As the rate of air travel increases around the globe, so does congestion of major commercial airports, resulting in issues including delays, not enough flights to meet demand, and passengers needing to fly to smaller satellite airports. This recurring problem only stands to worsen in years to come.

After a year-long effort to design a high-capacity, short-range transport aircraft, a Virginia Tech capstone design team has brought home second-place honors in the 2020 Undergraduate Aircraft Design Competition, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

“Our team performed exceptionally well and submitted a quality proposal, even when the bar kept moving,” said co-faculty advisor Pradeep Raj. “They each handled the sudden change in modality due to the global pandemic very professionally. The results speak for themselves, and the entire team should be rightfully proud of this accomplishment.”  

Virginia Tech has a long history of successes in undergraduate design team competitions, but this particular team has international ties. The cheekily named team, Over the Pond, is composed of eight aerospace and ocean engineering students from Virginia Tech and two students from Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW) in Hamburg, Germany. 

Almost 40 university teams from across the country competed in a virtual competition that included an intense design review of their written report. Offered yearly by the AIAA, the undergraduate aircraft design competition offers an opportunity for students to participate in a simulated real-world problem, and allow students to gain experience and receive useful and constructive feedback from technical experts. The judges panel includes experts from industry, government, and academia.

‘Project Exo’
For the 2020 competition, undergraduate teams from across the country were tasked with designing an aircraft that addresses the market problem of increased air traffic — specifically a high-capacity, short-range transport aircraft designed to alleviate airport congestion, without the size and cost that comes with long-range capability. This aircraft will have an entry into service in the year 2029, with a passenger capacity of 400 in a dual-class configuration and 3,500 nautical miles of range. 

Over the Pond’s design, titled “Project Exo,” consisted of a composite-based, wide-body fuselage with a low mounted wing and a T-tail configuration. Their aircraft has twin-mounted, geared turbofan engines, located at the rear for boundary layer ingestion to reduce fuel consumption. They implemented more electric aircraft systems to reduce operating costs and maintenance. This aircraft also offers a three aisle 2-3-3-2 staggered seat configuration designed with comfort in mind, and boards within 27 minutes, allowing for an efficient nine cycles per day.

"We went for an aggressive design that leaned more to the innovative side to fill a sweet spot in the market," said recent Virginia Tech graduate Ryan Fisher, who served as chief engineer for the project. “We were one of the only teams to have rear-mounted engines for boundary layer ingestion, which really set us apart from our competitors.” 

“Since the demands of the aerospace industry are similar internationally, it is a great advantage to know about other perspectives on the same problem,” said Valentin Krebs, senior undergraduate from HAW and team member responsible for cabin integration. “This way it is possible to truly think ‘out of the box’ and create innovative solutions by combining or supplementing the advantages of different approaches. While our colleagues from Virginia Tech optimized cruise speed for the design range, the HAW students tackled the major problem of slow (de)boarding time of a classical cabin due to the high passenger capacity requirement.”

With teammates residing on different continents, the Over the Pond team needed to strategically choose their meeting times in order to work together on their project. They quickly came to see their varying perspectives and areas of expertise and the need to effectively communicate quickly as advantages, outweighing the issue of scheduling logistics.  

“Aside from physical difference in location, we were working with people coming in with a completely different knowledge base,” said Amanda Butynes, a recent graduate and team leader of Project Exo. “In the HAW program, they focus heavily on the cabin, which is not something we typically do here at Virginia Tech. That gave us depth in an area we would not have exposure to if they were not present, and added a greater level of expertise to that part of the proposal. There was a lot of value in the different perspectives.”

"Working with our like-minded fellows from overseas was an absolute pleasure and a great opportunity for us to collaborate with an international team structure, using completely different focuses in aircraft design and working techniques - even though that meant for the people in Hamburg working mostly in the night to maintain the working rhythm and progress for daily meetings,” said Richard Zwetzich, a senior undergraduate student from HAW and the team member responsible for cabin integration. “I clearly remember the moment when we realized almost simultaneously that a faster boarding time would be our unique selling point in this project. It was kind of a joint venture: the Virginia Tech students with their massive knowledge in structural and aerodynamic calculations, and the Hamburg students with our main skills in CAD, simulations and systems. All of us were putting our resources in one pot to create something to be proud of."

