As July ends and back-to-school chores loom, one group of Pitt engineers is getting busy preparing for a completely different kind of challenge: building and piloting an aircraft to fly over the Allegheny River.
The self-styled Roc-ettes, a team of five students and recent graduates from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, are making the craft as part of Red Bull’s annual “Flugtag” — a German word meaning “day of flight” — competition. The event, held annually in different cities throughout the world, is being presented this year in tandem with the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta.
Held next Saturday morning, the competition will be the culmination of months of preparation. Paul Gatto, a senior mechanical engineering major and the student chair of Pitt’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said Red Bull’s campus representative contacted him in April encouraging him to apply.
“We decided to form a team, we made a video and we got accepted,” Gatto said.
Most of the Roc-ettes hail from Pitt’s mechanical engineering program, with one member majoring in electrical engineering. All the team members are involved in the aeronautics club — something they hope they’ll be able to use to their advantage as preparations enter their final stage.
Nicholas Bertani, a senior mechanical engineering major and a Roc-ette, described the club’s typical work constructing remote controlled planes. The Flugtag craft, which has to hold a pilot and remain within strict size and weight limits, presents its designers with difficulties absent in RC flying, he said.
“Each person [on the team] has to take on a whole responsibility,” Bertani said, adding that a few of the team members had graduated and moved away from Pittsburgh. “Organizing working meetings, coordinating … it’s definitely more difficult.”
The team even had to renovate its work space — which is typically used to construct much smaller aircrafts — to accommodate the challenge of producing a craft for the Flugtag. According to Ryan Blair, a Pitt alumnus with a degree in mechanical engineering, the Flugtag craft’s 24 foot wingspan initially wouldn’t feasibly fit in the aeronautic club’s lab. Blair also noted that the craft — that’s going to attempt to take off on the Allegheny next Saturday — needed to be constructed out of completely different materials than the typical remote controlled airplane.
Although they’ve already had to adapt to several challenges in building the flying machine, the Roc-ettes predict that the most trying part of the process will be the day of the competition itself.
“The actual storing [of the craft] and getting it to the place is gonna be the toughest part,” Gatto said.
Blair also pointed to the performance aspect of the Flugtag festivities as a big piece of the event.
“Red Bull wants us to put on a show,” he said. “I’m working on costumes and a dance routine.”
But for all the focus on preparations for game day itself, the Roc-ettes say their primary concern is still being able to make their craft work as well as possible.
“We are still spending a lot of time on design, not just winging it — no pun intended,” Blair said. “There’s a ton of little aspects to plane. We’re not just making a plane to look good, we’re also trying to get it to fly far.”
The Roc-ettes are one of 37 total teams participating in Saturday’s festivities — and the competition is stiff. The team that won last year’s Flugtag in Boston is planning on participating again this year in Pittsburgh, Blair said. And although one other team is representing engineering students at Robert Morris University, most participants are semi-professional adults.
“Most of the people at meet and greet events for the competition seemed like they were in their thirties to forties,” Gatto said. “It seems like it’s mostly gonna be real people.”
But despite the level of competition, the Roc-ettes remain optimistic and confident about their chances.
“We’re excited to represent Pitt, and we hope we do well,” Gatto said.