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Robert G. Pitts retired in 1978 and his name was added to the Auburn-Opelika Airport. James C. Williams III, a Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University of Southern California graduate and North Carolina State faculty member, was named head of the department in 1980. Jim Nichols served as head during the interim. When Williams became head of the department, the organizational structure was changed. Gary Kiteley, Associate Professor of Aviation Management, who had been managing the airport, was made the Executive Director. Kiteley was also in charge of the Auburn School of Aviation that conducted flight training. Other aviation management faculty members were Bob Merritt, Leo Frandenburg, Bill Callan, Hal Decker, and Ollie Edwards. All these gentlemen were retired military officers with aviation and teaching experience.
In the early part of the 1980's, the author took a "sabbatical" as associate director of athletics. During that time, a Purdue graduate, Mario Innocenti, was the principal professor in the flight dynamics and control area. Enrollment was increasing. By 1984, the Strategic Defense Initiative had produced a boom in research. When the Challenger exploded in January of 1986, the winter quarter was just beginning and undergraduate enrollment (excluding freshmen) had increased to 230. By 1988, it was about 270. The peak in 1990 was 316.
One of Jim Williams objectives as department head was to increase the graduate enrollment. As the events of the 1980's unfolded, this objective was achieved and several new faculty members were hired.
Don Spring, a more than twenty-year civil service veteran of the U. S. Army Missile Command came to Auburn in 1983 to begin a second career as a professor. An expert in missiles and hypersonic aerodynamics, Spring taught courses in aerodynamics and was director of the wind tunnel facilities. Ron Jenkins, another Purdue graduate and excellent instructor in propulsion also joined the faculty in 1985.
A major research project during the middle and late 1980s was a "Stars Wars" guidance and control project for the U. S. Air Force. Guidance laws and simulations of exo-atmospheric interceptor concepts were developed. Other research of the period involved the characterization of wire rope vibration isolators and a study of the orbital lifetime of tethered satellites and free tethers. A visiting professor, Krishna Kumar from ITT Kampur, worked with Cutchins and Cochran on analytical models of wire rope. An officer in the U. S. Air Force, Ted Warnock did some seminal work on the tether lifetime problem utilizing neural networks to store data. There were no tethered satellites until several years later. Applied aerodynamics research and aerodynamic testing of FOG-M missile models were other projects that kept the aerodynamics faculty busy.
David A. Cicci was hired in 1988 to teach astrodynamics courses including orbital mechanics and orbit determination. Like Burkhalter and Cochran, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. An excellent teacher, Cicci concentrated on improving the curriculum and engaged in some Star Wars research.
Robert S. "Steve" Gross also joined the AE faculty in 1988. Another excellent teacher, Steve has won all the teaching awards the department and college bestow at least once. His specialty is composite materials. On one research project, he applied his knowledge of composites to help College of Veterinarian Medicine professors develop artificial joints for animals.
The increased enrollment in aerospace engineering and the need for more space and better laboratories justified a new building and a contribution by Mr. John M. Harbert, III, a 1946 Auburn civil engineering graduate, made the construction possible. Two adjoining buildings, one providing aerospace engineering offices and laboratories, and the other classrooms for use by all engineering students, were built adjacent to the civil engineering building in the Harbert Engineering Center. Construction was started in 1989.
The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 began another downturn in the demand for aerospace engineers and another cycle of lower enrollment in aerospace engineering. The flow of research dollars through the Space Defense Initiative also dried up. However, an interesting applied research project with Hayes Targets (a part of Hayes International, later PEMCO) took up part of the slack. In that project, Burkhalter, Spring, Cochran, and Innocenti designed a maneuverable towed target, a control system for it and a simulation of the system of towing aircraft, towline, and target vehicle. Burkhalter created the aerodynamic design, which had "plus" canards and "X" wings. Spring conducted wind tunnel tests and Innocenti developed the control system. Tae Soo No, a graduate student (now a professor in South Korea), and Cochran developed the simulation using a lot of theory from previous tethered satellite research. This was apparently the first operational simulation for such a system. It was used to predict the behavior of the system prior to flight tests and to develop control logic for deployment, retrieval, and maneuvers. The guidance was a command type and a stability augmentation system (SAS) was included. The SAS channel for roll was especially important. Analytically predicted aerodynamic characteristics of the towline and the vehicle as well as data from wind tunnel tests of target models were used in the simulation.
Hayes Targets constructed the target and a limited full-scale wind tunnel test was conducted at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A flight test was then conducted near Phoenix, Arizona without Auburn's assistance in Arizona. However, Hayes representatives were not confident enough to turn on the SAS during deployment. Without it, the vehicle's motion was unstable, especially in roll and its motion was erratic. As a safety measure, the towline was cut and the vehicle crashed. Fortunately, the vehicle was not seriously damaged because it landed in a large cactus. Hayes included Auburn (Cochran) as a part of the team for the next test, possibly to have someone to blame if it failed too. The SAS was used for the second test and the vehicle flew very well. After deployment, it was maneuvered so that the towline and the vehicle formed a cone behind the towing aircraft as required. The retrieval was also successful. Apparently, this was the first time a remotely controlled towed vehicle was flown beside and above the towing aircraft and recovered successfully.27 Flight test data was used to provide better estimates of aerodynamic coefficients that increased the fidelity of the simulation. This maneuverable towed system was a forerunner of decoys now flown off C-130s and other aircraft.