By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer
One hundred years after two Daytonians invented the airplane, 41 years after a Cambridge native piloted America's first manned orbital mission, and 34 years after a Wapakoneta man became the first human to set foot on the moon, Ohio aerospace engineer Joe Prahl is busy building a better ball bearing.
David Allen watches hot air balloons during the Inventing Flight celebration in Dayton.
(Mike Simons photo)
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The chairman of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is working on oil-free turbo machinery for jet engines - ball bearings that use layers of air to stay separated instead of depending on liquid lubrication.
His research, like much of Ohio's aviation and aerospace research, stands at the cutting edge of the aerospace engineering field.
Even if it seems a little, uh, boring.
"Yeah, it sounds pretty mundane to someone not in the field," Prahl said. "But what do you think engines run on? You have to have ball bearings, and right now they have to be lubricated in a better way."
Today's research and development in aerospace may not appear as thrilling as the sky pioneers of yesteryear.
And the number of Ohioans employed in the aerospace industry has dwindled as the world's airline industry has struggled during its worst economic downturn in recent history.
But long-term, experts say Ohio will continue to play a leading role in aerospace advances that sound like science fiction today - such as planes that change shape in mid-flight, fighter jets made of materials that repair bullet holes in mid-air, or shuttle-like jets that could fly from New York to Tokyo in under two hours.
"It'll be fascinating," Prahl said. "I wish I could live longer. Look at all that's happened in past 100 years since the Wright brothers."
The Wrights, Glenn and Armstrong had the distinction of going where no Ohioans - indeed, no humans - had been before.
Ohio's 62,275 aerospace jobs rank 10th nationally. Gov. Bob Taft's chief aerospace adviser, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Browning, estimates the state ranks No. 2 in aerospace research, behind California.
A recent study by the Rand Corp. shows Ohio as a dominant state in aerospace research. The Buckeye State ranks ninth in the nation in its total amount of federal research and development money spent annually, at $2.7 billion - but more than $2 billion of that federal money is spent on research for Department of Defense and NASA projects in Ohio.
California and Maryland rank first and second nationally in total federal research dollars, at $14.4 billion and $8.1 billion respectively, but neither state has the Air Force and NASA carrying such a weighted load of the state's federally subsidized research, as Ohio does.
Ohio's aviation expertise includes people in Cincinnati working at GE Aircraft Engines and at the University of Cincinnati; in Dayton at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; and the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
"Ohio has a unique capacity when it comes to propulsion technology," Browning said. "There's nothing compared to the Air Force labs and the Department of Defense when it comes to aerospace science, and nothing compared to NASA Glenn."
Tradition in the air
Janet R. Daly Bednarek, a professor of aviation history at the University of Dayton, said Ohio has been a perfect state for aviation and aeronautics because of the state's abundant machine manufacturers.
Danny Allgood, left, and Aaron Glaser, Aerospace Engineering doctoral students at the University of Cincinnati, make adjustments to a Pulse Detonation Engine.
(Gary Landers photo)
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"People in Ohio just seem to have always been intrigued by machinery, and of course the airplane is one of the most intriguing machines of the 20th century," Bednarek said.
The blend of military, NASA and commercial research centers in Ohio also offers advantages.
"So many things you can get started here in Ohio, you can't do it anywhere else," said Dr. Ephraim Gutmark, an Ohio Eminent Scholar who directs the aerospace research lab at the University of Cincinnati.
While the struggling economy has hampered aerospace research, Ohio will still be an important center for the industry when the economy turns around, experts say.
"Research is a long-term endeavor, independent of the economy," said John Leland, head of the University of Dayton Research Institute. "You never know when it's going to pay off."
And in aerospace, Leland said, much of the work is done in conjunction with the Department of Defense.
"With the increase in the Defense Department budget, we've seen a real uptake in the (federal) business," he said.
The state is working hard to become recognized as a national capital for propulsion research. Taft's Third Frontier Project focuses on propulsion as part of its effort to create high-paying tech jobs in the state.
