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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2004 > Flight Unssen

Flight Unseen

Boeing computer illustration
Sketches show some of the variations that Blaine Rawdon ’73 considered for Boeing’s Blended Wing Body design, shown in its final form in a computer illustration.

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For the Pelican to go from paper to plane, Rawdon will have to not only overcome a number of technical issues, but also find a market large enough to justify the enormous expense of producing a new airplane. To that end, he’s thinking not only of military applications, but also of commercial cargo business. Today, a company wishing to ship its goods overseas has to send them either by container ship, which is very slow but very cheap, or by jet, which is very fast but very expensive. The Pelican could offer a third option that would be much faster than a ship and considerably cheaper than other planes. It could carry 178 of the 20-foot-long containers used to carry cargo on freighters and tractor trailers. It also has the fuel efficiencies that come from the ground effect. Because it usually flies at such a low altitude, there would be no need to pressurize the plane, except for the cockpit. And its relatively slow speed means it would not need the precise finish and expensive manufacturing of high-speed jets. While the Pelican could be expected to capture only a modest percentage of the existing freight market, that market is so huge that even a small share translates into a great deal of money. And with China’s rapidly increasing role as a producer and consumer nation, the overseas shipping market is becoming even more lucrative. In the past two years alone, shipping companies have tripled the day-rates for their freighters as a result of increased demand for transportation to and from China. Rawdon believes the Pelican could be a tool for economic development in struggling countries. Because it would transport the standard containers used on trucks and ships worldwide, the plane might make it economically feasible for a country in central Africa, for example, to become a freight hub for an entire region by building a freight terminal and runway for the Pelican.

Rawdon may be designing the world’s biggest airplane, but he got into the business by working with the world’s smallest airplanes. When he was growing up in California, a friend’s father had a model airplane, the kind with a gasoline engine and wires attached to the body so a hobbyist could fly the plane in circles while holding onto the wires. Rawdon would fly the plane with his friends, and he soon became entirely consumed by flying. Even though he built the plastic model planes that are almost a requirement for young boys, he says he didn’t have much interest in them because they didn’t do anything. It was flight itself that attracted him, and he pursued it with ever-increasing ambition. The wire-controlled planes eventually gave way to radio-controlled models, then kits that let Rawdon build his own planes. He finally began developing his own designs for model planes; it’s something he still does, and he offers his own design software through a small Website. He is part of a subculture that is distinctive and somewhat hidden, but surprisingly large. The Academy of Model Aeronautics alone claims 170,000 dues-paying members in the U.S., and there are far more in other countries. The models have an enormous range, says Rawdon: “Model airplanes range in weight from .05 ounces to 55 pounds, which is a nominal limit, but guys are flying turbojet radio-controlled models that go 200 miles an hour. I mean honest-to-god turbojets. And they go 200 miles an hour. Then there are guys flying radio-controlled models indoors at three miles an hour.”

Because the people involved in this hobby tend to be technologically inclined and iconoclastic, a lot of innovation goes on here. It is far easier to experiment with a new propeller type or wing construction method when you can fabricate it, test it, repair any damage from failure and try it all again in the space of a week. For full-size airplanes, that process is long and very expensive. Model plane designers are so sophisticated, in fact, that the aerospace industry looks to them for solutions to design problems. “A lot of that technology is working its way down into the aerospace business,” Rawdon says, “both in research stuff and also in the unmanned aerial vehicles—the weapons and reconnaissance vehicles.” One aerospace company even goes out of its way to hire model-plane designers and lets them use the company’s equipment for their model work, simply because it’s likely to produce some innovation the company can use.

Despite Rawdon’s passion for flying, he wasn’t considering a career in aviation when he came to Amherst. He chose Amherst because his father (Blaine Neahr Rawdon ’46) had gone to the college. (His two younger brothers, Matthew ’79 and Robert ’77, are also alums.) “Otherwise,” he says, “it’s unlikely that someone going to high school on the West Coast is going to hear of Amherst. I think I was possibly the only person to go to a private liberal arts college from my entire high school.” When he got to Amherst he chose physics as his major because he had been particularly inspired by his high school physics instructor. But he found Amherst to be quite a bit more challenging than high school. “Writing on the chalk board was too slow for the professor in that first class,” he says. “He used an overhead projector with a scrolling roll of clear plastic, so he would write by hand and then turn the crank. It was all you could do to keep up in class. Fortunately, I was able to go back and absorb it, so I hung in there, but I was not a great physics student. Some time ago I saw a book about graduate physics topics that somebody had in their house, and I thought, ‘This would be interesting.’ But I looked through it and I thought, ‘Oh my god, there’s so much I don’t know it isn’t even funny.’”

Although Rawdon certainly uses physics in his job, much of his work is diplomatic, explaining his planes to potential customers and to colleagues at Boeing. There, he says, his liberal arts education really pays off. “It turns out that I know many things and take many things for granted that a lot of other people don’t know,” he says, “and that’s sort of surprising. It all seems natural to me. One of the most useful things I learned was the ability to talk and write, which is the result of numerous classes, many of which were painful to me. Professor Armour Craig [’37] got a couple of fundamental ideas across, including that the use of language can be quite rigorous and precise; that by forcing ourselves to use language in a rigorous way, we force ourselves to think in a rigorous way.”

After Amherst, Rawdon went to the University of Southern California to get a degree in architecture. He worked for his father’s architecture firm for a few years, but his interest in model planes never waned. As a result, in 1977 he found himself involved in the project that changed his life.

He started spending weekends working with Paul MacCready, a fellow model-plane enthusiast and founder of Aero­Vironment, an environmental and wind-power consulting company. MacCready was trying to win a prize that a British industrialist had established for the first person to produce a human-powered airplane able to fly around a designated course. People using modified conventional planes had been trying unsuccessfully to win the prize for 18 years. MacCready’s plane, called the Gossamer Condor, was a unique, super-lightweight design constructed of aluminum tubing, Mylar plastic and piano wire, powered by a pilot pedaling a bicycle linkage that turned the propeller. Rawdon’s job was to test-fly and repair the airplane as it went through its final iterations. On August 23, 1977, the plane successfully flew the 1.15-mile course, winning the prize. The whole project was documented in a PBS television show, and the plane itself is now on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution.

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Online Extra

Blaine Rawdon's Website, Envision Design

Popular Science article, "Monster at 20 Feet"

NPR Weekend Edition feature, "Biggest Plane Ever"

Academy of Model Aeronautics

The Boeing Company Phantom Works

"The Flight of the Gossamer Condor" documentary

Gossamer Albatross diagrams

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