Not many universities can boast that they once had their own test fleet like this... Cranfield's aircraft  in 1958. (Cranfield University)

On 17 September, the UK’s Cranfield University celebrated its 70th anniversary with a special Open Doors event and a Festival of Flight. TIM ROBINSON finds out how this beacon of aviation and aeronautics education and research is aiming for the next 70 years.

The only university in Europe with its own airport and runway, Cranfield University was first formed in 1946 as the College of Aeronautics at the then RAF station of Cranfield, Bedfordshire. Even during the dark days of WW2, there was a growing awareness that there was a need to boost the education and training of aeronautical engineers at a specialist postgraduate school for the increasingly complex technology such as jet engines, supersonic flight and Britain’s post-war civil aviation ambitions. Indeed, it was at the Royal Aeronautical Society in the summer of 1943 where two open debates on the subject of ‘education and training of aeronautical engineers’ helped build consensus on the need for such a centre.

Since these early days, Cranfield has added a School of Management, attained University status, and branched out into other research and educational areas including automotive, defence, transport, water, energy and power and agriculture.

Heritage on show

The heritage display included gems from Cranfield's history including this blueprint for the A1 Aerobatic aircraft.  

To celebrate its 70th anniversary this year, the University put on a special day of celebrations called Festival of Flight on 17 September – including heritage displays, guide tours, hands-on science demonstrations and even an airshow. Cranfield’s automotive expertise was also marked with a display of classic, F1 and rally cars. For the heritage display, in one of the campus buildings, four rooms displayed documents and artifacts from Cranfield’s history, its current activities, as well as its future, including student magazines, photographs and papers. Particularly noteworthy were some model aircraft on display – student design projects which included a twin-boom pusher trainer from the 1980s and a stealth UCAV from the early noughties.

A peek behind the scenes

Cranfield is aiming to make the worlld's biggest 3D printed part using WAAM in this test cell. 

The Festival of Flight also saw the University provide an insight into its current research and education activities with a series of Open Doors tours of some of labs, and hands-on demonstrations for young people, with a paper aeroplane competition, drone assault course and virtual reality. Particularly insightful was the ‘behind the scenes’ tour of some of Cranfield’s facilities – such as the Cranfield Impact Centre and the Welding Engineering and Laser Processing Centre. Over at the impact centre, a live demonstration of an airliner passenger seat impact test showed how even a 13mph crash can throw a human head forward until it almost touches their knees. As well as passenger seat certification testing and research (which splits into slow speed static testing where the seat is slowly ‘pulled’ for integrity and dynamic impact tests), the CIC also conducts testing on military aircraft seats and even parachute harnesses for military dogs. Crash impact testing at this facility is 50% aviation-related and the rest automotive and materials – for example the composite nosecones of Formula 1 racing cars.

Another laboratory opened up that day was the Welding centre – which now specialises in additive manufacturing and advanced joint research for aerospace manufacturing. Cranfield is now pioneering new techniques in Wire and Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM) which uses robots to build metal (including aluminium and titanium) components using 3D printing. Using a sealed plastic bag ‘bubble’, rather than a ‘box’ commonly seen for powder printing means that the parts can now be bigger than ever before. Having built a 1.2m metal titanium wing structural component in just 37 hours using this technique – Cranfield’s next goal is to break the record for the world’s longest 3D printed metal part – with a 10m wing spar component.

Along with certification of additive manufactured parts, scaling up 3D printed parts into bigger structures is a key challenge that could realise huge weight savings for tomorrow’s aircraft.

Festival of Flight

The Festival of Fight saw around 4,000 visitors for the Open Doors and air show.  

The afternoon of the Festival of Flight also saw an air display, which included John Romain in the world’s only flying Bristol Blenheim, a P-51 Mustang as well as an innovative Extra aerobatics duo – where one Extra was a 40% scale R/C model flown from the ground! The air show also included an interesting line up of aircraft in the static line-up, including Cranfield’s own research fleet (Jetstreams and Bulldog) the BAe 146 FAAM (Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements) used for atmospheric research as well as an EE Lightning T5. Also of note on static was the single example of the Cranfield A1 aerobatic monoplane.

Greased Lightning

Racing Green. Electroflight's P1e is intended to drive greener aviation technology in electric flight. 

Also present at the Festival of Flight was Electroflight - a project to build a high-speed (300+mph) contra-rotating propeller-powered racing aircraft. The composite-airframe Electroflight P1e is intended to be a technology demonstrator for green aviation and set new world records for electric-powered aircraft. The 300shp twin electric motors, with no spool-up time, say Electroflight, will give this class of racer phenomenal acceleration. With Formula E in motorsport now promoting electric car technology – could an ‘electric Red Bull Air Race’ also take flight?