Often after an online meeting in the fall, the Virginia Tech team members would linger in the aerospace and ocean engineering department’s Studio for Design Innovation to continue working together in person. In March, Virginia Tech moved to fully remote learning after an extended spring break, and the stateside team members were scattered back to their hometowns. Fortuitously, the team was already at ease collaborating online and it caused little disruption to their workflow. It became a regular occurrence to open a Zoom meeting for an hour or two to talk and work through their report.

Adding another layer to their multifaceted team, Over the Pond also formed an interdisciplinary partnership within the College of Engineering. Rob Palisin, a materials science and engineering student, was working on research related to aerospace structures and began meeting with the team once a week. The Over the Pond team found it valuable to have a perspective from outside the aerospace and ocean engineering department, and were able to leverage his knowledge and expertise for their final design. 

Partnership for collaborative learning
The Over the Pond team was born out of a long-term partnership between Virginia Tech and Hamburg University of Applied Sciences to offer a semester exchange program. During junior year, Virginia Tech students receive insight into the expertise of German aeronautical engineering, and in turn, Hamburg students study in the United States during the fall semester of senior year. Since 2009, 30 Virginia Tech aerospace engineering students have participated in the exchange in Hamburg, and 15 HAW aeronautical engineering students have spent a semester in Blacksburg.

The undergraduate curriculum in the aerospace and ocean engineering department leads up to a year-long capstone design experience in the senior year. Aerospace engineering design courses use the group design process to both better simulate the way design is done in the real world and promote the benefits of collaborative learning.  

Over the years, Raj and his co-faculty advisor Jutta Abulawi, professor at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, have tried many approaches for incorporating the visiting Hamburg students into Virginia Tech’s capstone design teams. What they found to be most effective is for the Hamburg students to enroll in the Air Vehicle Design course, which is a two-semester sequence. The German students participate on the team in-person during their time in Blacksburg in the fall, and then continue virtually during the spring semester.  

“Students from both universities benefit from learning to tackle multiple challenges that are unique to collaboration among geographically distanced groups,” Raj explains. “This may include overcoming differences in cultures, language, educational programs, and the six-hour time difference between Hamburg, Germany and Blacksburg, Virginia. The experience better prepares our students to succeed in a global marketplace.”

“Our degree programs prepare the students for the technical challenges of engineering, but this project gives them an insight into the challenges of international team work that is common practice in today’s aeronautical industry,” said Abulawi. “It gives them a realistic, hands-on experience of organizing a project and collaborating as a team, where different languages, cultures, education backgrounds, and locations are involved.”

Benefits of intercultural education
Through its global education programs, Virginia Tech strives to improve the human condition worldwide by educating students who will understand their connection to fellow humans everywhere and excel at working collaboratively on solutions to global problems. There is great value in international education experiences for students, and in providing opportunities for them to connect with and learn from cultures beyond their own boundaries.

Fisher said, “Working with the HAW students was an experience that prepared our team for the real-world in manners such as communication, deadline buffers, work ethic and expectations. In my opinion, having teammates with different specializations and interdisciplinary backgrounds helped us achieve second place. Overall it was a great experience, and I would push other professors to develop and participate in more international partnerships in the future.”  

Abulawi sees the team collaboration as a positive opportunity for not only the students, but also for herself. “These kinds of projects are what I really love about my job as a professor,” she continued. “The design tasks are interesting and tied in to current topics. I enjoy supervising the students, discussing technical and team issues and helping them find solutions for problems they incur. In professor Raj, I have a very reliable and competent team partner for teaching and cooperation and the project has strengthened the ties between our universities and been a very important building block in the development of a strategic partnership.”

Over the Pond team members include Matthew Bednarz, Amanda Butynes, Jonathan Dronfield, Ryan Fisher, Murray Kim, Nick Mazzella, Patrick Rodgers and David Shane, all recent graduates of the aerospace and ocean engineering department at Virginia Tech; and Valentin Krebs and Richard Zwetzich, senior undergraduates of Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. The team was co-advised by Raj, professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and Abulawi, professor in the Department of Automotive and Aerospace at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, with assistance from Pat Artis, professor of practice in the Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and co-instructor of the Air Vehicle Design course. 

For questions on applying for the exchange program, contact the Global Education Office at or visit

Written By Jama Green

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