Suddenly Soaring

Years of strategic investment propel MTSU’s aerospace program into the stratosphere

by Allison Gorman

Troy Rath admits he didn’t really want to make the trip to Murfreesboro.

Rath is general manager of ITT Corp., a Fortune 500 engineering and manufacturing company based in Washington, D.C. ITT has a $1.4 billion contract with the Federal Aviation Administration to help shape the future of flight in the United States.

MTSU was part of the interdisciplinary team working with ITT on the project. It was March 2011 and the University’s Department of Aerospace had invited Rath to a ribbon-cutting for the new technology it would be using in the collaborative research.

“I was a little reluctant to go,” Rath says. “I mean, Tennessee? Middle Tennessee State? At the time, we didn’t associate that with avionics or really anything to do with aircraft.”

He made the trip to MTSU nevertheless, and he wasn’t prepared for what he found there. That newly unveiled technology? A custom-made air traffic control tower simulator, the most sophisticated in the world. On the floor above was a duplicate of the Nashville ramp tower, linked to a replicated flight operations center. At the nearby Murfreesboro Airport there was a collection of flight simulators, a Boeing 727, and a fleet of state-of-the-art airplanes—one of the largest and most  advanced fleets at any American university. And there were 700 students for whom this technological banquet was, simply, “lab.”

“This was a hidden gem,” Rath says. Reaching new heights Over the past eight years. MTSU’s aerospace program—one with a long history and one of only 31 accredited programs in the country—quietly graduated from “well-regarded” to “world-class.”

MTSU’s aerospace program has long been known for turning out eminently hirable graduates, but in recent years, former department chair Dr. Paul Craig, his successor, Dr. Wayne Dornan, and other aerospace faculty have made a strategic push to raise the national profile of the program. They’ve done it in chronically lean economic times, securing funds from NASA and other outside sources, and their sweat equity is now paying off. They have built a technological marvel that is not only a cutting-edge learning environment for students but also an unmatched training, testing, and research facility for industry and government.

Craig says he knew the program had made it to the next level when, in his travels to Washington, D.C., he began hearing MTSU mentioned in the same breath as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “To me, that’s when we started to turn the corner,” he says, “when we started being involved in the national conversation.”

Dornan says he’s still waiting to hear that conversation at home. “People don’t realize they’ve got one of the best aviation programs—I would argue the best—in the entire country, right here in Murfreesboro,” he says. “It bothers me a little to be the best-kept secret in the United States. It bothers me a lot to be the best-kept secret in Tennessee. And it drives me crazy to be the best-kept secret in Rutherford County.”

Super sim

That secret may not be safe for long. In MTSU’s $3.4 million ATC lab, the new facility that Rath toured, students learn air traffic control in a simulated environment that has never been possible before—even at the FAA’s own simulator in Atlantic City, N.J. “I’ve been to the FAA tech center,” Rath says, “and the tower simulator is just two big flat-screen TVs. It covers about 100 degrees of visibility. It really pales in comparison.”

The full-scale tower at MTSU is a quiet, darkened, circular room, 30 feet in diameter, where students direct landings and takeoffs while checking radar screens, watching runways, and scanning the horizon for arrivals. That horizon is a 360-degree screen onto which a seamless vista is generated by 10 high-definition digital projectors. On the panoramic screen are interactive scenarios written by aerospace faculty; they can specify traffic patterns and aircraft, build in emergencies, and incorporate changing daylight or weather, from dense fog to fast-moving storms.

Outside the tower, there are stations for 12 “pseudo-pilots” who follow the controllers’ commands, as well as radar stations for the controllers who monitor the regional airspace beyond the tower and for others who monitor the national airspace. All the students work together to manage air traffic in real time.

Gail Zlotky, an associate professor of aerospace who directs ATC simulator testing and training, says instructors can adjust the speed of the scenarios as students become more adept, although all students start out the old-fashioned way: holding model airplanes, walking plywood runways. “Honestly, this [simulator] goes too fast for them,” she says.

By the time an MTSU air traffic control student graduates, he or she will have experienced the closest thing possible to on-the-job training—invaluable in a profession in which the learning curve is long, the mandatory retirement age is 56, and a bad decision can have fatal consequences.

“That’s the good thing about the simulation room,” says DeMarco Cason, 21, a senior aerospace major. “That’s where you mess up.”

Training with a boost

The ATC simulator gives MTSU students another critical edge: they can practice where they’ll train if accepted into the FAA Academy. That’s because Virginia-based CSC, the company that built the simulator, can design software replicating any airport in the world.

So far, MTSU has software for six airports, including Memphis, Nashville, and the FAA Academy airport in Oklahoma City. Atlanta is next, Zlotky says.

