It’s easy to think of the ways aerospace students are forging into the future with the skills they’re learning at UT, but for a couple of students and one alumnus, these skills may help them understand a major event of the past.

“My wife, Susan, says that she’s the only person she knows that lets her husband go out searching for another woman,” jokes Jon Thompson MS ASE ’71. That other woman is Amelia Earhart, the pioneering pilot who disappeared over the South Pacific Ocean with her navigator, Fred Noonan, 73 years ago during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. For Thompson, Earhart’s disappearance has become a real life treasure hunt, taking him to the depths of the ocean in search of the downed plane.

Thompson is associated with Nauticos, LLC. headed by David Jordan, arguably, the premier undersea explorer in the world today. The team will continue their search near Earhart’s July 1937 refueling destination, Howland Island. Years of complex analysis involving multiple universities and companies have concluded that she simply ran out of fuel and ditched very close to her destination.

photo of Jon Thompson standing with students
Alumnus Jon Thompson visited aerospace engineering students on campus last fall to engage them in a study. The students’ findings will be used in an expedition to the South Pacific in search of Amelia Earhart’s lost airplane later this year.

A team of UT aerospace engineering students are now along for the ride. Led by Vishnu Jyothindran, who graduated this past December, and senior Michael Rose, the students are conducting a flotation analysis that examines two scenarios under the assumption her plane landed in the ocean. The first is a center of gravity study (CG) that assumes she was able to safely land the plane in the ocean by flaring the plane, a technique used by pilots to gently land an aircraft by pointing its nose upwards before touch down.

Their study showed there was no possible way an unfavorable CG location at the time of touchdown could have been a catastrophic issue, Jyothindran said. Since Earhart’s Electra L-10E plane was custom-made for her, it was harder to track down flight drawings and weight calculations, but Jyothindran said the data Thompson provided was very valuable.

“The data collection of such an old airplane has been quite remarkable,” Jyothindran said. “It has been fun working with old type-written reports and hand-drawn engineering drawings, something we are not used to in this age of computer-aided design (CAD).”

After more than 15 hours in the cockpit, Earhart’s visual acuity, reaction time and sheer physical strength would certainly be impaired. In addition, the 1937 non-feathering propellers would act like a barn door restricting airflow over the wing and elevator control surfaces significantly slowing the powerless, gliding Electra. The time to flare the plane from the reported 1,000 feet altitude would be about 20 seconds. Given the empty fuel tanks, the plane’s weight would be at its front causing it to fly at a downward, slanted angle. If the plane went down in this manner, Thompson said it could have flipped violently and broken up on impact.

Jyothindran’s team will study this scenario next and will include the flotation time of the Electra, buoyed by empty 1100 gallon capacity fuel tanks slowly filling with sea water. “It is quite fascinating to work on a project that potentially could change aviation history,” Jyothindran said. “Our education in UT’s aerospace program has prepared us to tackle the technical questions posed to us, but this unique project is something no class lecture can prepare you for. It does help having experience working in teams like we do in our student projects.”

The students’ findings will be used to help Thompson and an approximately 35-member crew look for the plane when they go on their third expedition to the South Pacific sometime in late summer or fall. The expedition team has already combed over 2,200 square miles of ocean bottom since 2002 and plans to search another 400-600 square miles during the upcoming trip using sonar equipment that can detect something as small as one meter, even in the 18,000-ft. deep ocean where the plane is believed to rest. “I’m excited about getting the UT students involved because the rest of the team is versed in the undersea aspect, but few in the group are pilots who understand the flight characteristics,” Thompson said.

The students share Thompson’s enthusiasm to help solve the greatest mystery of the last century.

“This is different from any other project we work on in school,” Jyothindran said. “In class, you expect you’ll get a question that you can solve with data in the textbook. We don’t have that guarantee here, but that is what makes the project so exciting.