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Naval Academy Midshipmen Help Pixar’s Buzz Lightyear Fly

Posted on: April 18, 2013 08:00 EDT by Jessica Clark

In the 1995 Pixar film “Toy Story,” main character Woody argues that Buzz Lightyear can’t really fly - that instead he “falls with style.”

A team of five midshipmen set out to determine the aerodynamic capabilities of the famous toy superhero once and for all as part of their final project in last semester’s wind tunnels class.

Testing a Buzz Lightyear action figure in one of the Naval Academy’s wind tunnels revealed that Woody was right. Buzz’s body is too large in proportion to his wings to allow him to fly well, said Midshipman 2nd Class Kris Ward.

But the mids didn’t stop there. They went on to research how they could improve Buzz’s ability to fly by designing and building him a new set of wings.

“The ground rules that we set for ourselves were that we would keep Buzz’s shape and dimensions the exact same as the original action figure. The only thing we changed was the airfoil's cross-sectional geometry,” said Ward.  

To do this, the team researched low-speed, high-lift airfoil shapes and chose the best three to test against the original wing.

“We also assumed Buzz to be a glider, as he is for the most part in the movies,” said Ward.

The result: They improved his gliding ability by 25 percent.

The Buzz Lightyear test was one of three possibilities the team submitted for their final project and, ironically, the last one they expected to be approved, said Midshipman 2nd Class Cameron Little.

What started out as an exercise of their imagination turned out to be an important part of preparing these aerospace engineering majors for their senior capstone next year, in which they have to research, design and build a prototype unmanned aerial vehicle.

“The design aspect - learning how to do all of that ourselves - is really going to help us next year,” said Ward.

The project also afforded them more autonomy than they were accustomed to. Throughout the semester the parameters they used to perform various tests in the wind tunnel were rigidly set by the professor, but this project required the midshipmen to determine what to test, how to test it and how to present the results - along with teammates Midshipmen 2nd Class Zachary Haueter, Daniel Hibert and Robert Dunlap - in a technically-detailed presentation to the aerospace engineering faculty.

“That was just a whole new experience in itself,” said Little.

So we just have one question. Does Disney have room for a few Naval Academy aerospace engineering graduates?


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