By Gisela Valencia

It was the last round of the 2016 SAE Aero Design East Competition, and mechanical engineering major Kishan Kalpoe  was fighting against the wind. As the pilot using the remote control, he wanted to make sure his team’s plane would make it home safely –– and surpass their remarkable 6th place finish at the same competition last year.

The plane landed. And FIU’s Aerospace Engineering Club students won third place in just their second time attending the competition.

“This is the biggest milestone for us at this competition,” club president and team member Jorge Cisternas says. “It was a big deal, and it felt great to represent FIU engineering students at a worldwide competition.”

The competition, sponsored by Lockheed Martin and held in Fort Worth, Texas, featured 75 groups from around the world, among them students from India, Poland, Brazil and American schools like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, Louisiana State University and the University of Michigan. FIU students competed against 35 of those schools in their plane’s category.

The goal: for the plane to take off within 200 feet while carrying as much cargo weight as possible.

From one wing’s tips to the other, the club’s plane was 8 feet long. Weighing only 10.5 pounds, it lifted up to 28.75 pounds, more than twice its own weight.

The team started research during the summer, then designed, assembled and test-ran their plane.

Kalpoe’s hobby is flying remote controlled stunt planes. “I’m very passionate about this [competition] because I have the ability to apply my hobby to school, which is great.”

“You really push the limit to make sure we have the best results,” he says. “I just remember landing after the last round, and having tingles in my hand. I remember focusing. It was very intense. As a pilot, and having worked on the plane for months and having other people’s work in there –– the entire team’s time and effort –– it’s definitely on your mind.”

Team captain Daniella Bernal says these kind of experiences help students grow.

“Being involved in a team like this is really critical to gaining that engineering experience that you don’t gain in a classroom. It’s being able to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to solve real-world problems, which is what jobs are,” says Bernal, who conducted a performance analysis of the plane to determine how to maximize the weight it was able to lift while still taking-off within 200 feet.

She adds: “Being able to place in the top three, the jump we were able to make [from last year to this year] was really incredible. Just to be able to stand there with our third place plaques, we were standing there with those top teams –– it was really great. And there’s just nothing more fulfilling than seeing something that you actually worked on fly.”