Flight Test Success

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 Aug. 25, 2006

Sean Kearns
Media Relations Director
(323) 343-3050
Margie Yu
Public Affairs Specialist 
(323) 343-3047



Cal State L.A. 
Office of Public Affairs 
(323) 343-3050 
Fax: (323) 343-6405

For immediate release:
Cal State L.A.’s fuel-cell plane
passes key flight test

100 feet up for 2 minutes,
480-watt craft carries 28-pound payload

Note to editors and news directors: Christopher Herwerth, the Cal State L.A. graduate student in mechanical engineering who led the student team, may be reached at 323-343-4931 (office) or [email protected]. Faculty advisor Professor Maj Dean Mirmirani, chair of mechanical engineering at Cal State L.A., may be reached at (323) 343-4492, [email protected]


Los Angeles, CA – In a Kitty Hawk moment on an airstrip named for the first spacecraft to land on the moon, this morning an unmanned airplane with an 18-foot wing span made history by demonstrating that fuel cells can be used to power flight.

Developed by a team of students at California State University, Los Angeles’s Multidisciplinary Flight Dynamics and Control Laboratory, the plane took off at the Apollo XI Radio Control (RC) Airfield in Van Nuys around 7:30 a.m.

According to Christopher Herwerth, the Cal State L.A. graduate student in mechanical engineering who leads the team, “The fuel cell performed very well, yielding 480 watts of maximum sustained power that turned a 20-inch propeller. The UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) took off slowly but climbed steadily, reaching an altitude of 100 feet.”

Another student, Jay Replogle, piloted the plane by remote control.

“Jay had the UAV circle the airfield twice during the two-minute flight,” said Herwerth. “There was a slight crosswind during landing, but the well-balanced aircraft glided gracefully through its landing pattern”—a moment accompanied by a mix of cheers and speechlessness.

With the touchdown, the Cal State L.A. team, comprising roughly a half-dozen students, became the first university crew west of the Mississippi—and the second overall—to achieve successful flight powered by fuel cells. (The other was Georgia Institute of Technology, which—unlike Cal State L.A.—offers doctoral programs.) According to Herwerth, only two other groups have achieved public flights of such craft: AeroVironment, a Simi Valley-based aerospace company; and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Shortly before the flight, the team decided to add an extra pound of weight to the craft in the form of a small video camera, battery and transmitter, bringing its total to 28.5 pounds.

“The decision was difficult,” said Herwerth. “The heavier the aircraft, the more difficult it is to take off. We were happy that we included the camera because the major purpose for a UAV is to carry some kind of payload.”

One of the project’s long-term goals is to develop an unmanned aircraft that can survey environments without polluting them. (The fuel cells are fed by hydrogen and release only pure water as an emission.)

The project receives support from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research office at Edwards Air Force Base and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Five other Cal State L.A. students on the UAV research team assisted today’s flight: Charles Chiang, Sang Bum Choi, Alan Ko, Sahar Mehrzad and Shigeru Matsuyama. Three Cal State L.A. mechanical engineering professors—Maj Dean Mirmirani, Chivey Wu and Darrell Guillaume—supervise the Multidisciplinary Flight Dynamics and Control Laboratory and serve as project advisors. Nik Jain, a senior at Arcadia High School and a summer intern at the aerodynamics lab, helped with earlier battery-powered test flights.

Mirmirani, who chairs the university’s mechanical engineering department, said the flight is likely the last for the plane, which may be more valuable as a piece of history, being seen in museums and outreach displays.

“We want to move on,” said Mirmirani. “This was a technology demonstrator. The next project will be using the technology for a specific mission. This has served its purpose—to demonstrate that a fuel cell can power flight—and there’s no use in risking a crash in another flight. We’d like to preserve, to share it.”

Details about the Multidisciplinary Flight Dynamics and Control Laboratory and the fuel-cell plane are available at /centers/mfdclab/mfdclab.htm.

Working for California since 1947: The 175-acre hilltop campus of California State University, Los Angeles is at the heart of a major metropolitan city, just five miles from Los Angeles’ civic and cultural center. More than 20,000 students and 190,000 alumni—with a wide variety of interests, ages and backgrounds—reflect the city’s dynamic mix of populations. Six colleges offer nationally recognized science, arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education and humanities programs, among others, led by an award-winning faculty. Cal State L.A. is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Jazz Orchestra and to a unique university center for gifted students as young as 12. Programs that provide exciting enrichment opportunities to students and community include an NEH- and Rockefeller-supported humanities center; a NASA-funded center for space research; and a growing forensic science program, to be housed in the Los Angeles Regional Crime Lab now under construction. www.calstatela.edu

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