AIRC – a new national UK aerospace asset

AIRC will open in 2017. (Cranfield University)

However, while the day saw Cranfield celebrate its storied past, visitors to the afternoon’s airshow could not miss a symbol of its future – the new £35m Aerospace Integration Research Centre, now in the final stages of construction. The AIRC, funded in partnership with Airbus and Rolls-Royce, will be opened in 2017 and will be the centrepiece of Cranfield’s 21st century aerospace research. In particular, AIRC is focussed on the missing link of civil aerospace - the integration of airframe, powerplant and subsystems. For future airliners, whether they are powered by ultra-high bypass engines, open-rotors or even hybrid-electric distributed propulsion – integration is set to become much more critical. Thus Cranfield’s AIRC has been built with a view to be able to accommodate large-scale physical testbeds and applied engineering test rigs or test new methods of human-robotic manufacturing. 

AIRC's large hangar will be able to accommodate large test rigs, test aircraft such as the Jetstream or subscale demonstrators. One downside is that the location means that Cranfield's control tower will eventually need to be moved from its present location.    

The main hall/hangar is big enough to hold a R-R turbofan engine on a test rig, or an Airbus wing. In addition, the AIRC’s position near the flightline means that a test aircraft (such as Cranfield’s current flying lab Jetstream) or even, potentially, a sub-scale X-plane demonstrator in the future, could be rolled into the hangar. “Our aim”, says Professor Iain Gray, Director of Aerospace, “is to make this the Mojave of the UK”, referring to the Californian airport that is home to exotic prototypes and advanced aerospace tech. “This is the only place where universities and companies can demonstrate, validate and research at the platform level – up to higher technical readiness levels (6-7), more normally associated with business.”

As well as the 4,500m2 hangar, the AIRC will also feature research labs, simulation and visualisation faculties to support research and education on autonomy, ATM, rapid prototyping, digital lifecycles and modelling.

Post-Brexit, with other countries now hungrily eyeing the UK’s share in future Airbus (and other OEMs) aerospace programmes, the establishment of AIRC is now arguably more vital than ever in ensuring that the UK’s aerospace industry continues to maintain its position as a global leader – with an annual turnover of £31bn and 90% of its sales being exports. Says Iain Gray: “It will be a national asset.”

A digital aviation safety centre

Further in the future, the AIRC may be followed by a digital makeover for Cranfield’s world-leading and highly respected Cranfield Safety and Accident Investigation Centre (CSAIC). A new facility, currently in the process of seeking funding, would move the Accident Investigation Laboratory (currently off-site in sheds) back onto the campus in a state-of-the-art centre. This would see it expanded and strengthened, taking into account new digital tools such as flight data monitoring, UAV data collection and HUMS. 

This would be combined into a larger Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTec) which, as well as safety and accident investigation, would be the world’s first facility to look at aircraft + airport + airspace as an integrated whole. The centrepiece of the DARTec facility will be a Boeing 737-400 (donated to Cranfield by British Airways) which will be converted into a technology demonstrator to study such areas as ‘green’ aircraft taxing, digital maintenance and autonomous ground handling.

The centre, aimed at providing a unique facility for UK and global research/industry partners would also look at the airport experience itself such as passenger boarding and disembarking and luggage handling. Finally, as well as the airport and aircraft, collaborative research would also investigate future airspace needs - such as air traffic management, capacity and the integration of UAVs into civil airspace.


The new AIRC facility will be key in addressing integration challenges of next-generation aircraft. (Cranfield University) 

In short - Cranfield University may be old enough to qualify for an old age pensioner’s buspass, but a tour around its facilities demonstrates it continues to be right on the ‘bleeding edge’ of aerospace and aviation research and learning. Its alumni not only go on to spread this knowledge and excel in the UK aerospace and aviation sectors – but fan out across the world. In this sense, Cranfield has become a byword for global aerospace learning and development.

Furthermore, for the next big next leap in aeronautics – particularly in civil aerospace - whether it be open-rotor, hybrid-electric, distributed propulsion or even supersonic inevitably means that the airliners of 2030s and beyond may look far different than the tube, wings and podded engines of today. These radical configurations will mean that new X-planes and subscale demonstrators will be needed to de-risk these designs – and thus Cranfield’s AIRC is well placed to be at the heart of any breakthroughs.

Finally, in a post-Brexit world, with new competitors emerging and disruptive technology moving ever faster, it may be argued that Cranfield’s role as an incubator of talent, research and ideas for the next generation of aviation and aerospace has never been more vital.

23 September 2016