Lifelong love of flight shapes teaching, life for UB engineering professor

Joseph Mollendorf retrieves his free flight plane.

Joseph Mollendorf retrieves his free flight model airplane after a flight. Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Mollendorf


Published October 14, 2019

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t fascinated by flight.”
Joseph Mollendorf, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

People have been fascinated by the possibilities of flight long before there were airplanes.

Getting young people closer to that fascination, before they reach a college or university, is very positive, says Joseph Mollendorf, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“I have always been interested in flight and airplanes,” Mollendorf says. “I can remember building kites when I was 5 years old. I have been building different types of planes, gliders, paper airplanes or kites my entire life.

“Not only has it been very satisfying, but, I also find what I have learned building and then flying free flight model airplanes has translated very well into what I have been teaching here at UB.”

In referring to “free flight model airplanes,” Mollendorf is talking about a specific type of model plane: one that uses a small amount of fuel — only enough to get airborne — then stays aloft by coasting on air currents.

“Most people know about radio-controlled flight, where you basically steer the plane around. With free flight,” he explains, “you have to do all the adjustments in advance, and you basically let the plane go, try to get it up as high as you can — say, within a seven-second engine run, or a four-second run, whatever the competition requires.

“The goal — the core of the competition — is to see how long you can keep your plane in the air,” he says. “There are competitions held every year.”

Contestants are limited on the amount of power that can be used, whether the model airplane is powered by a rubber band motor or a gasoline engine, says Mollendorf.

“The biggest of these events is the national competition, the National Aeromodeling Championships, called the NATS, where people come from all over the world to compete, flying in many different events,” he says. “I have been going to these since I was 15.”

In 1960, Mollendorf, a New York State Air Youth champion, won a trip to the national competition in Dallas when the hobby association, which was also national, decided to send one individual from each state to the competition.

“It was a free trip down to Texas on a Boeing 707, which had just come out, so it was a pretty amazing experience for me,” he recalls. “I was down there for a week, and ended up doing very well in the competition.

“Since then I’ve been going almost every year. I was interrupted during college and graduate school, but then I got right back into it,” he says. “For a while, the Navy sponsored the competition, so it rotated around the naval air stations.

“This year the event, which is put on by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, was held in Muncie, Indiana. I happened to place first, second, third and fifth in four different categories. But this is something that means so much more to me than competing.”

After he began teaching, Mollendorf says it was important to tell his students about how exposure to flight, planes and aerospace engineering can open up a wide range of possibilities for them.

“Because, without knowing it, without advanced aerodynamic degrees, you are learning aerodynamic principles, you’re learning engineering as you are engaged in this hobby,” he says.

“I think there is value in relating this type of learning and education to my students,” Mollendorf says.

“During my lectures, I often find there are moments when I will make a point and then illustrate it with an example from designing, constructing and flying model airplanes. This offers an opportunity to learn a lot about aerodynamics, principles of flight and subjects such as fluid dynamics, and present easy-to-understand examples.”

Mollendorf says there are instances where students can learn a lot through an experience without even realizing they are learning.

“When I taught in the physiology department, I worked as part of a big contract for the Navy Seals,” he recalls. “We developed a new type of swimsuit that really reduced the drag in the water, something that we invented using a principle in aerodynamic design from model airplanes called a turbulator principle.

“Look at the NATS competition,” Mollendorf says, “particularly in a teaching situation, where something I’m doing, that is related to the field of aerodynamics, helps students learn. We are teaching by our actions. So I am often asking myself the question, ‘What did that teach them?’”

Outside of the classroom, Mollendorf enjoys meeting young participants in student aeromodelling clubs. “It is a lot of fun to fly the free flight models. One thing I tell them is not to be afraid of these national competitions, to aim high” he says.

“I find both local and national competitions are a good way to promote the field of aerospace engineering to young people. I also like to use aerospace modeling — what started out for me as a hobby — as an entrance into mechanical and aerospace engineering for students who might not have thought about it yet.

“Those fields can be intimidating,” he says, “so I love to share my interests, which led me to this career, which I have enjoyed immensely.”

Mollendorf says he wants to inspire students’ curiosity about what it is like to work in an aerospace career. “It’s been good to me, and I tell them, ‘You can do this, too.’

“I can think of a number of students, among the thousands I have had, who went on to do good things. One went to work designing airplanes. Another became a pilot — one of many who entered that field — but the individual I am thinking of was a pilot who flew Air Force Two.

“A number of others became test pilots, among many, many other students I have taught who have gone on to success from this program,” he says.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t fascinated by flight. I have been able to learn a lot and stoke my curiosity, while also instilling students to enter careers in aviation, become inventors and learn to think about new ways to do things.”