The simulator is a lab for the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI)—a two-year, FAA-approved program for colleges and universities in which MTSU is a participant. The aim is to teach students the fundamentals of air traffic control before they apply for admission to the academy. Zlotky got the University in on the ground floor of the program in 1997 with a single enrollee. Now she oversees about 100 AT-CTI students—one of the largest university enrollments in the country—and Zlotky says that number could triple.

Students who take the extra CTI coursework have an advantage going into FAA training, she says, because they’re not “cramming two years of knowledge” into a few months of academy study. Given the FAA’s rigorous testing and screening, however, “there is no guarantee that they will get hired,” Zlotky warns. “Absolutely none.”

Nevertheless, if there’s an aerospace position to be filled, put your money on the Blue Raider. Ninety-nine percent of MTSU students who enter the academy are ultimately hired.

MTSU president Sidney A. McPhee says he sees that pattern of success across the University’s five aerospace concentrations: administration, technology, maintenance management, professional pilot, and flight dispatch.

“I travel the country quite a bit,” he says, “and anytime I’m in a major airport and I’m wearing something that identifies me with the University, I will have someone come up to me—a pilot, an aviation mechanic—to say, ‘I’m a graduate of MTSU aerospace.’ Always. That is not an exaggeration.”

Even before they graduate, MTSU students edge out the competition for aerospace internships. Dornan recalls that last year hundreds of students from across the country applied for just a few internships with Southwest Airlines. Two MTSU students applied; both were hired.

Between the program’s hiring rates and its new technology, enrollment in aerospace is growing quickly. “We’re on the verge of an explosion in this department,” Dornan says.

Laying the groundwork

What is now one of MTSU’s largest departments began as a military-run, campus-based flight training program during World War II. Aerospace became a stand-alone department in 1971 but didn’t offer pilot training until 1993, when Craig, a graduate of the program, returned to establish a self-sustaining departmental flight school. “If we ever lost any money,” he says, “the experiment would be over with.”

Craig rounded up the department’s few sturdy-but-aging aircraft, which had been leased out, and charged students a fee for flight training and plane rental. Those meager profits were sown back into the program; every year from 1994 to 2000, Craig added one or two used planes to the fleet. Nationally accredited its second year of operation, MTSU’s flight school still “doesn’t cost the University a dime,” he says.

Technically, Craig had succeeded with his mission, but when he became department chair in 2001, he knew that hand-to-mouth was no way to run a competitive program in such a high-tech field. In 2003, he made that case to McPhee, who asked him what it would take to elevate the stature of the Department of Aerospace.

New planes, Craig said. The planes they had were safe, but they were antiquated. He recalls the conversation: “I said, ‘What if you went into a computer lab on campus, and it was filled with computers built in the ’70s and ’80s?’ Dr. McPhee said, ‘You’d be a laughingstock.’ And I said, ‘There you go. It’s a technology thing. It’s not a safety thing.’”

McPhee nominated the fleet upgrade as his annual bond request to the Tennessee legislature.

“All of a sudden, I was shopping for airplanes,” Craig says.

Fleet of wing

What followed was the first in a series of firsts. Craig ordered 25 new planes, then used a NASA grant to upgrade them from the standard round-dial controls to computerized, or “glass cockpit,” technology—the first collegiate fleet of its kind. (The fleet has since been further upgraded; the school’s newest planes have state-of-the-art “synthetic vision”—another university first.)

Craig had one plane made into a simulator, convincing manufacturer Frasca to absorb all but $300,000, the remaining grant money, for the privilege of building the first glass cockpit training device.

The department now has five simulators, Dornan says, including the ATC lab—the first of its kind in the world—and a new $1 million jet simulator, which will connect to the ATC lab. “That’s never been done before,” Zlotky says.

The newest simulator was purchased in anticipation of new safety regulations expected to be handed down by the FAA that will award extra flight credit hours to students with jet simulator training. It’s all part of the FAA-Industry Training Standards (FITS), which encourage pilot training based on proficiency rather than time spent in the cockpit.

MTSU already uses proficiency-based training, Dornan notes; the University has worked with the FAA since 2003 to pioneer the FITS program.

“I’d say 75 percent of the articles on the FAA website that support the efficacy of the FITS program were published here at MTSU,” he says. “We have been at the forefront of that training format. We’re the first school to implement it.”

All these firsts happened in “really tough budget times,” McPhee notes. What Craig estimates is $10 million in technological investment since 2003 came from bond or grant money, not the department’s budget.

“Obviously, nothing much gets done without the administration’s blessing,” Craig says, “but if I’d gone in and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to have the best aerospace program in the country, but I’ll need $10 million, once they stopped laughing, I’d be out in the hall. I mean, every other department would have the same request, right?”

The fruits of flight

Now that $10 million investment is paying dividends.

In July 2010, the new ATC simulator was still on order, but the research and testing opportunities that it promised to deliver were enough to win MTSU a coveted place in a $6.4 billion research and engineering project called System Engineering 2020 (SE-2020). The project is part of the FAA’s NextGen program, an ambitious plan to modernize the nation’s airspace.

