Last year, the Los Altos High School Aviation Club sent a weather balloon 100,000 feet into the air above Central Valley. This year, club members are making a balloon again — but it’s going to orbit the entire planet. At the same time, their fellow club members are competing in the American Rocketry Competition and designing a remote-controlled model aircraft.
The Aviation Club is a group of high schoolers passionate about aerospace engineering who work on aviation-related projects. At a club meeting, you’ll find computer programmers, designers and even students in flight school, preparing to receive their license. President Alexander Daltchev said that above all, the club exists as a platform for anyone who’s interested to learn about aviation in a hands-on manner.
“[The club is] just giving students a platform to explore a weird niche of engineering,” Daltchev said.
The club meets in room 622 every Wednesday and the rocketry team meets once a month on Saturdays. At weekly meetings, different project teams share what they have accomplished in the last week and members have time to work on their respective projects, which include a range of flight devices including balloons, rockets and model planes. The ten-person rocketry team attends meetings on Saturday each month to test out their builds at a launch site.
The club has 30 to 40 members attending each Wednesday meeting, a number that senior Harini Nagappan, a club founder and former vice president who is now part of the club’s “senate,” said she is proud of. Nagappan said the Aviation Club started off as just a small group of airplane enthusiasts with big ideas.
“We started off on Zoom with like, five people,” Nagappan said. “Now we have thirty-plus kids coming to meetings every week and even more people on Discord talking to us about aviation and aerospace engineering.”
Initially, the club was a discussion group, covering topics like members’ favorite airplanes. Not long after, however, the Aviation Club underwent a large revamp, moving away from a discussion-based meeting format and instead working on large projects and making their big ideas into something real.
“The amount of people that were there and how much experience that we did have together sort of prompted us to [say] ‘Hey, we have all these ideas. Why not take them and make them a reality?’” Nagappan said.
The club’s growth since then has been immense, Nagappan said.
Senior Emaan Heidari, a leader for two of the club’s projects, said that the club brings together people of different interests within the fields of STEM, fusing together computer science, mechanical engineering and electronics. He cited the variety of skill sets amongst club members as a strength of Aviation Club and one of the best benefits about changing the club to a project-based focus.
“We thought [the change] would be a really good opportunity to bring people together of different disciplines … to do cool, big projects together,” Heidari said.
Daltchev emphasized that anyone with an interest in aviation can be a participating, active member of the club.
“It doesn’t matter if you have any experience,” Daltchev said. “It’s about giving people a platform to learn about literally anything that can fly.”
In fact, Daltchev said many of the club’s projects started off as an individual member’s idea that was proposed to the group and built upon.
“If you have an idea and you want to do it, we’ll give you a platform to do it and we’ll probably find you some like-minded individuals who will help you,” Daltchev said.
The club has three main projects: a super pressure balloon, a rocket and a remote controlled plane.
The balloon project team created and is currently testing an atmospheric satellite: a superpressure balloon that will be able to orbit the planet and autonomously detach itself over a safe zone such that the team can view the data and photos that the satellite captures. Last year, the team created a similar balloon which collected data from the atmosphere but didn’t stay up for as long.
The recovery of a superpressure balloon has only ever been successfully completed by professionals.
“If the project is successful, we will be doing something never done at our scale before, only by like, NASA,” Heidari said.
The team tested the balloon design on Monday but lost contact. Heidari said that their data led them to believe it had been shot down and that the team’s mentor, Daniel Bowen, is communicating with the FBI so that future launches can proceed. The team is hoping to launch the actual balloon soon after spring break. Heidari said that after the launch the balloon would optimally take 20 to 40 days to return — although in theory, it could end up floating in the atmosphere for years.
But the hard work begins long before the actual launch, with members dedicating significant portions of time outside of school to construct the balloon. Heidari said that most of the work on the project happens at external meetings at a member’s house.
He said that there are several different skill sets necessary for the project: computer science to transmit data, electronics to construct sensors and transmitter antennas as well as mechanics to create an autonomous detachment system. To get all this done, the balloon project team needs people of many different expertises to participate.
“Depending on what your interests are, there’s going to be a place for you,” Heidari said.
In April, the Aviation Club’s 10-person rocketry team will compete in the American Rocketry Challenge, the largest youth rocketry contest in the world, with a rocket they have spent the past year designing and constructing.
“The goal of the competition is to launch a rocket to a precise altitude and get it to land in a precise amount of time, and the closer you get to that value the better your scores,” Heidari said.
Members take on various jobs, from designing the rocket to 3D printing it and collecting data from test flights. All test flights are conducted during the club’s monthly meetings at the Livermore Unit of the National Association of Rocketry, the nearest rocket launch site which is two hours away.
“[There] is a lot of the planning that goes into it, because actually going out to do a launch is a lot of effort because of how far away it is to do it legally,” Daltchev said.
Although this can make it difficult for club members who aren’t on the team to get involved with rocketry, Nagappan said that plans to integrate more rocketry opportunities for other club members are in the works.
“We have high power rocketry that we’re planning to get students certified in, water rocketry and maybe even low power rocketry,” Nagappan said. “Just so that it’s not just the 10 of us making rockets, [but] rather the entire club.”
REMOTE CONTROLLED AIRCRAFT
Members of the club’s model aircraft team are working on a plane for dogfighting, where two planes engage in close-range aerial battle. They’re making a corrugated plastic model airplane that flies based on remote control. Last semester, the aircraft team worked on a glider competition, trying to design a foam board aircraft with an egg on it and fly it the farthest. The current project was the next step.
This project dates back to the founding of the club, when meetings still mostly consisted of ideation and discussion.
“The RC plane project that’s currently happening was an idea presented at one of those meetings,” Nagappan said.
Nagappan said Aviation Club’s positive and encouraging environment is what makes it so valuable.
“If you’re interested in aerospace or some other kinds of project, the club is a great starting ground,” Nagappan said. “We have people willing to just jump in, get their hands dirty.”