Monday, December 31, 2012

High-flying inventor: South Bend teen wins national award for design of helicopter

SOUTH BEND -- While some teens were relaxing or visiting the beach last summer, Ethan Chu was busy designing a helicopter.

And his research and hard work paid off.

Ethan recently won the top national spot in a helicopter design competition for youths ages 9 to 16. He earned the Igor Sikorsky Youth Innovator Award, the grand prize for the Sikorsky Helicopter 2050 Challenge, which encourages young people to envision and design an environmentally friendly helicopter.

"I really like researching military stuff and reading about new technology," said Ethan, a 16-year-old home-schooled student.

The contest is sponsored by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and By Kids for Kids Co., an organization that encourages children to become inventors. Ethan received a trophy and a $1,000 cash prize, which he plans to use toward his education.

Ethan is the son of William and Joann Chu.

The competition sought designs that were original and environmentally efficient.

Ethan designed a compact, circular-shaped twin-engine helicopter he named the AH-9 Diamondback. "AH" is short for "Attack Helicopter," and "9" because it was the ninth variant he designed. Diamondback comes from the fact the vehicle has a diamond-like shape from above, the teen said.

His design calls for lightweight carbon nanotubes covered with titanium panels for the helicopter's structure, an approach that would reduce the aircraft's weight and fuel consumption, and improve its carrying capacity. "The nanotubes would make it 10 times lighter and much stronger than steel," Ethan said.

His design would channel engine exhaust along the rotor blades and around the helicopter's body to provide a cushion of gas to provide additional lift, a principle known as the Coanda effect.

Ethan's design doesn't feature a tail, which is a standard feature on helicopters to prevent the body from spinning around because of the rotor. Because the design features a counter rotating fan, a tail wouldn't be needed, Ethan said.

Differing versions of the design could be used for military attacks, transporting materials or a medical version to transport up to two front-line soldiers out of a battle zone, he said.

Ethan has always enjoyed drawing airplanes and learning about aviation. A friend at the family's church, Fellowship Baptist Church in South Bend, told Ethan about the helicopter competition last spring.

"I did a little research on helicopter design. I enjoy anything having to do with aerospace," he said.

The teen estimates he spent three months on his design, working about 90 minutes per day.

He did the design drawings using a computer program at his father's workplace, Curtiss-Wright Controls in South Bend. The company lets Ethan spend one day per week at work with his father, who is a mechanical engineer.

Ethan submitted his design in September, and was notified later in the fall that he was the top winner. "I was kind of surprised. It didn't really sink in," he said.

More than 300 youths participated this year, which was the second year the competition was held.

Ethan was invited to visit Sikorsky's headquarters in Stratford, Conn. He was accompanied by his father, and they were able to tour the assembly line of Sikorsky's Black Hawk and Seahawk military helicopters.

Ethan has never ridden in a helicopter -- yet. "I would like to sometime," he said.

His favorite subjects are math and science. After completing his high school education next year, he plans to go to college -- perhaps to Purdue University -- to study aerospace or mechanical engineering.

His dream job? "I'd like to do something in the military. And I'd like to learn to fly," he said.

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