International Engineering Ambassadors
Insight into the life & course of international students.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Project Phoenix – Yes, we can!

“Yes we can” is a slogan used by United States President Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential Campaign which best describes Project Phoenix - a student led project at The University of Sheffield aiming to construct a full size 1920's single engine two seater Pietenpol Air Camper aircraft.
My name is Andrei Roibu, I am an IEA and for the past 10 months (from February until December 2016) I worked as the Project Manager of this ground-breaking student endeavour. Today, I want to to tell you a bit about the project itself and its journey to date.
Project Phoenix was first proposed to me by Dr. Simon Hayes at the end of 2015, when he came up with the idea of a student project aiming at constructing a full-size kit aircraft in order to showcase the abilities of our students, here at the University of Sheffield, and the technical and manufacturing capabilities of the workshops in the Diamond building. At that time, I was President of Simurq Aeronautics, a student-lead society aiming at constructing drones and RC planes and taking them to competitions. Honestly, when I first heard the idea I did not believe that it could be done, as it seemed too complex and too costly for students to reproduce. I held on to my doubts for months, all through Christmas and the 2015-16 winter exam season, however, Dr. Hayes kept pitching the idea to me and insisting that we can do it. Honestly, I don’t know what made me accept his project proposal, as I was still doubtful about the project's chances of success. To some extent, I was probably curious to see how far we could go with this seemingly insane idea until we reached that point where it would have become obvious it was too much to handle. Hence, Project Phoenix was born.
From February until April, the project team consisted of Dr. Simon Hayes, Mr. Richard Stockley (one of the Diamond technicians), Dr. Stephen Mason and I, worked mainly into looking at different kit airplanes and trying to find the required funding for the project. Our first major breakthrough came when we managed to receive a sponsorship for £11,000 from the University of Sheffield Alumni Fund, which came as a surprise to all of us considering that little to no student projects ever received such a large sponsorship. This was probably the moment where we started realizing the scale and magnitude of what we were planning on doing. At this point we were looking at building a Zenith STOL CH750 aircraft and we were estimating the entire project to run for 3 years, requiring a budget of around £60,000. This might seem as a big number, however we were quite confident that we could obtain the sum from further university grants and private company sponsorships, as we were already getting a lot of attention from the various engineering departments.
As April was coming to an end, so was my term at the helm of Simurq Aeronautics. The project, at that time named ‘The Alumni Aircraft Project’ – I know, not a very catchy name – was intended to be done in collaboration with Simurq, which made me assume that as my term ended so would my involvement with the project. It was at this point when Dr. Hayes asked me if I wanted to be the overall leader of the project, which took me by surprise. This put me in very delicate position, as beside the project I was managing two part-time jobs at the Sheffield Students’ Union while also studying towards my degree in Aerospace Engineering. The solution that I found was that of a joint student leadership, having myself as the Project Manager, in charge of all the non-technical aspects of the project and the overall management, and bringing a second person on board as the Technical Manager. My first choice for the role was a Mechanical Engineering student, which initially accepted and came on-board from April until May, however as the spring exam season kicked in, she decided that she needed to prioritize her studies. The second choice for the role was an avionics stream Aerospace Engineering student, which at that point was keen on getting relevant technical and managerial experience and had all the attributes for the position. At the moment of this blog’s writing, after my departure from the project, he has assumed full Project Manager status.
The next milestone in the history of Project Phoenix was the worldwide famous Brexit. In the weeks following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the entire team met regularly in order to assess how this impacts us, realizing that the initial budget estimate was now overly ambitious in the looming future economic climate. This was the moment when we decided that we should adopt a simpler design, for which most if not all of the materials and tools could be bought on the already available funds, with any subsequent sponsorship or grant being used for further improvements and modifications. After an extensive market research, we decided on the Pietenpol Air Camper.
Over the summer, planning was done for the workshop, team structure, branding and a future sponsorship campaign. All the while, the project kept growing and growing, gaining more and more attention from the different departments within the University and from across faculties. At the start of the academic year, we ran a recruitment campaign and selected the team, thus kick starting the work on the project itself.
At this point in time, Project Phoenix is the flagship project of Aerospace Engineering in Sheffield and the largest undergraduate project ever undertook at the University of Sheffield. The projects is seeing the participation of over 30 students from across all the departments of the Faculty of Engineering and also from other faculties, such as Social Sciences. All levels of study are represented within the project, from first year students to postgraduates and PhDs, with the project members gaining substantial engineering and managerial experience.
Project Phoenix is registered with the Light Aircraft Association, which allows the construction of the aircraft using the original blueprints. The Pietenpol Air Camper is an empiric design, as such, it has never been modelled, and its design never analysed. Alongside construction, a dedicated research team within Project Phoenix is looking into potential ways of improving upon the design, analysing its structural dynamics and the airflow around the plane, utilising this data to implement our own flight simulator and publish research papers in engineering academic journals. Rigorous manufacturing standards are implemented throughout the construction process, insuring that the students participating in the technical teams obtain relevant manufacturing knowledge and the final aircraft receives its flight accreditation. Moreover, the project benefits from a dedicated management team, where a group of students are gaining valuable experience in managing the bureaucracy and regulations entailed by a project of this magnitude, while also helping insure a friendly climate for their peers working on the project. In addition to this, the project aims at promoting most if not all of the participating students, with the help of the University Marketing Department, through social and classical media, both on a local and nationwide level.
In the past 10 months, I have seen this project grow from a seemingly impossible idea to the largest undergraduate project ever undertaken at The University of Sheffield. I look back with pride on what we have achieved in such a short time while also looking to the future with great hope and great expectations. I have left Project Phoenix at the beginning of this month, due to academic and health reasons, however I am proud to be one of its’ founding fathers. Coming back to where we started, if I would be asked now if undergraduate students can build a full-size aircraft from scratch, I would proudly tell them:

“At the University of Sheffield, yes, we can!”

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