial vehicles. Stewart’s work as a mechanical engineer and electric propulsion test lead helped him reach an inflection point in his aerospace career.
“The co-op was one of the most valuable things I did and could have done,” Stewart said. “It gave me a better perspective and more appreciation on how to put the work of senior year into practice.”
At Aurora, Stewart worked on a solar-powered airplane with a 240-foot wingspan, completed propulsion testing, and interacted with customers that included Porsche. When Boeing acquired Aurora in 2017, Stewart built his team of three into an international team of 80 and was recognized by Aurora for exceptional service for that program’s success.
John Langford, founder and former chief executive officer of Aurora, mentored Stewart during his internship and co-op experiences. When Langford later founded Electra, Stewart joined him there to help build both the team and company from scratch.
Stewart used his personal experience as a student to help build Electra’s internship program.
“One thing I appreciated with my experience in a co-op was the extreme independence and flexibility to complete the end objective,” Stewart said. “I wanted the Electra interns to work on a project that was going to be used in the real world."
The next generation of interns
Of the 250 applicants that Electra reviewed for its summer 2022 electric aircraft internship program, 15 interns earned a spot after multiple phases of interviews, including a panel presentation. The six interns from Virginia Tech had well-rounded backgrounds that helped them stand out among the other candidates. Extracurricular activities included being the chief engineer for Virginia Tech’s DBF team, interning at the drone park on campus, co-leading the SailBOT team, participating in undergraduate research in the Nonlinear Systems Laboratory, and more.
The first thing Stewart told Hower in her Electra interview was that the internship would be a lot of hard work, she said. But the potential payoff was enticing.
Video courtesy of Electra.aero.
“I chose this internship over others because the opportunity was truly too good to pass up,” said Hower. “The possibility of getting to build a plane and fly it in one single summer was an incredible opportunity. Originally, I was a little skeptical if we could build the plane in time until I started working at Electra and saw the talent and drive of every single person working on the project.”
From Stewart’s experience on the Virginia Tech DBF team, he knew that this project was synonymous with a professional DBF. Since graduating, he’s continued to assist the Virginia Tech DBF team as an alumni mentor.
“Having alumni like JP mentor the design team is a huge asset as they can give us an experienced industry perspective on the design problem,” said Elder, who in addition to having interned at Electra this past summer serves as the Virginia Tech DBF chief engineer.
Stewart was the guiding force for the interns throughout the project. He encouraged them and was available to assist them whenever they gave him a call.
“His positive attitude and idealistic mindset made the interns work as hard as we did to get the plane done,” said Hower. “There were quite a few times where we thought we wouldn't make it in time, but JP never let us lose that hope.”