A Big Show to Recruit Engineers

ABOVE Aboard the replica 1851 America, students learn the varied ways engineers can put their skills to use.

For curious bystanders, 100-plus college and high school students weaving through nooks and crannies of a Mobile River-moored yacht earn a double take. For students onboard the 139-foot sailing vessel, America, it’s a lesson learned. To event sponsor, Airbus, it is workforce development with a message: Being an engineer is cool.

November 7, in a presentation at Mobile’s Gulf Coast Exploreum and Science Center, engineers and designers of the present met their counterparts of the future. The “present” was the event’s hosts: Airbus, builder of jet aircraft, and Oracle Team USA, owner and designer of a boat that flies through water like a jet aircraft.

The “future” was represented by the University of South Alabama and Ben C. Rain High School engineering students. For new and experienced, the underlying theme of the meeting was “the present wants the future to meld as one.” Airbus brought together for the first time two future generations of aerospace engineers during a special presentation highlighting the aircraft manufacturer and the boat racing team’s partnership.

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“Our desire is to show the next generation of engineers what we do, ” says Denis Darracq, head of research and technology in flight physics for Airbus. “We want them to take the next steps. These students are our future engineers and innovators, and we want to inspire them.”

Discussing the project on a break before addressing the inquisitive audience, Darracq adds, “We want their new ideas and we hope students who are thinking of a career in engineering will see that their skills and knowledge are transferrable across many fields. They can find a career in an area that appeals to them.” 

ABOVE Troy Sears, skipper of America, shows engineering students the ropes.


Take high speed racing boats, for example.

During the presentation, young folks heard about the innovation partnership of Airbus, the jet maker, and Oracle Team USA, defending champion of the America’s Cup. They discussed how the two companies forged know-how of Airbus engineers and experts in fields of aerodynamics, instrumentation, simulation, composites, structures, hydraulics and data analysis. They learned of the collaboration with the Oracle Team USA’s design team to build the boat that will race in next year’s America’s Cup race.

Oracle designer and guest speaker, Andrew Gaynor, added, “Engineering applications cover a vast array of technologies. It is required to make our race boat work.” Interviewed before the sessions, he noted a continuous demand for engineers that will only increase in years ahead. Credentials are hard to earn but worth it, he says, as he exemplifies in today’s workforce development, turned cool. “Today’s goal with these students is to have a fun showcase to show what their future world of engineering will be like.” 

Airbus spokesperson Kristi Tucker sees “the flying yacht, ” as a great example for future engineers. “The takeaway we want these young people to grasp is the skill sets learned in engineering go anywhere, ” she says. “These are the people who can make things fly — planes yes, and even boats. Engineering is vital in every field.”

So why is Airbus — with the operative first syllable being “air” — involved with boats, as in “water craft?” Every student here wants to know. “Because Oracle is more than a boat, ” explains Gaynor. “It flies.” 

And standing before an audience of teens and twenty-somethings, he and Darracq deliver Racing Boat 101, how to transform a sailing vessel into an aquatic missile. Don’t try this at home.

“Wind tries to turn sailboats over, ” explains Gaynor. “The keel resists and keeps the vessel upright. When the two forces combine the boat goes faster. Lift is generated.”

The boat rises up and the entire craft at 30 knots, about 45 mph, is almost completely out of the water. “At that speed, the Oracle is suspended on carbon fiber rods, ” Gaynor says, verbally underscoring the “wow factor.” 

They spoke of wing-sails, hydrofoils, aerodynamics and structural load calculations. “These are very complex things that need to be understood well, ” says Darracq. “These are things that need good engineers. This is how we win the America’s Cup. Are there any questions?” And young hands reached for the sky — Airbus’ sky.

“I’ve always been interested in the troubleshooting aspects, ” says University of South Alabama mechanical engineering senior Julius Pugh. “Applied math, gears and pulleys are things I enjoy working with. Today has given me some good networking opportunities with established engineers. I see topics I’ve studied, applied to areas I never realized before.”

Joseph Moss, also a USA mechanical engineering senior, has an interest in automotive applications. “Ever since I saw a solar car demonstrated during my fifth grade, I was hooked, ” he says. “But today I see where principles in aerodynamics are similar to automotive.”

ABOVE Left to Right: Julius Pugh, Andrew Wilkinson and Joseph Moss of USA talk with Jim Apple, about the sailboat America.

Both presenters Darracq and Gaynor, emphasized that from the beginning, the America’s Cup was more than a fast boat contest. “It has always been a competitive technology race, ” says Gaynor. “Today we apply Airbus’ airplane technology to Oracle’s race boat” — for a race that began before airplanes existed. 

After discussing race boat technology and the marriage of Airbus avionics with Oracle’s boat, students stepped across the street and back in time. Docked beside Mobile’s GulfQuest National Maritime Museum was a replica of The America’s Cup, 1851 namesake vessel, America. 

“I’m sure this boat looks primitive to you, ” says skipper Troy Sears, helping students on the narrow gangway. “But in 1851 it was state of the art.”

Ben C. Rain High School senior honors student Stephen Cahoon was impressed. “It is really interesting how this old boat compares to new ones, ” he says, examining ancient hardware. “These sailors never dreamed principles of flight would one day be applied to principles of sailing.”

Airbus and Oracle Team USA partnered in October, 2014, to exchange know how between aviation engineers and sailing boat designers. Airbus is an official sponsor of Oracle Team USA for the 35th America’s Cup. 

Oracle first won the Cup in 2010 and successfully defended the title in 2013. The 2017 challenge is in June, from the Great Sound of Bermuda. The global audience will include future generations of engineers, watching from Mobile. Airbus will watch, too, with hopes today’s young visitors stay in engineering, seek diverse careers and reach for the sky — maybe in part influenced by a boat that flies.

Emmett Burnett and Dan Anderson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Anderson in Mobile.


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