Faculty spotlight: Associate Professor of Practice Clifford A. Whitfield

Posted: October 20, 2022
Cliff Whitfield profile photo

Our faculty spotlight series highlights Aerospace Research Center core and associated faculty. This month, enjoy a Q&A with Clifford A. Whitfield, associate professor of practice in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the Flight Vehicle Design and Testing Group.

Question: Why did you choose your field of research?

Answer: I was fascinated with the aerodynamic design of aircraft, specifically novel and advanced flight vehicles that pushed limits and demonstrated engineering achievements.

Q: Describe one of your current projects.

A: What started out as a “napkin” drawing of an aircraft configuration during discussions with a research colleague at a restaurant in Arizona, turned into a multifaceted collaborative research exploration. [This sounds like a story-line start right out of early days of Skunk Works.] What transpired was a design of a modular unmanned aircraft targeted to support fundamental research in non-linear performance characteristics of high-speed wing designs in low-speed high incidence and accelerated flight maneuvers. My colleague and I, and our students, built wind tunnel and flight-test models of the delta-wing aircraft. The aircraft serves as a baseline experimental platform for developing novel aircraft technologies and flight test methods, and wing configuration layout design studies. Some of the exciting work that has been ongoing from this project includes: wing performance studies for delta, double-delta, and ogive wings and diamond wing design performance characteristics; articulated wing-tip control; and adaptations of active flow-control; all of which have included multiple wind tunnel testing campaigns and flight-testing. The project has produced several facets of student research, from multiple senior capstone student teams and undergraduates’ research distinction projects, through graduate-level research for numerous Master’s students, as well as generating doctoral-level research questions and student pursuits. The research project has brought opportunities for students to collaborate at all levels, being involved with the design process, and ultimately learning how to build wind tunnel models and aircraft-grade components for flight-testing and gain experience with performing best practices in test engineering. I’m excited to think about where this research venture may lead us next.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: Working with passionate students and colleagues, I get to design, build, and test aircraft! 

Q: What advice would you give to incoming graduate students?

A: A solid education is the foundation for building a rewarding career, and failure is the best teacher – do not be afraid to learn.

Q: What is special about the Aerospace Research Center?

A: I was fortunate enough to work with the early founders of what is fondly referred to as the aero labs. Their collegiality, tireless efforts to mentor inspiring young researchers, and guidance in the students’ pursuit of self-learning were ingrained in the facility, and are traits that continue today by the faculty and staff at the Aerospace Research Center. Add in the breadth and depth of the types of aerospace research to the collegial spirit at a single facility and you will start to appreciate how special and rewarding it is to be a part of the center.

Q: What keeps you inspired?

A: SR-71 Blackbird.

Q: Anything else you would like to share?

A: I’ll leave you with a Shawism: "Both optimists and pessimists contribute to the society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute."  — George Bernard Shaw

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