AEDC engineer Will Vodra marvels at dream career

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Ask Aerospace Testing Alliance's (ATA) Will Vodra how he got an engineering position at Arnold Engineering Development Center's (AEDC) White Oak Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel 9 and he doesn't mince words.

"Sheer luck," he said. "I had been working for 10 years in the semiconductor industry and it's a very cyclical industry. When the company was consolidated and moved up to Massachusetts, I started looking for a job."

He acknowledged being "blown away" when he interviewed at Tunnel 9 and hoping he would get the job.

However, it was his broad background and ability to deal with last minute customer requests that landed him "such a dream job."

Vodra said while looking for a change in professional direction, he reflected on what had been his most enjoyable work - designing and building a physics research and development test facility in college.

"What I liked the best was when I was an undergrad working in a lab - just setting up the experiment, designing the test objects, and then doing the test itself - that was fun. We were working with plasma and building the (plasma) chamber and all that was great. Now, I'm similarly trying to keep this wind tunnel running and adding new capabilities to it."

Vodra explained he had left physics for mechanical engineering while an undergraduate.

"Originally, I wanted to do something with physics, but it appeared to go off into these esoteric areas where things are either so small you can't see them or so big you can't fathom them, or are so mind-boggling like String Theory" he said.

"In hind sight, there were directions within physics I could have done, but I am happy with my decision to go into mechanical engineering."

String theory is a complex and difficult-to-prove attempt to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity to describe a quantum theory of gravity.

"Both physics and mechanical engineering are 'jack-of-all-trades' since they cross over into many other disciplines. My background allows me to head in new directions and learn what I need to resolve new challenges. It also helps greatly when we have to wear the multiple hats that everyone wears these days."

Vodra's greatest opportunity began last year when a 3-foot square, 2-inch thick window imploded in one of the wind tunnels at the White Oak facility in May 2007.

"Thankfully the safety processes in place at Tunnel 9 ensure against personnel injury and major facility damage," he recalled. "Our operators deserve a lot of credit for shutting the tunnel down in time, if they had even hesitated for a few seconds, the damage would have been done.

We were left looking at the remains of the window, wondering what happened and how to prevent this from occurring again. I was still new and had just begun to take over ownership of the test cell, so I knew nothing about these particular windows, much less about glass and possible Mach 7-14 debris impacts into the glass.

"The team at Tunnel 9 is practiced in finding technical help beyond our fence, borrowing expertise from anywhere it exists. We first turned to AEDC in Tennessee for help, which was very useful, but as it turned out, the nation's experts on this topic reside at NASA."

This led him and the others on the project to Lynda Estes, the NASA subsystems engineer for Orbiter's crew module, crew transfer and windows.

Vodra said Estes had extensive knowledge of detecting, measuring and evaluating impacts, ranging from human handling to impacts from Mach 25 space debris.

"I traveled to NASA Glenn, Johnson and Kennedy learning everything from evaluating impacts to properly designing new windows to observing new automated inspection equipment," he said. "During the last trip, this time to Cape Canaveral, we put everything together and looked at Orbiter's windows up close - however the only way to see it was to go inside Endeavor."

Vodra, who is an engineer to the core, can't seem to get enough of technical challenges. When he isn't immersed in solving the latest engineering puzzle with Tunnel 9's systems, he enjoys playing Legos with his six-year-old daughter, Courtney.

"It's almost a ritual" he said, "I come home and the Legos are already out - we leave them out. We sit down and we start playing with them. They're just getting more and more sophisticated. The sets are also getting bigger; I made one thing that was 5,000 parts."

He also noticed his daughter was learning some engineering fundamentals.

"I have already noticed that she has picked up some structural ideas - that it is stronger to build something a certain way, like if you stagger bricks, they are much stronger than if you don't," he said.

"You can even write advanced programming for Lego automated systems - it's not just kid stuff anymore," he said.

He also enjoys aviation from another perspective.

"I was inspired by my great uncle, an ace in the South Pacific in World War II, and learned to fly," he said. "I got a glider pilots' license, but I did this over in the United Kingdom when I was doing a junior abroad program."

Vodra said the timing was particularly significant to him.

"It happened to be the start of the 50th anniversary of the 8th Air Force arrival in England during World War II," he said. "Here I was, an American on a former American bomber base in England learning to fly. This happened to be the base where the commanding officer had been a guy named (Brig. Gen.) Jimmy Stewart.

"As a member of the 445th Bombardment Group, General Stewart flew a B-24 Liberator bomber based in Tibenham, England, just south of Norwich. All the Air Force veterans I met who came back for the celebrations really enjoyed having a Yank pilot 'over here' on their base again."

Vodra said his experience in England was like coming full circle, from a highly technical background to a pioneering era in aviation and then back to Tunnel 9.

"I now work for the Air Force that built the base where I learned to fly a glider, and now I have the opportunity to return the favor by helping them learn to fly at hypersonic speeds," he said.