Formula SAE serves as capstone experience

In the final week before the Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) competition, the Dyno Lab on the first floor of Fairchild Hall is busy with cadets making last minute adjustments to their entry.

The team of 20 cadets have worked the entire academic year to design and build their car, which will compete at Formula SAE Michigan, one of several races in the SAE Collegiate Design Series.

Seven firsties (aka seniors) comprise the leadership of the Academy team. Formula SAE is their senior capstone course in the Department of Engineering Mechanics, led by Ioan Feier, assistant professor, and instructor Capt. Kevin Horn, who participated on the Formula SAE team as a cadet in 2010-11. The rest of the team are volunteers, including underclassmen who are interested in cars and/or mechanical engineering.

Cadet First Class Sean McQuesten, team captain, is in his second year on the team.

“This is a great leadership opportunity. I am leading my peers and helping them out. I’ve also gained project management skills,” he says. “This has been good because I’m getting experience working with people. This competition isn’t about the car, it’s about the students. Solving problems with them is the big takeaway.”

The problems they solve are many. As part of the overall competition, and before they even drive the car, the team is judged on technical specifications, design, cost and marketing. The car’s endurance, acceleration, noise level and fuel efficiency are also tested.

McQuesten, who will do pilot training after graduation, appreciates the real-world engineering experience he has had during the year. The team worked on the design in the fall. The spring was dedicated to machining of parts, construction and testing. Along the way, while putting in approximately 4,500 man-hours, they gained experience with composites, welding, electronics and sensors.

They also had access to the Center for Aircraft Structural Life Extension (CAStLE) and the department’s machining laboratories for custom machining, 3D printing and fabrication of parts.

Cadet First Class Zane Willburn, who will start a master’s degree at the Air Force Institute of Technology in the fall, was in charge of the car’s powertrain.

“I’m a much better machinist and welder because of this project,” he said. “And of course there’s the team dynamics. I get to see how my work applies and works with other subsystems on the car. Next to soaring, this is the best experience I’ve had at the Academy.”

Feier says he is often asked why the Air Force Academy participates in an automotive competition.

“We can ask the cadets to build an airplane, but because of safety issues, we’re not going to let them fly it as readily as we would let them drive a cadet-built car,” he says. “Formula SAE is still applied, and there is a deliverable. The man-machine interface is there, as is the human factors element. It runs, it’s engaging and it’s exciting for the cadets.”

In fact, Feier reports, the competition is a good recruiting tool for cadets to check out a mechanical engineering major.

As a former team member, Horn has seen the Academy’s Formula SAE project from different perspectives. And while he may not have understood it six years ago, he is well aware of the impact donors have had on the team.

“It’s simple,” he says. “Gift funds that come through the Endowment mean everything to us. We couldn’t do this every year without that support.”

Check out a USAFA Webguy blog post about the Formula SAE team from earlier in the year.


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