"Between the needs of the military looking for higher and faster vehicles for long-range missions, to the commercial side which is looking for lower noise, low pollution and better fuel burns, there are lots of needs for propulsion," said Dr. Mike Benzakein, the general manager of advanced engine programs at GEAE. "The market for (propulsion) is very, very high."
Aerospace projects in Ohio include:
At Wright-Patterson, engineers are working on the FA-22 fighter jet, the world's first high-speed, stealth fighter jet.
"It will dominate anything in the skies the next 30 years," said Dr. Vincent J. Russo, director of the base's Aeronautical Systems Center, which develops all aerospace systems for the Air Force.
The center is also developing unmanned military jets that can be programmed for missions via computer. No ground control is needed.
At the University of Cincinnati, Gary Slater, a professor of aerospace engineering, is working with NASA to develop air-traffic control software to help ease congestion in the air and on runways.
"Air traffic research is closer to reality" than research on propulsion, Slater said. "Right now our capacity of planes in the air throughout the country is limited by the traffic and bottlenecks at a few big airports like Chicago or Atlanta."
At GE Aircraft Engines in Evendale, the new GE90 engine will be installed on Boeing 777s next year. The world's most powerful airplane engine, the GE90 helps cut costs by flying long-range flights with two-engine jets instead of four-engine jets.
"That's what's driving the airlines right now - how can we go out and operate at less costs," said Rick Kennedy, spokesman for GEAE.
At UC's Fluid Mechanics and Propulsion Laboratory, Gutmark leads a research team devoted to making air travel faster, quieter and more efficient. His projects include reducing noise from aircraft engines, following the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's goal to have all jet noise contained within the perimeter of an airport.
Along with Gutmark's lab, NASA's John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field, in Cleveland, is working on pulse detonation technology, a new type of engine that will be more environmentally friendly, cheaper and applicable to airplanes and space travel. It's one of dozens of projects NASA Glenn is involved in.
Into the future
Inside Gutmark's lab near to the university's Engineering Research Center, pipelines crawl up the walls and across the ceiling, carrying water and various gases to different lab stations. Two wind tunnels - one for subsonic speed, one for supersonic speed - bisect the warehouse-looking room.
The lab's most exciting experiments, Gutmark says, are only in the preliminary stages.
One of those is the pulse detonation engine. In a cement chamber, the relatively small engine - a fraction the size of the behemoths found on today's jets - is being tested. Pulse detonation is a much faster - and thus more efficient and cheaper - way to burn fuel, Gutmark said. It may eventually replace today's turbine engines.
But the most revolutionary concepts exist only in the minds of the engineers. Russo sees unmanned aircraft the size of birds conducting surveillance.
"We've only seen the beginning of these uninhabited vehicles," he said. "The Predator is going to be like the 1909 Wright brothers plane."
Russo also imagines aircraft that take off like an airplane then shoot up into lower earth orbit.
On the NASA Glenn Web site, physicists let their minds wander and contemplate whether interstellar travel will be possible. ("Sorry, not in the foreseeable future," the Web site says, although future breakthroughs in physics enabling people to exceed the speed of light and control gravity may make interstellar travel possible ... someday.)
Gutmark said the future of aerospace engineering will bring planes that better mimic birds. Instead of wings that are fixed, the shape of wings will morph during flight to better adapt to flying conditions, he said.
A new material being tested - shape memory alloy - will enable a plane to change shape midflight and repair things like bullet holes itself in midair.
The shape of airplanes will likely change over the years, too, Gutmark said.
If the state stays focused on propulsion research - as well as churning out top engineering students from its colleges and offering incentives for companies to stay in the state - Ohio will be right at the top of aerospace research for years to come, said Ohio State University dean of engineering Jim Williams.
"That's the strategic play for Ohio because that's a place where Ohio can be an absolute winner," Williams said. "Ohio has all the assets to be a world leader in aeropropulsion. We have a golden opportunity before us, and it would be a shame to let it slip through our fingers."
E-mail rforgrave@enquirer .com
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