SE-2020 involves six industry teams, each led by a major player in aerospace. ITT Corp. leads one team, which includes MTSU—one of only two universities on ITT’s 33-member team and one of just a few universities named to the SE-2020 project overall. (Among other participants are Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and, yes, Embry-Riddle.)

Under Troy Rath’s direction, the ITT team will share $1.4 billion in FAA-approved contracts over 10 years. By the end of last year, MTSU had been asked to submit three contracts for approval.

MTSU’s air traffic control simulator will be critical to NextGen research as aviation moves from radar- to GPS-based technology, Dornan says. “You can’t just start using these GPS-based systems,” he explains. “Someone’s got to test them under a controlled and safe environment. Because of the sophistication of our control tower, we’re going to be the site that can validate these new concepts. Over the next decade, air traffic control is going to change in the U.S., and MTSU is going to play a pivotal part in that.”

Dornan expects the simulator to attract lucrative contract opportunities independent of SE-2020, including a possible partnership with the FAA, whose Atlantic City tower simulator is not only less sophisticated than MTSU’s but also overscheduled. “I’m hoping to meet with FAA officials to show them what our capabilities are—not to compete with them, but to help them because they’re backlogged,” Dornan says. “I hope that once they get an idea of what we have to offer, we’ll have some significant partnerships with them in the future.”

Rath says he’s begun recommending MTSU to others within the aerospace industry who need to conduct ATC testing or training. The FAA facility “is just not agile,” he says. “There are a lot more meetings to talk about what you’re going to do rather than doing it. There’s less red tape at Middle Tennessee State.”

MTSU aerospace is piquing international interest, as well.

This year the University signed a nonbinding agreement with China to conduct pilot training. The agreement stemmed from a first-of-its-kind conference that the Aerospace Department hosted last December, when aviation experts from China and the U.S. convened on campus to discuss the challenges of opening previously restricted Chinese airspace to general aviation.

If successful, the partnership could open more doors with the notoriously cautious Chinese government, says Dr. Mike Allen, MTSU’s vice provost for research and dean of the College of Graduate Studies. “We would start with pilots, and as they became more comfortable training with us, we would offer training for air traffic controllers, too,” Allen says, adding that the proposed pilot-training agreement could be worth $3 million to $5 million a year for 15 years, he says.

Broadening horizons

McPhee says the conference heralded a new era of lucrative business deals, international and domestic, for MTSU’s aerospace program. “Over a couple of years, everything came together. After the international conference that we had—it just exploded from that,” he says.

Opportunity knocked closer to home in June, when the University hosted ATC training for a battalion of the Tennessee Army National Guard, based in Smyrna. The tower simulator’s unique ability to replicate airports in other countries and to create scenarios incorporating the hazards and unpredictable air traffic of a war zone has “huge business implications,” Dornan says.

“If we had success with the Tennessee National Guard,” Allen says, “why not the Alabama or Kentucky or, for that matter, the Minnesota National Guard?”

MTSU signed a multiyear agreement with another neighbor, ISR Group of Savannah, Tenn., for collaborative research on drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). ISR, which conducts flight training and testing for those systems, has provided funding to help the University establish a UAS program. (See sidebar 1, page 18)

In doing so, MTSU is once again ahead of the curve because the vast commercial applications of UAS are just being developed, says Kyle Snyder, who was hired as program director.

Military use of UAS, meanwhile, has grown exponentially, notes Tim Owings, deputy project manager for the Army’s UAS Program Office in Huntsville, Ala. “[As of 9/11], we were doing maybe $150 million worth of work in unmanned aircraft systems; today it’s about $2.5 billion. Just in combat alone, we’ve flown over 1.2 million flight hours. That is a remarkable tribute to the success that these systems have had.”

Snyder and Owings have now forged an education partnership: MTSU will provide testing and research of UAS, and the Army will supply drone technology to the University’s UAS program, which in fall 2012 is expected to become the department’s sixth concentration. Most university aerospace departments have two or three, Dornan says.

Such expansion provides yet more evidence of the waxing of the aerospace program’s fortunes over the past 18 months. Indeed, a decade of strategic investment by MTSU’s aerospace faculty has culminated in a series of high-profile successes, and at some schools, those successes might outshine the students.

Not to worry.

“When I was there on campus and visiting, I was pretty impressed,” Troy Rath says. “But the real cherry inside this chocolate is to have a facility like that, turning out high-quality students who are going to be the next generation manning the system—because it is just a system. There have to be quality people with the burning desire to make it happen if it’s going to be successful. And I think you have them at MTSU.”

In aerospace, a business in which the smartest technology still relies on the human touch, its graduates remain MTSU’s biggest return on investment